January Fool’s Day

January 27, 2009 at 11:14 pm | Posted in Basketball, Panini, Topps, Upper Deck | 4 Comments

So right after I say that I’m going to hold back on blog posts for a few days, a topic comes up that I just couldn’t stay away from.  Such is life…

Anyway, I want to preface this by saying that I could care less about basketball.  I rarely watch it, and I’m not even sure that I could name 10 players who are active in the NBA right now.  I used to change the channel whenever basketball highlights would come on Sports Center.  Now, I just watch the MLB network, so I’m able to avoid basketball entirely, and I love it.  I enjoy ignoring both the NBA and college basketball.  As you know, I went to Penn State, a school where pretending that basketball doesn’t exist is a popular pastime after football season ends.  I’ve never even given the slightest consideration to buying a basketball card.

But it was with sadness today that I learned that the basketball card hobby is dead, or at least it is scheduled to die after the current season ends.  As I’m sure you’ve read by now on other blogs, the NBA has decided to cut ties with both Topps and Upper Deck, and grant an exclusive license to produce basketball cards to Panini.  Yes, Panini.  The same Panini that produced the baseball sticker books in the late 1980s and early 1990s that you thought went out of business 15 years ago.  When I read this news on Wax Heaven earlier today, I instinctively checked my calendar to see if it was April Fool’s Day.  It wasn’t.  And I’m still not entirely convinced that this isn’t the 2009 version of the Kazuo Uzuki gimmick, and that on April 1, NBA and card company executives won’t be laughing that we all fell for the joke.

So we’re talking about Panini.  Let’s flash back to the summer of 1988.  I was 8 years old, almost 9.  I loved Panini stickers, and I’d beg my mom to buy packs of them for me every time we were at the grocery store.  Don Mattingly was on the cover of that year’s Panini sticker book, and I remember how excited I would be when I’d fill all of the stickers on each team’s page.  I did the same thing in 1989.  And then I turned 10, and I lost interest.  I decided that collecting stickers was for “little kids” and I only collected real cards from that point on.  Years later, I discovered that Panini had stayed in business at least until 1996, because they made a Don Mattingly sticker that year.  And since I’m on a lifelong quest to collect everything that can even be remotely construed as a Don Mattingly “card”, I own all of the Don Mattingly Panini stickers that have ever been produced.  All along, I just assumed that at some point before the millennium, Panini had completely closed down and gone out of business.  And then I read today’s news…

It might seem like an exaggeration to say that the basketball card hobby is dead, but I don’t think so.  I might not be a basketball card collector, but I’ve met plenty of people who are.  I feel really, really bad for them.  I imagine how I would feel if it had been MLB who signed this deal with Panini instead of the NBA.  Just the thought of it makes me almost nauseous.  If MLB ever does something like this, I can guarantee you that it would be the end of my days as a collector.  Sure, I might occasionally try to add cards to my graded vintage card collection, but I would never even look at a new pack of cards again.  The baseball card hobby would be destroyed, just like the basketball card hobby is being destroyed now.

Sure, Topps and Upper Deck have a lot of faults and imperfections.  It’s easy for collectors to find things about their products that they don’t like.  These are the companies that have given us products like Topps Co-Signers and Upper Deck X.  Topps produced the manufactured letter patches with the sticker autographs for football.  Upper Deck thinks that we want to pull autographed cards of bass players from long-forgotten 1980s hair bands in packs of Spectrum.  Heck, just last week we devoted an entire Blog Bat Around to all of our ideas about how to improve the card companies’ products.

But for all of their faults, Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss-Playoff too, are all legitimate and well-respected card companies.  We like just as many things as we dislike about them.  Topps Heritage is a brilliantly produced set, Upper Deck’s photography for their flagship set is stunning, and nobody can put value into a high-end product like Donruss.  I could write pages about all of the great things about these companies.  If they weren’t producing any sets that we liked, we wouldn’t be collecting.  I don’t think I’m out of line in saying that Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss-Playoff define what the hobby is.  They produce cards that collectors want to collect and own.  They all have unique brands, some that we like and some that we dislike, but collectors have a certain comfort level with these companies.  And when we see some of the utter crap that companies on the fringe, like Tristar and Razor, have been producing, it only reinforces our comfort with the Big Three.  I’m not saying that a new company will never come along that can compete with them, but it’s going to have to be a company that really has its proverbial shit together, and is capable of producing high quality card products – a company like Upper Deck in 1989, as opposed to Razor in 2008.

Could Panini be that company?  Why would anyone think so?  This is a company that produces stickers, and from what I’ve learned today, they apparently make low quality soccer cards in Europe.  They currently have no presence in the United States.  I’ll grant you that yes, it is hypothetically possible that there are people working for Panini that have great ideas for producing basketball cards.  It’s possible that they could put out some really nice sets that collectors will love.  But it’s not likely.  And basketball card collectors will suffer because of it.  If the NBA wanted to give Panini a license in addition to Topps, Upper Deck, or both, then I’d be all for it.  But to put all of the NBA’s eggs in the Panini basket is just an incredibly dumb move.

