Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Topps Struggles With An Identity Crisis

Over the last year, Topps has managed to regain their famous and cherished monopoly in the baseball trading card world through exclusive licensing deals with MLB, MiLB, and USA Baseball. Arthor Shorin would be proud. Flustered by almost 30 years of competition in the marketplace, Topps is once again reaping the benefits of what they sowed in their first 30 years. However, as I see it, they are currently struggling with defining who they are and what they do.

The identity crisis of which I refer can be summarized by 3 products.

1) Bowman Baseball
2) NFL Attax
3) Triple Threads

Catering to a target market that is as polarized as sports trading card collectors is no enviable task. It is impossible to produce one product that meets the needs of the various factions of collectors, be they set builders, rookie card collectors, high-end gamblers, player or team collectors, prospectors, etc. And yet often times that seems what Topps tries to do.

Coming on the success of their Attax line, reportedly accounting for 25% of their trading card revenue, Topps is scheduled to release a NFL licensed version later this summer (early August 2010). Designed as an affordable, kid-friendly trading card game to serve as a potential gateway to the larger collecting hobby, Topps has put a tremendous amount of marketing resources into the game. The problem is, it's boring. The game play engine is too simple and offers little more than a sports card version of the classic playing card game "War". But maybe that's the point, make it simple and cheap and they will buy it. It appears to have worked thus far.

Now we come to find out that Topps will be randomly inserting autographs into the product. Doesn't that defeat the whole point? Or is the NFL version the equivalent of candy cigarettes once designed to serve as a gateway for kids to the real things when they were older. Are we know going to purposefully replant the seed of the hit mentality in a whole new generation of would be collectors? Isn't it that same mentality that got the industry to where it is today?

When the MLB crafted the rookie card logo, it was designed to eliminate confusion in the marketplace. The theory being, that if a player has a break out season start, gets hot mid-season or is a late call-up that helps a team win in the post season, collectors and casual fans will know the current year and be able to find that player's rookie card in current product releases. Simple enough right? So what does Topps do? They find a loophole around the logo to include prospects in current year trading cards. What this means, is for a guy like Jason Heyward, even though his 2010 Bowman card is designated as a Rookie, collectors know his "real" RC can be found in 2007 products and rendering his RC logoed rookie virtually worthless. What a turnoff to the unsuspecting hobby returner, newbie or fan.

So what's the deal? Doesn't Topps have a vested stake in the process of attracting new or one-time collectors to The Hobby? Or converting the sports fan to a casual collector? Of course they do, but 2010 Bowman is a perfect example of where their greed, interferes with the health of The Hobby as a whole.

Triple Threads- Enough people buy this product that the design department of Topps has bought into the mis-guided logic that it doesn't matter what the card looks like only how many relic pieces can be crammed into it. This is a total double edge sword. The cards look like crap but people buy them, in droves. Why should they ever change?

Topps English Premier League, Cricket, UFC, and who knows what else. I would prefer they focus on making a few GREAT products than dozens of mediocre to crappy ones.


Chris Harris said...

For the record, Topps had Arsenal's Theo Walcott sign 100 copies of his Match Attax card for random insertion.

There's also signed Match Attax cards of Cesc Fabregas, Shea Given, and Kolo Toure.

dayf said...

I don't really mind the autos in Attax as long as they don't start pricing it like it's a 'big boy' product. Topps Total had autos and press plates in it after all.

Spot on about Bowman and Triple Threads though.

Alex said...

What's wrong with Cricket? Face facts - a lot more people play and follow cricket than play and follow baseball, thanks to the 1.5 billion people on the sub-continent. Which really shouldn't be surprising because cricket is far superior to baseball

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