The Future of Baseball Cards

This article was written by Steven Glassman

This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)


Statcast will be 25 years old in 2040. The oldest Millennials will be 59 and the oldest Generation Z’s will be 43. These generations were raised on technology and, according to the Pew Research Center, over 81 % of them actively use and engage in social media in 2021.1 Their shopping and media consumption habits skew heavily digital.2 Baseball card companies need to engage and involve these generations to stay relevant. This article details how the leading card companies are trying to do that, laying the groundwork for an increasingly digital future.

The mindset of the industry leaders is illustrated by two quotations from a 2018 Chicago Tribune article. Said Jason Horwath, Vice President of Marketing for Panini, the parent company of Donruss and the card company that produces the official card sets for the NBA, FIFA World Cup, and others: “Nothing can be taken away from the grass-roots opportunities of getting the product into the kids’ hands. [But] there’s ways to engage kids in the [digital] trenches.” Topps Vice President of Marketing and Sales Dan Kinton added, “[We] continue to look for unique…ways to bring the fan and collector closer to the game, closer to their heroes.”3

The pace of change in the collectibles business has accelerated in recent years, and between now and 2040, three key elements of the baseball card business will continue to evolve. One is the methods of engagement with fans, now that the primary way that consumers learn about new products is through the Internet/social media and via direct-to-consumer relations instead of on the shelves of local brick-and-mortar retailers. Another is the statistics included on the card backs. And expect a change in the digital product offerings: The future of baseball cards is in the digital space, whether via blockchain, digital apps, or on-demand and online exclusives.

UPDATING STATISTICAL CARD BACKS

One of the most iconic and salient features of a baseball card is the stats on the back. Although sabermetrics has long since revolutionized which stats matter most to teams and players, card backs have been slower to change. The sabermetric era in baseball card stats began in 1995 when Score added “OB%” (on-base percentage) to their card backs. Topps would add OPS (on-base plus slugging) in 2004, and in 2013 the Topps Finest cards began to include WAR (wins above replacement).4 In 2014, Topps partnered with Bloomberg Sports to add a raft of advanced metrics to the Bowman Chrome card backs (see Figure 1.)

 

Figure 1. Bowman Chrome Card Back Statistics in 2014

Figure 1. Bowman Chrome Card Back Statistics in 2014 (STEVEN GLASSMAN)

 

Wrote SportTechie.com’s Jesus Salas of the 2014 set, “Six different analytical templates will be showcased on the cards including spray charts that document veteran power hitters’ home run locations and strikeout pitchers’ pitch selection.”5 Prospect cards included “statistics that include organizational rankings and comparisons rankings and comparisons to minor league averages.”6

“Every year we strive to find new ways to engage both the casual fan and the ardent collector, and we feel that the partnership with Bloomberg Sports accomplishes that. These revolutionized card backs has given us another unique point of engagement that is both eye-catching and educational and fun for all,” said Zvee Geffen, Topps MLS and Bowman Brand Manager, in a press release. “Analytics are an essential part of today’s conversations in every sport and this new content will document that emerging trend, and the new data we are providing will help enhance the experience for all.”7 Topps Vice President of Product Development Clay Luraschi added, “As a company that’s been making baseball cards since 1951, we always want to be in line with the evolution of the game.”8 He also said: “We want to be in a position as a company to chronicle all sides of the game, including stats. In addition, we want to help usher in new concepts and expose fans as well.” The designs for the 2014 card sets included such ideas as putting a hitter’s home run spray chart on the back. (See Figure 2.)

 

Figure 2. Bryce Harper’s 2014 Card (back)

Figure 2. Bryce Harper’s 2014 Card (back)

 

But not everyone felt the implementation of the new stats was done well. (See Figure 3 for Mike Trout’s 2014 Series 1 and Series 2 cards.)

