When it comes to card collecting, no other sport garners the same level of interest as baseball cards do. Created by tobacco manufacturers in the late 19th century to serve the dual purpose of both protecting and marketing their products, the baseball cards of the tobacco era were hardly thought of at the time to have any financial value. However the next 100+ years would see a radical change in that perception as in evolved into the $200 million industry that it is today.
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Baseball Cards: A History
As the sport of baseball grew in popularity, so did its fan base, particularly with children. As a result, gum and candy manufacturers of the World War II era began utilizing baseball cards as a means to sell their confectionaries, enticing children to part with their hard earned pennies and nickels. Out of this era, one company emerged as the sole force in the market, The Topps Candy and Gum Company (TCGC). They were a literal monopoly that went unchallenged for almost 30 years. The rise of Topps became synonymous with the term baseball card for generations of children. However, a lawsuit filed by the Fleer Gum Company in 1975 argued that the Topps monopoly of the baseball card market violated anti-trust laws. Fleer eventually won the suit but not before Topps filed and won their own appeal claiming they had a patented right to be the exclusive manufacturer of baseball cards distributed with gum. As a result of the lawsuits, in 1981, Topps found itself competing for market share with Fleer and newcomer, Donruss.
This period of time also cemented baseball card collecting as not only a mainstream hobby but one with investment potential as well. With the sudden influx of multiple brands in the marketplace for new cards, some collectors started seeing the value in older, vintage cards. During baseball's Golden Era of the 1950's and 1960's, baseball cards were collected by kids for fun and as a result were played with, stuffed in pockets, traded for other childhood desirables and playfully installed in bicycle spokes. As a result of their "mistreatment", cards from these years became increasingly difficult to find in collectible condition. At this point a light bulb went off in the head of the collective consciousness of card collectors and immediately kicked in the basic economic principals of supply and demand.
As prices for these cards continued to escalate, modern day cards also exploded in popularity for their perceived future value. What resulted was an era of mass production that saw additional manufactures enter the market, subsequently as a result, by 1991 the baseball card market was said to be generating $1.2B per year. Unfortunately, the very laws of supply and demand that kicked off this era of exploding profits conversely became the hobby's downfall. With increased supply came reduced demand and with reduced demand, the values of cards from this time period plummeted to the point that today they aren't worth the paper they are printed on. What transpired was that many collectors left the hobby all together.
By the end of the decade, sales dropped to $400M and recent reports estimate the current marketplace at around $200M. Manufactures have been forced to balance producing a perceived collectible versus the confines of manufacturing an actual commodity. In doing so they have abandoned inserts like gum and have replaced them with items like player autographs and game used memorabilia to add value to their products. As a result, this combined with the advent of electronic media and entertainment the demographic of their audience has changed from kids looking to connect with their favorite players to 30, 40, and 50 something year olds looking to reconnect with the hobby of their youth.
A lot has changed in the baseball trading card landscape and with the contraction of the market several companies have come and gone. However, through it all, Topps has maintained its dominance in the marketplace establishing themselves as the brand identity in the baseball card category. In fact, so much so that their efforts have come full circle and as of 2010 were once again named by Major League Baseball as the official manufacturer of baseball cards.
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