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Thursday, January 23, 2020

Why Panini Deserves an MLB License

Ahh, the Good Old Days. Some of you may be old enough to remember the wonderful card collecting world of the 1960s and 1970s. When Topps had a monopoly, and they only issued one big set over multiple series during the year. Don't like the design? Wait 'til next year!

But the 1980s saw the coming of Fleer and Donruss, followed by Score and Upper Deck; the 1990s brought Pacific into the mainstream. 1989 also saw the first non-flagship set, when Topps brought back the Bowman line. Then came the 1990s, when companies made dozens of sets each. Those were wonderful times. Those were dark times.

Things happened. Companies bought other companies. Companies went bankrupt and came back from the dead. And companies just decided to stop making cards.

By the end of the 2005 baseball season, Fleer had gone bankrupt and the Donruss/Score/Playoff group lost their license, leaving only Topps and Upper Deck. Upper Deck would lose their license in 2009, leaving Topps as the only company allowed to make baseball cards with MLB team logos.

Panini bought Playoff and all of the card brands that come with it to produce basketball cards, but nearly a decade ago they also acquired an MLBPA license. Since then, the conversation has come up multiple times about Panini getting to put "Tigers" on a card instead of just "Detroit".

Topps recently (in 2018) extended their agreement and has exclusivity through 2025.

Here are some reasons why I think Panini should be granted an MLB license.

Topps has a monopoly. In 1980, the courts said that other companies had to be permitted to create trading cards. Yet, in 2009, Topps and MLB Properties went against this decision, kicking Upper Deck out of the baseball market. I'm no expert on antitrust law, but what changed between 1980 and 2009?

I certainly would understand not renewing Upper Deck's MLB license back then, given their controversies - counterfeiting, reprinting, litigious practices. But for the better part of a decade, it seems to me that Panini has been trying to play fair.

Panini has appealing set designs. Not every set will appeal to every collector. I get that, and I'm not a fan of all of Panini's offerings. Donruss has influences from its past designs and is a good line for a full-sized flagship set, Leather and Lumber had a nice throwback feel. Chronicles compiles a whole plethora of set concepts together, and Diamond Kings has a great art feel. Optic and Prizm are great contrasts to Chrome and Finest. A lot of people knocked Triple Play, but I thought it was a great set geared towards kids that only suffered from a bad choice of artwork. They also had a great multi-sport set with throwback designs (Golden Age).
Not my image.
Panini makes better relic cards. Almost all I ever see from Topps are single-color swatches or small pieces of patches. Big pieces of jersey are reserved for the highest-end products or one-of-one cards most collectors won't ever see, and there are chances for bat barrels. Bats and jerseys. But Panini's sets include spikes, hats, and jackets. Absolute Memorabilia has brought catcher's gear, and I remember when bases, dirt, walls, balls, and many other artifacts made their way into cards. At least Panini has been trying for some variety.
Not my image.
 Panini has a heritage that dates back to "Golden Age" of cards. Topps boasts about its history, and it is a long one. But Donruss got its start in 1954, and produced cards back in the 1960s. Panini itself has been producing stickers since 1961.
Topps is getting complacent and stale. Topps Heritage and Topps Archives both recycle old designs. Topps issues multiple sets using its flagship design, including Chrome, Chrome Sapphire, Pro Debut, and Mini. Hello, Clearly Authentic. Gypsy Queen (10 years) and Allen & Ginter (15 years) are rip offs of previous brands that Topps has come to just rely on as "sure thing" sellers. The entire Bowman line is a prospect dumping ground. Finest, once the premier premium card brand, now feels like an afterthought.

The high-end sets have uninspired hits on uninspired, unremarkable designs. Many of Topps' recent sets have been reboots of previous lines - Stadium Club, Gold Label, Gallery, High Tek. Inserts in most of the sets just try to cram as many stars as possible without really focusing on a theme.

