Blog Bat Around #3: Give collectors what they wantJanuary 19, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Blogs, Donruss-Playoff, Topps, Upper Deck | 8 Comments
In 2008, Topps and Upper Deck produced 34 different baseball card products between them (and that’s counting Series 1 and Series 2 as one product). In addition, there were 4 unlicensed Donruss-Playoff products, and minor sets from companies like Tristar, Just Minors, and Razor. In all, that’s over 40 baseball card products, but I’d bet that most collectors have a list of fewer than 10 that they really cared about. There are many things that the card companies can and should do to improve the quality of their products and make collectors care, so that they’ll want to collect and spend their money on them…
I believe that all of the products fit into one of three categories: low-end, mid-range, and high-end. Some collectors focus only on the low-end, others focus only on the high-end, some (like me) dabble in both, and most people extend their comfort zones with some of the mid-range sets. Here is my take on the direction that the card companies should be taking with their products in all of these categories.
I’ll start with the low end, actually the lowest of the low end: Topps Opening Day and Upper Deck First Edition. When I first found out about these products, I wondered why anyone would ever collect them, and as time has gone by I’ve realized that I’ve never heard of anyone who actually does collect them (including kids). I think that the card companies have good intentions with these sets. The price is only 99 cents per pack, there are almost no “hits”, and it’s easy to build a set. So what’s the problem? Both products are very cheap knockoffs of the Topps and Upper Deck flagship products. Topps just changes the color of the border on the Opening Day cards, while Upper Deck makes First Edition less glossy. Other than that, the cards look the same. So they’re cheaper, but who actually wants these cards when they can own the “real” Topps and Upper Deck sets for just a little bit more.
I do think that it’s important to have a low-end 99 cent product that anyone can afford, but why not make them unique so that people will actually want to collect them? Topps could get rid of Opening Day, and revive the Bazooka brand or Topps Total (which I’ve heard a lot of collectors praise) to replace it. Upper Deck could wave goodbye to First Edition and bring back Collector’s Choice. With a different design and different photos than the flagship Topps and Upper Deck sets, the number of collectors who buy these super low-end products would surely increase. I’d even pick up a blaster or two – and speaking of that, these products really should be retail only. Nobody is going to buy a hobby box of these.
Next up are the low-end sets: Upper Deck Series 1 & 2, Topps Series 1 & 2, Topps Updates & Highlights, Bowman, Upper Deck X, Documentary, and I’ll throw in Topps Chrome even though it could be considered mid-range. Upper Deck doesn’t need to change anything about its flagship Series 1 & 2 product. The photography is amazing, the card quality is great, there are fun insert sets, and the autographs and relic cards are well done. The Topps flagship product could use a little work. The photography is very lackluster, especially compared to Upper Deck. Some of the inserts are boring (although I love Trading Card History) and the gold foil parallels are completely worthless. I do like the gold bordered parallels though. But the main reason that I don’t know if I’ll bother collecting regular Topps in 2009 is that I know Topps Chrome is coming. With Chrome, you get the same cards but on the much nicer chrome card stock, and refractors too. I wouldn’t mind if Topps merged its flagship set with Chrome. They could ditch all of the current parallels and replace them with chrome and refractor parallels, similar to how Topps Heritage is now. I would absolutely love a set like that. I’d also like to see Topps move back to producing the regular cards on cardboard. A lot of collectors really miss the cardboard that was so distinctive of Topps sets before 1992, and I don’t think that anyone would be upset by a return to it. Topps might be able to save some money too.
The problem with Bowman is similar to the problem with the Topps flagship. It has to compete with Bowman Chrome. I’d like to see Topps get rid of the regular Bowman set altogether, and just put all of their effort into Bowman Chrome. The chrome and refractor cards that Topps produces really are much nicer than anything that Upper Deck makes. They should take advantage of that as much as they can by really focusing on the chrome and refractor sets. And of course, everybody wants to see Topps acquire the rights to the very best prospects for its Bowman Chrome prospect cards. Collectors would really pay more for Bowman Chrome with more big-name prospects in the set.
