If the last part of this decade in sports cards can be defined by a single trend, it's sports leagues signing exclusive deals with trading card manufacturers. The NHL was first, deciding to go solely with Upper Deck coming out of its 2004-05 lockout season.
A more surprising announcement came this January when the NBA followed suit. In that case, it wasn't the exclusive that raised eyebrows, but the fact that the league threw in its lot with Italian company Panini - which has since established a U.S. presence by purchasing Donruss Playoff - in lieu of former partners Upper Deck and Topps.
Even with that history, the latest move to a single producer sent shockwaves through the hobby. That came last week, when Major League Baseball chose Topps to become the lone manufacturer of league-licensed cards.
The MLB-Topps deal struck a nerve with a lot of collectors, partly because it caught many of them off-guard. Upper Deck had just inked a new agreement with the MLBPA a few days earlier, so there was little reason to expect anything but business as usual going forward.
The timing also felt strange because it was 20 years ago that Upper Deck arrived on the scene, pushing the industry forward with its debut baseball set. Thinking of baseball cards without the company that introduced many things hobbyists take for granted today just doesn't feel right.
A common theme among those reacting negatively to the news was dismay over the lack of choices an exclusive deal would mean. The word monopoly was used liberally, backed by an understandable questioning of what motivation a lone manufacturer would have to innovate.
Collectors don't like being told what to collect, and having choices is an essential part of the experience. From that standpoint, exclusivity is stifling, and there's no way around it. And one only needs to look at professional wrestling and the WWE to see how creativity can stagnate without competitive pressures to keep a company sharp.
Though all of those fears are valid, the hobby will go on. Upper Deck has already proven that "exclusive" isn't synonymous with "apocalypse" in the hockey card market. Press Pass has had an even longer stint as the sole provider of NASCAR racing cards, and it still comes up with new brands, themes and types of cards simply to continue to generate sales.
Nor will UD be vanishing from baseball altogether. Director of Marketing Kerri Kauffman said as much in an interview with Beckett.com on Monday, confirming that the company's MLBPA deal would ensure that sets like Upper Deck, SP Authentic and SPx are still going to be around in some form in 2010. The cards won't be the same without team logos. Kauffman's statement that it's too soon to know exactly what they may look like is worth remembering.
There's a road map for this too. In the Game has been hanging on without an NHL license (or one from the players' association, for that matter) for several seasons, and has at the very least made hockey products popular enough to keep Upper Deck on its toes.
Undoubtedly ITG would prefer to be fully licensed, and its management has been vocal in its opinion that the NHL made the wrong decision. Still, its continued existence is evidence that choice isn't necessarily going to be eradicated by the trend toward exclusivity.
There may be positives that arise from these deals as well. Prominent card blogger Chris Harris pointed out a number of them in his post at Stale Gum last Thursday, including less gimmick cards and more affordable products.
The reason that Harris has at the top of his list is the one that jumps out the most, though: fewer brands. It's been conventional wisdom for some time that one of the hobby's biggest problems is simply having too many products for sale, wearing out old collectors and scaring away potential new ones. Everyone is about to find out if that widely held tenet is true.
Finally, there's one big unknown that could end up in either the plus of minus column as the exclusive era unfolds. One of the messages that wasn't spelled out explicitly in the MLB's official announcement of the Topps deal but still came through was that the league wanted more control over the image and direction of its own trading cards. The NBA hinted at the same desire when it made its pact with Panini.
Do the sports leagues really have better ideas for the content and marketing of their cards than the companies that have been making them for years? That's a multi-million dollar question, and the answer to it will start to play out in the closing months of 2009.
Even a year ago it would have taken a lot of imagination to forsee the Big Three card manufacturers down to two major sports apiece, but that will be hobby reality as 2010 dawns. The NFL will be the lone holdout for multiple licensees, and given its predilection for naming official league partners for just about everything, one can only wonder if it will jump on the bandwagon too when its current deals expire.
The phrase "brave new world" is probably overused, but it's an apt one for the place collectors will soon find themselves. It's going to look and feel different, and it's inevitable that some people will want the old one back. Until the last cardboard enthusiast throws in the towel, though, the world of sports cards will keep spinning, and exclusive deals aren't going to change that.
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