 

Figure 3. Mike Trout 2021 Card (back)

Figure 3. Mike Trout 2021 Card (back)

 

The advanced stats were listed by their abbreviations, without any explanation of what they meant. Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated concluded: “To bring in new audiences and keep pace with existing ones, it makes sense to integrate sabermetrics onto the backs of the cards, but as with on broadcasts and in print/electronic media, restraint—ideally with explanation and context—is far preferable to overkill. I certainly don’t think Topps should abandon the endeavor of expanding statistical horizons on its product, but hard-won experience tells me that a measured approach would be more fruitful.”9

In 2019, Topps base and update sets printed Advanced Stat parallel cards for every individual player card in each set, using Statcast data, in runs limited to 300 copies. These parallels also existed in 2020 and 2021. Figure 3, below, is a Mike Trout 2021 “regular” stats card.

Although Trout’s WAR is there, you’d need to pick up the parallel card in the 2021 Topps Series 1 Baseball Advanced Stat Parallels set to see BABIP or wOBA. Since the Advanced Stat sets are limited to 300 numbered copies, if you just bought a pack of cards down at the corner store, you’d see the “traditional” stats. Now that we’re in the Statcast era, will we see launch angle, exit velocity, or some other stat derived from Statcast data introduced soon? Now that pitcher usage is changing in the big leagues, with bullpenning, openers and “bulk” innings eaters becoming more prevalent, pitching stats as a whole are surely due for an overhaul. Perhaps 20 more years of Statcast data and Hawk-Eye tracking will yield a new metric for fielding ability. By 2040, perhaps wOBA will be considered an “old school” stat, and some other newfangled metric will be trying to break through. Figure 4 (next page) imagines what Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto’s 2040 card back could look like:10

 

Figure 4. Juan Soto 2040 Career Commemorative Card (back)

Figure 4. Juan Soto 2040 Career Commemorative Card (back)

We assume by 2040 we may have some new stats measuring fielding and defensive contributions, hence xOOA and FD+.

 

CONSUMER ENGAGEMENT

For the past two decades, Topps has been building its digital footprint and expanding its online presence. You can look back to 2000, when Topps launched the eTopps line in which cards were treated and traded almost like stocks. The collector would purchase the card for a low initial price (like an IPO) and then trade/sell them on a stock market while Topps held the physical cards until the collector decided to take possession. “[eTopps] seemed like the future of card collecting,” according to Cardboard Connection. The eTopps system also had “features that allowed you to seek or sell specific cards to other collectors on the eTopps site, sell them directly on eBay, or track the actual values on eBay. There was also a rewards program that was based around player production for the cards you owned, as well as other criteria, like fantasy games.”11 The eTopps line was plagued by various problems, but the trend of digital marketplace speculation was established, leading to businesses like COMC (“Check out My Cards”). COMC advertises itself as not only a marketplace to sell one’s cards, but as a place for “Easy & Fun Sports Card Flipping. Filter by team, player, set & more. Purchase, instantly relist, & flip for profit.”12 And eTopps clearly presaged the NFT collectibles market that would arise some twenty years later.

In 2011, Topps acquired GMG Entertainment. GMG was founded in 2002 to capitalize on the opportunity to link the digital and retail worlds, and in 2007 pioneered the business of developing digital currency products and services for digital entertainment companies attempting to monetize their businesses via offline channels.13 By the next year, 2012, Topps had stopped production of eTopps cards and launched a digital division with Topps-branded baseball and football apps. These apps have since evolved to include additional sports, as well as entertainment and pop culture properties. Topps Digital and some of the apps under their umbrella maintain fan engagement through dedicated Twitter accounts.14

On Opening Day 2012, Topps launched two new apps, Topps Bunt and Topps Pennant. Pennant cost $2.99-$3.99 to download and was described by the company as a “modern box score.”15 The app would update each day with the previous day’s game information and also included play-by-play information for games dating back to 1952. Topps Bunt was free to download, and while one aspect of the app was the ability to build a digital collection of baseball cards, the app also presented “a game that incorporates fantasy baseball type of strategies. Users pick nine players regardless of position and can trade with other users. You rack up points and see how you do against other players in the game. The baseball players are depicted on baseball cards.”16 Topps continued to make significant investments in app development throughout the 2010s.17