I’ll wrap up the low end with Upper Deck X and Documentary. I’ve never read anything positive about Upper Deck X from anyone. It’s really the only product that seems to be universally hated by everyone. It’s shocking that it’s coming back in 2009, and for Upper Deck’s sake, it better be completely overhauled if anyone is going to buy it. They can start by getting rid of the cheap looking “X” design and replace it with something, anything, that collectors might care about. Nobody wants to buy a product that they know was just thrown together with as little creativity and effort as possible. Also, it’s a low-end set, so it really should be more than just 100 cards to appeal to set builders. And that brings up another point. Upper Deck loves making 100-card base sets. If they’re going to do that, at least change what players are in the set for each team in each product. I don’t want to see the same 3-4 Rays in every single set. Documentary isn’t really a terrible concept, but it does need to be improved to make more people want to collect it. I recently wrote a post with my thoughts on it here, so I won’t rehash it.
Now onto the mid-range. A big part of the mid-range are retro sets. Topps produces Topps Heritage and Allen & Ginter, while Upper Deck counters with Goudey and Timelines (which I consider retro because of the use of past designs). I absolutely love Topps Heritage; it’s my favorite set to collect by a large margin. And I love that Topps is now producing Heritage High Numbers at the end of the year too. I wouldn’t change anything about Heritage, except hopefully Topps won’t feel the need to insert the Updates & Highlights cards into High Numbers packs again in 2009. Allen & Ginter is getting a little stale, and collectors are wary after it was over-produced in 2008. Still, it’s probably Topps’ most popular set, and one of the few that all types of collectors seem to enjoy. Topps will need to find ways to keep it fresh. One idea that I have is to include chrome and refractor parallels, similar to some of the eTopps Allen & Ginter cards. I’d like to see fewer variations of the mini parallels too. I wouldn’t mind seeing some cards of athletes from other team sports in Allen & Ginter to replace some of the old famous people. This would be similar to the Sport Royalty cards in Goudey.
Speaking of Goudey, it’s really time for Upper Deck to retire it. It was just announced that they’re bringing it back again in 2009, and it’s going to look a lot like 2007 Goudey. I loved 2007 Goudey, and I like 2008 Goudey too, but enough is enough. There simply aren’t enough old Goudey designs for Upper Deck to use. A Fleer retro set that was done right could effectively replace Goudey in Upper Deck’s product lineup, and fill the demand for the Fleer name to make a comeback in the baseball card hobby. Finally, Timelines is a decent enough set to keep around. Player collectors like collecting all of the different card designs of their player, and it’s good for set builders too. If Upper Deck used some of its highly memorable designs from 1989 and the early 1990s, then Timelines could be an even better product.
Other Topps mid-range products include Moments & Milestones, Co-Signers, Finest, and Stadium Club. Moments & Milestones was horrible, but it’s not coming back for 2009, and hopefully it’ll never resurface ever again. Co-Signers needs to either be totally revamped or canceled. For a mid-range product that is named after its “hits” (the Co-Signer dual autographs), the hits really need to be better so that collectors will feel that they’re getting some value from a box. I hope that the boxer autographs are history and that we’ll only see baseball player autographs in the future. The dual autograph cards should have player combinations that make sense – either teammates or players that have something obvious in common. One autograph per box of a good player (or good players on a dual autograph card) is better than 3 autographs of players that nobody cares about. It wouldn’t kill Topps to throw in a couple of relic cards per box either. And they need to get rid of the horribly ugly parallels and just use chrome and refractor parallels like they do in most Topps products. If they do these things and produce nicely designed base cards, Co-Signers wouldn’t be that bad.
Topps Finest is a very popular brand with collectors, but it suffered in 2008 because of worthless autographs. The rookie class of 2009 should be much better, which will help, but it would be nice to see more veteran autographs too. I wouldn’t change much besides that. Finest always has great looking base cards and beautiful refractors. Topps also might be able to generate more interest in Finest by producing some retail packs with fewer hits, like what they did with Stadium Club in 2008. And that brings me to Stadium Club. Everyone loved the photography of the 2008 cards, and the retail packs were very popular, but collectors hated the over-priced hobby product that featured many worthless “hits”. For 2009, Topps should cut down on the number of hits per box, produce higher quality hits, and lower the price of hobby boxes. The concept of Stadium Club is great; they just need to make the hobby packs as appealing to collectors as the retail. And they need to stop short printing the cards that have numbers divisible by 3!
