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As The Fanatics Plan Unfolds What To Make of the NHL, NHLPA & Upper Deck

October 4, 2021, 11:39 AM ET [0 Comments]
Shawn Gates
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While on the hobby radar for over a month now, the impending entry of Fanatics into the sport card marketplace (head over to my article here for a detailed rundown on the intriguing scope and impact of this) has had some mysteries hovering about it. In making the media rounds Thursday on CNBC, Fanatics chairman Michael Rubin shed some light on a few of the general musings collectors and industry insiders have had.

1. What is the overall game plan?

From the get-go, Fanatics was coming into this venture with a very different idea of what customer engagement with a card company would be. One strong suggestion of this being the case rests in the financial investment, and management role, of the various league and player’s associations coming on board as partners in this. While the flow back of licensing fees is appealing, the suggested amount of money flowing into this from the MLB/MLBPA, NBA/NBA Players, and NFL players association were such that far greater returns into their pockets were the expectation. Ergo, this must be involving more than just cards. Lo and behold, Rubin has precisely indicated that in describing a seeming “one stop shop” for collectors. Far more than a card manufacturer, Ruben suggested a broad range of interconnected services that would allow customers to purchase, grade, sell, store, and engage in secondary market transactions in a seamless manner within the flagship company.

While framed as an attempt to cut out the middleman for consumers, the customer convenience aspect of this business model is likely more Bob Ross (a “Happy Accident”) than the pure driving force. Specifically, what better way to bring the leagues and PA’s and their investments on board than to sell them a model where they see financial return on every step of the card market, not just the licensing? The fees inherent in grading, storing, facilitating secondary transactions see an increased income, thereby motivating their investment in getting this off the ground. Never mind that it is a captive market in the sense that, once current licensing expires for the respective leagues, the “yet to be named” Fanatic’s company will be the only place to buy MLB and NBA cards, as well as those featuring NFL players. Implication? Panini, Topps and Upper Deck are going to have a tight squeeze on their returns as their properties decrease.

2. What is the start point?

As I alluded to last article, there was a sense that rather than starting from the ground up, Fanatic’s might explore the purchase of an already established company in order to hit the ground running. Comments by Ruben outside of the interview below provided confirmation that this is indeed an option for the company moving forward. While far from a guarantee this will be the ultimate chosen path, it does seem to be the most pain-free and financially/logistically viable one in a Covid era where supply chain management could make building anew a royal pain in the keister. Who would it be though? Panini might explore the sale of their American subsidiary, although this would throw a wrench in their North American distribution. They are also a European-based company with a viable continued presence there, removing pressure to exit the market entirely. Upper Deck? I can’t see it. They will continue to have a hand in many of the areas Fanatic’s are moving into, with BGS grading, a strong relationship with COMC and the UD ePack options, while one has to assume they are going to overpay to keep the NHL and NHLPA on board. As a company they are also not averse to fighting to keep their place in the market, and I wouldn’t expect they would this time either. The ultimate result of that fight remains to be seen, and the league partnerships with Fanatic’s has to strike warranted concerns, but they will fight. This leaves Topps, and I’ve got to believe they are the most likely of the three to be swallowed up. They have to be reeling still in the wake of the loss of their MLB relationship, and should have some legitimate concerns over what properties remain that they can realistically market to keep their card division afloat.

The outcome on all this remains to be seen of course, but I would suspect that we will have some indication later this year or early next as one imagines a presence at the 2022 Expos/Conventions is on the minds of the Fanatic’s brain trusts.

3. So, about the NHL/NHLPA and Upper Deck…

Upper Deck is inevitably in a position where the NHL and PA had some serious bargaining power drop in their lap. I’m imagining that they will, more sooner than later, step up to the plate and respond with a substantial effort to retain both parties. They recognize the position they’re in, and this situation could really be a fork in the road in their future. Here’s where I’m curious: I can envision a situation where the league, prioritizing the immediate financial aspects of an offer, is willing to take UD’s money. Conversely, does one think Fehr and the PA are not looking at the opportunity to be longer term investment partners and shareholders within a multi-league Fanatic’s business model as more in their interests than a pure short-term financial offer? I think not. The Fanatic’s model is a PA’s dream, and I cannot see them, without significant changes in their relation with the company. Is UD willing to go there though? One wonders how much of a choice they may have…

So, there we are for the moment. Further information leading to some additional questions with big implications. While time will tell what is awaiting, it’s bound to be a game changer for the hobby. Buckle in and hold on!

Positive vibes to you all. Please put some care into you and yours this beautiful day and look out for one another where possible! Our impact on others with even the smallest of actions, is far greater than we tend to realize. My best your way…


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Shawn Gates

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