One of Topps’s challenges was sustaining interest in the app. Topps Director of Digital Content Chris Vaccaro spoke of the legitimacy of digital baseball cards by relating them to the popularity of other digital media: “It is a picture on your phone. But books are read on phones. Movies are viewed on phones. Bank accounts are accessed on phones. Music is listened to through apps. The world is connected and functions through mobile devices, so to extend our deeply historic and physical brand into the digital world is where we need to be as a company.” Bunt had the advantage that the game component helped maintain interest. “These cards also score in a gameplay mode through the fantasy contests, so this extends the notion of it just being a picture, rather, it’s a commodity that scores in our custom platform,”18 Vaccaro said.

By 2018, Topps Bunt was still growing in popularity. “A majority of our fans participate in the daily contests,” said Vaccaro. “It provides a way for almost every card in the app to be more valuable.”19 Beckett.com’s Ryan Cracknell wrote of the 2018 update of the app: “The cards themselves are also more dynamic. Traditional cards are a printed medium. While that has its advantages, they’re static. When it comes to card backs, they’re more like historical artifacts. With BUNT, those backs are always updating in real-time with each new game. So for those who might not be using the game side of the app, there’s still value in using them to see how a player is doing at any given moment.”20

By 2019, Topps competitor Panini was also in the digital game, offering not only a fantasy-baseball-like app and digital collecting, but print-on-demand offerings and building online connections with fans. As Panini Vice President of Marketing Jason Howarth said about Panini’s philosophy in an August 2019 interview with SportTechie.com writer Andrew Cohen: “We are authentic to the players more than anything else. We do a lot of storytelling on social media, a lot of show and tell. We have over 2,000 contracts across all sports, where guys are signing our trading cards. When we’re with them, we’re always trying to capture that content and then share that on our social platforms. Getting that energy of being around the players—and showing off the product—is really what drives our fan engagement.”21 In their digital collecting apps like NFL Blitz and NBA Dunk, Panini offered collectors not only the ability to have a digital version of cards they physically owned, they offered some digital-only exclusives.

But what does it mean to “own” a digital card? Isn’t it just an image that can be infinitely copied and shared? Not if blockchain gets involved.

BLOCKCHAIN TECHNOLOGY

Player Tokens, Inc., a Seattle, Washington, startup backed by Madrona Venture Group, announced in 2018 that they had “signed a deal with the Major League Baseball Players Association to sell digital ‘tokens’ featuring real MLB players.” Furthermore, Player Tokens said theirs was the “first crypto-collectible that doesn’t require a cryptocurrency wallet.”22 A pack of tokens was priced $5.99-$8.49 and could be purchased with a credit card. The idea behind tokens— now largely referred to as “non-fungible tokens” or NFTs—was to use blockchain technology to ensure there would be a finite number of tokens sold, and “each [token has] unique IDs based on the Ethereum blockchain that confirms authenticity, which creates digital scarcity. Token owners will be able to use tokens in various ways, including in-stadium experiences and engagement with MLB players. The tokens are non-interchangeable and can’t be used as a digital currency, but can be transferred to other owners.”23

MLBPA Director of Licensing and Business Development Evan Kaplan stated at the time, “We believe Player Tokens is taking a great step forward, modernizing the fan and collector experience while paying homage to the rich history of baseball collectibles.”24 Player Tokens CEO Kush Parikh added: “Our goal is to create a modern platform that ultimately connects fans and players through digital.”25 Madrona Managing Director Scott Jacobson wrote in the company’s blog: “[This] is an opportunity to bring together the digital and physical worlds (something my partner Matt lovingly describes as DiPhy) to create an entirely new and compelling collectible experience, powered by blockchain. Second, this intersection of worlds is particularly powerful in professional sports, where fans have the opportunity to encounter and interact with their favorite athletes, at games, on television, and through social media.”26 Parikh described the Player Token product as “New economy baseball cards for the modern age…across all sports! The collectibles we create will always change and continue to evolve over time—something that any static, tangible asset will never be able to do (except age).”27 One of Player Tokens’ stated goals: “Making crypto understandable and easy to use for the common fan. There is no requirement to own cryptocurrency, or even understand it. All you need to know is that the player tokens you buy from us are yours and cannot be faked. From there, you will be able to join the journey with us as the collecting and engagement experience evolves with players.”28

