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Industry Blow To Topps Possible Foreshadowing For The NHL, NHLPA & UD

August 27, 2021, 1:03 PM ET [3 Comments]
Shawn Gates
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You can be excused for missing some news this week that will very likely have a major impact on the hockey card industry as the lede on this news was squarely focused on baseball. As the layers begin to be peeled back, however, it is quite difficult to see how this will not have implications for hockey collectors post-haste.

It was announced earlier this week that the MLBPA and MLB itself had signed an exclusive license to produce baseball cards with a “yet to be named” company that will be created by memorabilia mainstay Fanatics as they throw their hat into the sports card arena. Set to begin as the league and PA licensing deals with Topps expire at the end of the 2025 and 2022 seasons, respectively, the deal on the surface may appear quite unremarkable to many. This couldn’t be further from the truth however, as there are aspects of this arrangement that foreshadow some interesting immediate and long-term shifts in the industry, and in terms of more direct involvement in the day to day on the part of the players and leagues as well. Let’s hit on a few:

1. Divorce After 70 Years: The most striking aspect off the top was the fact that this exclusivity deal with the folks at Fanatics ends a 70 year relationship between Topps and MLB, which on a sentimental and historical level hits people in the feels a bit. While it may be hitting collectors in the feels, Topps is getting hit somewhere else…

2. Bye Bye Billion: In the days following this announcement, Topps executives, who if they are to be believed had zero knowledge MLB or the MLBPA were actively negotiating the announced deal, had to pull the plug on a major merger they had planned this past spring. Said merger would have seen the Topps company returning to a publicly traded company, news of which had seen valuations of the resulting entity approximating $1.3 billion US dollars. The shareholder vote was set to occur next week had the plug not been pulled.

3. A Deal That Gives…Nothing?: Topps has suggested they plan to see through products to the extent they are able to the end of their existing deals. While the league license with Topps does not expire until 2025, with their license to use player images running out after the ’22 season, what do they plan on making? One has to assume that moving past next season will be extremely difficult given their limitations, if not damn near impossible.

4. Left With…?: If one were to safely bet Topps is done with baseball following 2022, that leaves them with soccer (MLS and Champion’s League), F! and WWE as their main sports cards, with NHL stickers notwithstanding. The financial impact to this division of their operations cannot be understated, and will shape to a significant degree their future directions.

5. Who ARE The Fanatics People?: This is where things get spicey! By all accounts the Fanatics presence will look a bit different as this venture takes shape. This is because the idea of who a league or players association are licensing too is shifting big time here. Specifically, as part of the new deal, both the league and PA have equity in “TBA” also, and seats on the board of the company. Bottom line? They’re licensing to themselves and taking an active role in operations! What might this mean financially? Let’s take 2020 as a measure, where the MLBPA took in a solid $20+ million from Topps in licensing. Estimates suggest the current deal with Fanatics for the league and PA could approach $2 BILLION by 2045. Some simple math, assuming a 50-50 split over 23 years for league and players, averages north of $43 million a year. Investing in oneself, right?

6. Circle The Wagons!: If not turning things on their head already, how about this little nugget: also in on the deal with equity in the company will be…the NBA and both the NBA and NFL player’s associations, the latter two of which see their card license deals with another company, Panini, expiring in ’25 and ’26. Think we might see them at the yet nameless company at that point?

7. Why Reinvent The Wheel?: Back to the issue of “TBA” card company. While early assumptions were that a new entity would be created in rolling out this new card company, it is entirely possible that it would not have to evolve in this manner. I mean, if we’re approaching fall of 2021 and you would feasibly want to be hustling the big conventions in 2022 to build the buzz for a ’23 launch, why build from ground zero? Lauren Hirsch of the New York Times floated an idea in this vein this week in positing that Fanatics could, as an option, consider attempting to acquire one of the three bigger manufacturers at this time (Upper Deck, Topps & Panini). Fanatics are not hurting for cash, and have partners obviously invested in doing this in a manner that supports positive returns, so the idea is not that farfetched. And hypothetically, were this to happen, and said company were Upper Deck, then hello NHL and your exclusive licensing deal…

I’m sure the writing is on the wall here. This seems like a sensical business deal for the players and leagues in the sense that there is ownership alongside license, and what is not to like about a place at the table in you own investment? I cannot imagine a place where the NHL and NHLPA are not brought into the discussion, if it hasn’t happened already. The wild card here would be the length of the UD deal, which was not disclosed the last time it was renewed, but I’m inclined to think this has to be a matter of how long Upper Deck executives are waiting on something strongly inevitable they’re going to have to uncomfortably face. The times are a changing…

Well wishes and positive energy to you all. Please put some care into you and yours and look out for one another where possible! Even the smallest of actions can lead to far bigger impacts than we realize. Cheers!


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