One of the most common complaints about the current state of sports cards is that it's too expensive, making it a hobby that only those with a lot of disposable income can enjoy. Though manufacturers have attempted to provide products at a range of price points, there's no getting around the fact that it costs a lot more to collect in 2009 than it did even ten years ago, effectively pricing some prospective hobbyists out.
What doesn't get discussed as much - because it's an unknown for the most part - is how the cost of doing business for the companies making the cards has exploded at the same time. Collectors have come to expect sets of sports cards filled with autographs, pieces of game-used uniforms and other bells and whistles, and that stuff isn't cheap.
That point was driven home by a recent story broken by Beckett Media about 12 NBA players who are suing Topps for money they say they are owed for autograph deals they signed with the company in 2008. As Chris Olds reported on Beckett.com on Wednesday, the likely cause of the dispute is that Topps is just about done making basketball cards (Panini America becomes the exclusive producer of NBA-licensed cards later this year) and won't have a need for the remaining signatures.
It's an interesting case on its own merits, but the real look behind the curtain comes from the contract details. The complaint spells out exactly what each player was due to receive from Topps, ranging from 500 signatures at $6 each for T.J. Ford to a cool $25 per signature for 10,000 autographs from Derrick Rose. All told, the 12 players were set to make $610,000.
Even with an expectation that those contracts would supply enough autographs to last for several years worth of product, which seems reasonable given that they were agreed to during the 2008 offseason and still haven't been fulfilled, that's a significant cost for Topps. And logic suggests it's just the tip of the iceberg.
A glance through the checklist of 2008-09 Topps Co-Signers Basketball finds over 80 autograph subjects beyond those involved in the lawsuit. Since the company had to have deals with all of them as well, and some of them are big names that could command even more money - current stars like Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony and legends like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson - it's not hard to see that Topps' autograph bill runs into the seven-digit range.
Then consider that autographs are only one cost associated with producing sports cards, and that Topps has MLB and NFL licenses as well. The hobby was a lot more affordable at the beginning of the decade, but because of the changes in content over that time, the card companies now have some expensive costs they didn't have even 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.
That doesn't make the shot to the wallet hurt any less when buying that new box of cards, nor does it encourage more young people and beginners to start collecting. The Topps lawsuit does at least provide a look at one cause of the high price of sports cards, though, and it's certainly food for thought.