Having a real competitor would force Topps to produce cards that collectors really want to choose over another company's. Competition brings innovation.
Panini has (had?) a licensing agreement with the Hall of Fame. Panini's two Cooperstown sets were fantastic. It opened the door for a lot of obscure Hall of Famers (is that an oxymoron) to finally get modern cardboard. Plus, the set included favorite broadcasters, induction ceremony images, and looks at items found in the Hall of Fame. What was such a promising series has disappeared, but could be a great opportunity to release a full, complete series of cards for current Hall of Famers. Panini included some of the HOFers in the Golden Age sets, too.
Don't forget the Team USA and Collegiate agreements. Panini has the youngest and oldest players. They've put themselves in a position to provide some really great sets.

Are there any other reasons you can think of that Panini should get an MLB license? For now, I'm only focusing on the reasons they should; save your arguments against for later, when I can write that post as well.

7 comments:

  1. Can't disagree with any of this. Preach, brother!

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  2. You're much kinder to Panini then I would be. I think they screw up just about everything they touch when it comes to baseball.

    But giving them a license, would polish up some of those cards nicely, maybe even make a few of them collectible.

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  3. I can answer one of your points, which is why the 1980 monopoly ruling doesn't apply anymore.

    The ruling was overturned on appeal just the following year. The appeals court found that there were other ways to compete with Topps, and that the earlier ruling was in error. https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=9862902462317484627&q=658+F.2d+139&hl=en&as_sdt=20006 Topps' exclusive rights were restored, and Topps was even able to successfully sue Fleer for some of the profits it made in 1981 under the 1980 ruling.

    What happened next, though, was that the MLBPA liked having the revenue from its direct deals with Fleer and Donruss, so they came up with a pretext: Fleer would sell baseball logo stickers, and Donruss would sell Hall of Famer jigsaw puzzles...and baseball cards would be a bonus. They were basically using the loophole set up to allow things like the Kellogg's and Hostess sets; Topps' exclusivity only applied to cards sold on their own, or with gum or other confectionery products. This is why for the rest of the 80s you will notice that non-Topps products always listed the baseball cards SECOND: "Logo Stickers and Baseball Cards" or something of that nature. It was probably a violation of Topps' rights, but Topps didn't want to alienate the players too much, so they reached a settlement, the terms of which I don't believe were ever disclosed.

    Of course today's Topps contracts don't have any such loophole (which is why there aren't food issues anymore unless Topps is involved!). If someone tried to challenge it in court, the fact that Panini stays in business without a license would be proof that Topps isn't violating the law, and in any event Topps would argue that they're competing against the licensed products from other sports and various other collectibles.

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  4. Panini can have a license when they figure out how to create a card back. Until then - no.

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  5. There should be more than one company producing each sport. The total number of releases should remain the same (as you outline in the next post), but be equally divided among the licensed companines. This would weed out the chaff and make for more variety without the overwhelming volume that happened in the 90's.

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  6. I'm 100% for giving Panini an MLB license. Upper Deck too. And limit the number of products each company can release... so they'll invest their time and resources wisely and put out quality products for their customers.

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  7. night owl: Topps screws a lot up too. Just ask Justin Bieber. Er, I mean Shane Bieber. I think a lot of what Panini lacks in some of its images/designs is because they can't use logos. So I agree - Panini could make a better product with the logos.

    Bret Alan: Thank you for that info. I've heard about the gum/sticker/puzzle "compromise" before. I'm not an expert on monopoly laws, but from what I've read, aren't they more about unfair practices than just "this company can still survive without it"?

    JediJeff: I get the feeling that Panini doesn't want to concern themselves with statistics. I only have a few Panini cards in front of me, and every single one used the same photo on the back as it had on the front. That does seem lazy to me - if you're putting a photo on the back to take up space, it should be different. (BBM does that too, and it's really annoying.)

    GCA: I seem to recall a time when Topps and Upper Deck were both limited to a certain number of releases per year. Perhaps when Topps got its exclusive license they got all of UD's quota too, or that whole provision dropped away.

    Fuji: yes, and what I just said in the above paragraph!

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