Think about it; between now and the end of the 2012-13 season, collectors won’t have any alternative to Panini if they want to collect a licensed NBA basketball card product.  When Panini produces worthless low quality crap, which is what their past history strongly indicates that they will do, what’s going to happen?  Nobody is going to buy it.  The basketball card market is already weaker than the baseball card and football card markets.  Now it’s going to be completely killed.  Another point to make is that a huge segment of the current basketball card collector base is high-end collectors.  Products like Exquisite do really well in basketball.  Even if Panini is able to pull off making half-way decent base cards, how are they possibly going to be able to match Upper Deck’s high end products?  That is simply an impossibility.

You can say that it doesn’t really matter to the NBA, that a low percentage of its fans were collectors anyway.  And that might be true.  But why would the NBA ruin a hobby that even a small percentage of its fans love?  Why wouldn’t they do all that they could to help that hobby thrive, to entice more people into the card collecting hobby, so that more cards could be sold, and the NBA could make even more money from its licensing?  Why wouldn’t they want to turn collectors into more passionate fans when they pull a great LeBron James card from a pack of Upper Deck?  It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

This is very depressing news for the entire sports card hobby.  Let’s all hope, cross our fingers, and pray if you’re a religious type, that the NFL, NHL, and most of all, MLB will not even consider screwing collectors, like the NBA did today, by rejecting legitimate card companies in favor of a sub-standard sticker company, or even worse, a company named after a toiletry item that makes poker cards…


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  1. And aside from the fact that they are a cheap, shitty, sticker/soccer company, they have absolutely no rights whatsoever for jsys/autos of MJ, LBJ, Kobe, or KG.

    I can very easily see this being an EPIC fail.

  2. Wow Dave the glass is half empty with you today eh?!?! 🙂

    I agree with you on the point that the NBA should have added Panini to the mix initially, instead of going exclusive with no experience in the market.

    However, on several points I disagree.

    This is designing trading cards not building a skyscraper, rocket, or solving quantum physics equations.

    Its cards. Even with my limited ability in graphic arts I have shown that you can cut and past togehter some impressive looking cards. To think that “how are they possibly going to be able to match Upper Deck’s high end products? That is simply an impossibility” is absolutely ridiculous and overkill.

    As far as the bigger picture, other than soccer, outside the US, no other sport has the global reach that basketball does. Period. No possible argument there, right?

    David Stern has been pushing the globalization of the game for years with great success.

    The NBA simply decided to partner with a company that can deliver it’s product to a larger audience outside the US. Topps and Upper Deck do very little overseas marketing and had niched themselves into producing cards for the American market. That market tends to be focused a bit more on high-end products which is true, as you stated.

    However, there are entire continents outside the US who do not have disposable income like Americans to spend on trading cards, yet love basketball and are collectors.

    What does the NBA do, they make a sound business decision to go for higher quanity (much much higher) and less quality becuase in the end its all about money.

    That’s why trading card companies and licensing agreements exist. To make money, plain and simple.

    The NBA decided they would rather have the opportunity to have their licensed product sold by a company that can sell a $20 to $40 box of cards to 30,000,0000 people than a $100,$200,$300, or $500 box to 10,0000 people. Makes all the sense in the world to me.

    I think as Americans we foget that the world doesn’t revolve around us.

    The real question is, will Panini be up to incurring the costs necessary to produce high-end products for the “niche” of the American market?

    Time will tell. But it will be a business decision nothing more and nothing less.

    It’s easy to have preconceived notions due to our only hobby experiences with them to date but I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt before declaring the basketball hobby dead.

  3. Rob – it really doesn’t matter to me that Panini is not an American company. If the NBA’s goal was to market cards to people in other countries, then they could’ve put stipulations into Topps’ and Upper Deck’s contracts that they would have to market more heavily to other countries. You make the point that collectors in other countries might have less disposable income than Americans, and that may be true, but what’s stopping them from buying Topps and Upper Deck flagship sets now? Those are cheap too.

    It’s true that it’s not hard to sit in front of Photoshop and create nice looking cards. Goose Joak’s blog is living proof of that. But look at how terrible Panini’s soccer cards are. And look at Razor’s cards. It’s clear that there are people at these companies that have no clue about how to produce attractive cards.

    Finally, it is most definitely an impossibility that Panini can match Upper Deck’s high end sets. The simple truth is that Upper Deck has exclusive deals with the top stars in basketball. Panini doesn’t. Not only that, but the making of high end cards is pretty complex. I don’t think that just anybody make an Exquisite, Sterling, or Prime Cuts card without experience.

  4. Wow ! It is interesting to see how much is NOT known about Panini and their interests.

    FIFA, the governing body of soccer just renewed its contract for World Cup cards for the next decade and a half – exclusively to Panini.

    In addition, many of these NBA players are pictured in their national team jerseys from the Olympics – the NBA has no jurisdiction on these. So product will emerge just like InTheGame did with hockey.

    Panini sells its product in over 100 countries.

    Quite frankly, Upper Deck is the crappiest when it comes to soccer cards.

    And if making crap basketball was a rule – well look no farther than Hoops and fleer which were a big deal when they came out. (now useless garbage)

    I never see big sales in basketball anyway so I could care less. But I do know Panini is a global powerhouse when it comes to making sports cards.

    They kicked Upper Deck’s ass when the US company tried to lock them out of 1994 World Cup.(you can’t even give away the UD soccer now)

    Meanwhile Panini is the top seller world wide – with Futera and Topps / Merlin a distant second.

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