Thursday, April 15, 2010

Topps is Listening- Now What? . . The Hobby Round Table

1. How long have you been collecting? What are your favorite players, teams, sets, etc. to collect? Which card in your collection means the most to you and why?

I have been collecting for almost 20 years. My team collections consist of all Chicago teams (Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Cubs). Player collections consist of Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken Jr., Walter Payton, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. The card(s) that mean the most to me are my 1968 Nolan Ryan RC because, for a time, I didn’t think I would be able to afford to own one. My 1982 Cal Ripken Jr. Topps Traded RC because it was the last RC I needed of his, having had the other 3 for years (Donruss, Fleer, Topps), 2001 UD SP Legendary Cuts Joe Jackson Bat Card- need I say more and 1976 Topps Walter Payton RC, an iconic card of an iconic player.

2. In the time that you have been collecting, what is your favorite story, memory, experience, etc?

My work with Card Corner Club. Being given the opportunity, back in 2003, to start writing product reviews for and expanding our content delivery to include social media, video, and now radio has been an extremely rewarding experience.

3. What are the effects on the hobby of major card companies moving toward exclusivity deals with sports leagues? Given that this could be the direction that the industry is headed, what should card companies do to continue to provide a quality product to collectors?

As I have mentioned many times on my blog, and on the radio show, competition breeds creativity and innovation. I don’t think it is necessarily a good idea for the respective licensing leagues to hand out monopolies to the highest bidder. As a collector I want a choice. Using baseball as an example Topps has woefully underperformed in the area of high-end card products. As a player collector, the requisite is there to accumulate all of the necessary base and non auto/memorabilia insert cards of said player to meet the minimum standards of a completist. However, the cards I want to display of that player are high-end singles and I can honestly say there have been few, if any, produced by Topps in the last few years I feel are “must haves” for my collection.

Now I am left with no choice. I take that back, I now have the choice of- 1) not buying the currently produced high-end singles produced by Topps or 2) go back and purchase high-end singles from past products made by Upper Deck. As a collector, with the inherent “junkie” complex that really isn’t much of a choice.

What is also on par with exclusive league licensing is exclusive player licensing. Even if multiple companies were producing baseball cards it’s simply wrong to pigeon hole the consumer into being left with only one company to purchase from when other, often times, more attractive options are available. Take the CMG licensing deal of retired legends. Topps has failed to deliver those players in a product I would want. Yet when UD had the license, I purchased SP Legendary Cuts every year. What would I have purchased if both companies had rights to those players?

4. Pick a timeframe- 5, 10, or 20 years. In that timeframe, what has been the single best and worst development in the hobby?

Nailing this question down to a single instance, pro or con, is difficult because there have been many, for each. But with all the various happenings, and the implications they have had for The Hobby, I think these have been the biggest.

Best- Advent of eBay. The ability to acquire desired cards, liquidate undesired cards and to determine a card’s true value has been a vital resource for collectors. The creation of a secondary market place has also been instrumental in seeing cards from various product you wouldn’t normally otherwise, unless pulling them yourself or seeing them pulled at your local LCS.

Worst- It’s a toss up between either the move to exclusive licensing or the self created one-ups-man-ship created by the chase mentality. After the advent of game used and autograph cards, instead of letting the idea breath, and evolve it created a tidal wave of now worthless cards that have lost all of their cache. The extra costs required to obtain game used material caused manufacturers to focus less on true innovation and design and instead trying to out-do each other with the number of “hits” per box, the amount of material you could fit on a card etc.

5. What are your thoughts on prospecting? Do you do it personally? Why? Has the clamoring to find the next big rookie affected the quality of products, either positively or negatively?

I don’t personally prospect. I know many people that do and I don’t begrudge them of that if that particular aspect of The Hobby is something they enjoy. I actually admire people with the ability to identify talent and the courage to put their money where their mouth is by investing heavily hoping for a payday. I don’t personally have the time, energy, money or inclination to conduct the necessary research to be successful at that. I also don’t consider it collecting. When your only interest in prospects is to learn which ones you can flip for profit, it’s little more than stock trading with cardboard.

I definitely think it has affected product quality negatively by watering down a lot of products with too many unknowns. Few collectors get a thrill from ripping packs and not knowing who the players are. However, I have no problem with an emphasis being made to limit that type of checklist to prospect themed products like Bowman, Draft Picks and Prospects and the like.

6. We are collecting tangible products in an increasingly intangible world. As our lives move more and more online, what will the effects on the industry be? Will the next generation of kids be as excited about collecting cards as we are? How should the major card companies respond?

The tangibility of trading cards and memorabilia is part of its intrinsic value and attraction. To touch a card containing a piece of jersey worn by your favorite player or held by a player while autographing it, those connections are what brought me back into The Hobby. As children, trading cards helped connect us to our team and its players. Owning a picture, studying the stats and bio were crucial to that experience. With the dawn of the information age and media on demand that aspect of The Hobby has changed forever and no longer resonates with children as it did for generations past. When you can “follow” and interact with athletes via social media, or “be” them in the most realistic video games we have ever seen, or pull up an image gallery that would takes years to explore, kids don’t “need” trading cards like my friends and I did when I was a kid.