Upper Deck mid-range products include Spectrum, Piece of History, Heroes, Masterpieces, SP Authentic, SPx, and SP Legendary Cuts. Spectrum and Piece of History are both products that I totally ignored in 2008. Every set should have a clear purpose in a company’s lineup, and I just don’t understand the purpose of sets like these. I’d prefer to see Upper Deck produce fewer sets and really try to make each one the best that it can be with a clear purpose. Unfortunately, both Spectrum and Piece of History are coming back in 2009. I sincerely hope that they serve more of a purpose than the 2008 versions did. I’ll probably stay away from both. I wasn’t overly impressed by Heroes either. It was OK, but it was just a rehash of a past card design. The multi-colored parallels in Heroes need to be changed. It’s unfortunate that Upper Deck doesn’t have any parallel that’s half as attractive as refractors, but they really could make them better. They should make fewer types of parallels, give them straightforward names, and keep them consistent across products. For example everybody knows what a Topps Xfractor is, and if Upper Deck could establish some standard types of parallels, that should help to increase collector demand for them.
Everyone has heard by now that Masterpieces has been canceled for 2009. Apparently the cost of producing the cards outweighed the money that Upper Deck was making from the product. But Masterpieces is hugely popular with collectors, as can be seen from all of the disappointment that was expressed when people heard about its cancellation. Upper Deck should try to find some way to keep the brand alive. Most people who collected it were set builders, so cutting down on the number of hits (again) might help. Collectors could live with fewer types of parallels too. What we really like are the paintings and the canvas-like texture of the cards. If Upper Deck can reduce the cost of making Masterpieces, and keep the brand alive, they should consider it. I’d also like to see Topps produce a similar set to meet the demand of collectors who will be missing Masterpieces in 2009. The could revive their Topps Gallery brand, and even get Dick Perez involved in creating the artwork.
Out of the SP (“Super Premium”) sets, I only collected Legendary Cuts in 2008. The card design was outstanding, and I’d love to see Upper Deck put as much effort into the design of its other sets. That said, Legendary Cuts would definitely be improved if MLB eased its rules about the percentage of cards that can feature retired players. SP Authentic seems to be just another set with an unimaginative design and hits that are less valuable than what you pay for a hobby box. SP Authentic is a great football brand, and maybe Upper Deck can refocus SP Authentic as its top product for rookies in baseball. For example, they could reduce the number of veterans in the set, and make several different rookie subsets, with multiple types of autographed rookie cards. At least that would be something to give SP Authentic a purpose. SPx also suffered from hits that didn’t provide much value in 2008. Like Topps Finest, a stronger early season rookie lineup should help in 2009. But SPx could also be improved if Upper Deck focused more on the base cards. Everyone loves the innovative early SPx designs from the mid to late 1990s, and designs like those could be popular again today.
One more component of the mid-range category are the prospect-based sets like Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects and Bowman Sterling. Both are high quality products, but they suffered in 2008 because several big-name draft picks signed exclusive contracts with the new Razor card company. Topps should be more aggressive in signing draft picks to exclusive deals of its own in 2009 to keep ahead of the competition. It might be a good idea to allow Upper Deck to produce a prospect-based set too.
Now let’s talk about high-end products. A major problem with recent high-end products has been that collectors are getting less value for what they pay for a box or pack of the product. This is due in large part to the rule that limits the percentage of cards featuring retired players. This rule did not affect the unlicensed Playoff Prime Cuts IV that was released in 2008, and that product did very well. Topps and Upper Deck should lobby MLB and the MLBPA hard to overturn this rule so that they can be more competitive in the high-end market.