The card companies should respond by knowing that the market is no longer exclusively children and hasn’t been for years. Instead it is people like myself, the 20-something to 50-something year old, primarily, male with a wife, kids, mortgage, and some discretionary income who used to be a collector as a kid. I am not saying forget the kids entirely and I will address that in a moment. What I am saying is that you can’t produce one brand of product and expect it to appeal to all age groups. Produce cards for your current customer base.

With children, you have a very short window to appeal to them and I would say that range is from about 5-8. Old enough to open a pack, plays or watches baseball, but doesn’t yet have a video game system. Once they are connected online or digitally, their gone. And no degree of ToppsTown, Upper Deck University, 3D novelty or TCGs is going to keep them. If there is one thing that I have learned by being a father, and an uncle, is that kids don’t want to be pandered to. Making them a “kid friendly” product while admirable in thought and intention may get you their allowance money or money from Mom and Dad at target and Wal-Mart, but it will not convert them into lifelong hobbyists.

One of the ways you might be able to expose kids to trading cards in the first place is to partner with video gaming companies. What if at certain levels of a games achievement you earned, in some cases “free”, and in other cases discounts, for trading cards. For example- Complete a winning season in MLB the Show get your choice of team set. Set records for a statistical category get a coupon for 50% any blaster. These are just a couple of “off the top of my head” ideas. Or what about branding your own video game with similar incentives? Topps could partner with someone to handle the production side.

7. How has new media changed the way you collect? How should the major card companies utilize new media to connect with their consumer base? How can new media change and/or revitalize the hobby?

When you say new media I imagine you are referring to social media and user generated content. New media has helped me find and connect and interact with collectors from all over the country. Some like minded and some not which, in and of itself, has allowed me to look at aspects of The Hobby in a different light than I normally would. Until recently, Upper Deck has been a leader in new media, primarily, with an emphasis on broadcasting and friendly interaction with some minor Q&A. The recent commitment Topps has seemed to make with using social media to connect to its most passionate and vocal customers, is a positive step in giving the consumer (collectors) a voice. In essence, if it’s our money you want, it only makes sense to listen to what we have to say and this Hobby Round Table is a great example of putting that into action. What Topps does with the information gathered here in an entirely different story.

8. How has the recent rise in counterfeits and scams affected the
way you collect? What advice would you give the major card companies to help combat this?

In all honesty it hasn’t for me personally. I think an educated collector is a scammer’s worst nightmare and it comes down to that, education. What I think the companies themselves can do is being more proactive to respond to the known existence of such activity when it becomes known and use their corporate voice and muscle to get companies like eBay to ban individuals who routinely sell stuff that is known to be fraudulent. One of the most egregious of these practices has concerned a Topps product with the Rookie Premier Autographs in football and yet Topps did NOTHING to help collectors by either changing the way these cards were produced or communicating to the market their existence in the first place. An accessible photo database of signature exemplars would be a good place to start with several versions of an athletes autograph to compare to.

9. The poor economy has affected all of us in recent years. In what ways would you like to see card companies respond to provide interesting, affordable products for collectors?

What about the concept of producing cards made to order? I can’t necessarily always afford the next Hobby product to come out but I could afford to buy some of the hits. I don’t claim to know how the details of production, fulfillment or profitability would play out with an idea like this but it might be worth exploring. What about teams sets for products other than the base brand? Manufacturer coupons, reward program (with good stuff, not a hat and t-shirt).

10. We've done autographs. We've done just about every kind of
relic/game used product you can think of. What's next? Where do we go from here?

Many great ideas have been discussed on various blogs and message and the majority come down to feasibility/profitability. One of the ideas I like is to have themed sets like Season Highlights, Plays of the Year, etc with the added dimension of having an embedded audio clip of the player describing the moment depicted on the card. You could even have some of the cards autographed. Also instead of inserting a CD-Rom like the old PowerDeck cards from UD, what about embedded video clips where the actual card is a screen in and of itself. Those would be ideas for higher-end product.

While I believe memorabilia still needs to be part of mid and high end products their should be guidelines for its use. You shoul never be pulling single color jersey swatch cards from a product that costs over $100. For product costing over $200 3-color patches should be the minimum, even if that means being less of them. In addition, on lower end and lower mid range products $40-$70, why not put redemption cards for things like full jerseys, framed matted photos with autos, etc. Obviously, the odds would be incredibly high but ultimately more rewarding than just another single color jersey swatch.

For lower end products, while it’s hard to turn back the clock, there has to be a way to restore value to base cards. I don’t know if that is with lower overall production figures, buying back unsold product and destroying it, prohibiting dealers from selling product below wholesale cost or what, but The Hobby was built on the base card and while adults like myself have grown accustomed to, and actually many may prefer, the chase mentality, it runs contrary to everything that turned this hobby into an industry.

11. If you could say one thing-anything- to Topps and know that the CEO will read it, what would you say?

The single most important thing is to stop using sticker autographs in any product that costs over $75. Save the stickers (if they must exist at all) for lower end products. Second- it will be unacceptable to not have a corporate presence at major national and regional shows. If there is a corporate pavilion, Topps needs to be there. No exceptions.


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