Topps has two products that I consider high-end: Triple Threads and Topps Sterling. I’m not a fan of either of them. Let’s start with the foil sticker autographs. I don’t like the foil stickers in any Topps products, but they’re even worse in the high-end products. Topps needs to move to clear stickers as quickly as possible. I’m also not a fan of the huge number of variations for each card based on obscure statistics for the player. If there are 200 cards of a player, just number the cards to 200 instead of creating 20 meaningless variations that are numbered to 10. In addition, Topps should stop producing base cards for their high end sets. Do you know anyone who collects Triple Threads or Sterling base cards? I didn’t think so. They can replace the base cards with more hits per box to give collectors more value. Topps has a well deserved reputation for producing the worst high-end products in the industry, and they need to take massive steps to change that.
Upper Deck produced four high-end products in 2008. Ballpark Collection and Sweet Spot were on lower side of high-end, while Ultimate and Premier were on the high side. That means that Ultimate and Premier limited the number of cards per pack, increased the quality of the hits, and featured an expensive price tag. I don’t collect either product, but I think that they do an adequate job of giving high-end collectors what they want. Ballpark Collection is less expensive, and in my opinion, gives a lot of bang for your buck. I hope that it stays in Upper Deck’s 2009 lineup. Finally, Sweet Spot (and Sweet Spot Classic) was a great product in 2007 that was really watered down in 2008. Sweet Spot collectors don’t need base cards, and Upper Deck would be well served to return the product to its 2007 configuration. The latest word is that Sweet Spot will be back in 2009 after Upper Deck was considering dropping it. And one more thing – please use real MLB balls for the Sweet Spot autographs to prevent fading. Upper Deck has also produced other high-end sets like Black and Exquisite in previous years. Unless the economy improves dramatically soon, they should leave these brands on the shelf in 2009.
One thing that I believe would improve the quality of Topps and Upper Deck products is competition. I strongly believe that MLB should grant a license to Donruss-Playoff as the third baseball card company in 2010. At the same time, they could limit each company to 12 sets per year, so there would be 36 sets produced between the three companies. This should ensure that the sets that are produced will be of a high quality and serve a real purpose. Donruss-Playoff produced three sets that were well-received by collectors in 2008: Threads, Elite Extra Edition, and Prime Cuts. Playoff Contenders will be released soon. The re-entry of Donruss-Playoff into the licensed baseball card market would trigger Topps and Upper Deck to step up their game to compete, and with all three major card companies having licenses, the minor unlicensed companies like Razor and Tristar would have a much smaller impact on the hobby – and that’s a good thing.
So here are the main things that I would like to see in 2009 and 2010 from the card companies:
- Donruss-Playoff granted a license by MLB and the MLBPA.
- Number of card sets from each company reduced with each remaining set serving a specific purpose (unlike Spectrum and Piece of History).
- Replacement of Opening Day and First Edition with meaningful “set building” sets that collectors will want to buy.
- Merger of Topps with Topps Chrome, and Bowman with Bowman Chrome.
- Use of chrome and refractor parallels in all Topps products, including Co-Signers and Allen & Ginter.
- Include more than 100 base cards in low-end and mid-range sets and vary the players from each team who appear in each set.
- Replacement of Goudey with a Fleer retro product.
- Fewer and easier to understand parallels in Upper Deck products. Something that is consistent across brands (like Topps refractors) would be great.
- The return of Upper Deck Masterpieces and Topps Gallery (featuring Dick Perez).
- A change in the rule that limits the amount of retired players in a product. This would improve SP Legendary Cuts, and possibly bring back a set like Topps Retired or Fan Favorites.
- Refocus SP Authentic around great rookie autograph cards, like the football card product.
- Overhaul of Topps high-end sets.
- Return Sweet Spot to its 2007 configuration.
- Forget about base cards in high-end products.
- Increase the quality and decrease the quantity of the hits in all mid-range and high-end products.
- Allow all licensed companies to produce one prospect set per year. They should be aggressive in signing new draft picks to deals to eliminate Razor’s influence on the hobby.
So those are the changes that I’d like to see in the baseball card hobby. You might be able to tell that I think about this a lot. Hopefully the card companies will listen to me and other collectors, and they’ll give us more of what we want in 2009 and beyond!