It wouldn’t take long for other sports to jump on board. In 2019, Dapper Labs started creating NFT collectibles for the NBA called Top Shots. Top Shots are official video highlights from NBA games, authenticated by blockchain, that collectors can buy and trade. Although the initial cost for a pack of tokens is only $9, the tokens sell out fast, and the bidding and trading of a Top Shot can quickly drive up the price. A single highlight of LeBron James has sold for $200,000, and as of February 2021, over $230 million had been spent on Top Shots, with the NBA raking in a percentage on every sale.29 “The bet for traders is that in 2051, a LeBron James NFT could be worth what a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is worth today—one of those rare cards recently sold for $5.2 million,” reported CNBC. Dapper Labs feels the same way: “We think it could be a 100-year product,” said Caty Tedman, head of marketing and team partnerships. “Everyone who is participating now is really getting in on the ground floor.”30

A little over a year later, in December 2019, Panini became the first of the traditional card companies to introduce blockchain technology, utilizing its National Treasures design for 100 athletes in January 2020. Some of the baseball players in the multi-sports release included Aaron Judge, Mickey Mantle, Shohei Ohtani, Mariano Rivera, and Honus Wagner. These digital trading cards were to “be sold in an auction format in US dollars as opposed to a digital currency. The blockchain asset will live on a closed Panini platform where sports fans and collectors can buy, sell and store their blockchain trading card assets. Each card is a unique one-of-one card that not only includes a blockchain digital asset—but will be accompanied by a physical version of the card that includes an autograph of the respective player. In some cases, the physical card also will include a piece of memorabilia. The blockchain asset will be an exact representation of the physical version of the card.”31

By March 2020, the hunger for NFTs had grown. Dapper Labs signed up the UFC (mixed martial arts) and said that other sports leagues had been talking to them about using NFTs.32 Meanwhile Topps got into the NFT game to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Garbage Pail Kids, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids. The foray into blockchain cards came in a partnership with NFT creation and trading platform Worldwide Asset Exchange (WAX).33

In a November 2020 piece entitled “Why Would Anyone Bother Collecting Digital Baseball Cards?” Slate’s Michael Waters laid out the challenges facing creators of digital collectibles: “What made physical cards work is that collectors could put faith in their longevity. They stay yours until you decide to sell them or, if they become sentimentally precious enough, pass them on to family or friends. But the digital economy has done little to recreate that trust. It’s a problem that extends well beyond the world of card collecting into all digital ‘purchases’”34 Waters pointed out that some problems with selling digital products are not unique to collectible cards, Books, songs, and other digital media are “tenuous” and the way we buy, store, use, and retrieve them is at the whim of current technologies and the companies that may or may not still be going concerns in the future.

So-called “crypto collectibles” use of blockchain should have at least solved the question of authenticity and recreated via digital medium the experience of owning “the original” of a collectible, not a “copy.” Waters continued: “If [crypto collectibles] spread far enough, they might make us rethink ownership on the internet writ large.”35 Indeed, the rules of ownership had already been upended by the time of his article, and are likely to continue to change as crypto-currencies and NFTs continue to be a rapidly changing and volatile market.

For the 2021 season, Topps began issuing baseball NFTs in its Topps Series 1 NFT Collection. As of May 2021, the Topps website featured card images with animated elements and enthused about the collection thus: “The first ever Topps MLB NFT collection celebrates 70 years of Topps Baseball, showcasing modern-day stars in new and classic Topps card designs. Collectors can find their favorite players reimagined as digitally enhanced, officially licensed Topps MLB NFT collectibles—ushering in a new age of baseball card collecting.” These NFT cards include animation effects not recreatable on cardboard. New startups also continue to move into the NFT space. As this article was going to press, MLB announced it was partnering with Candy Digital in a “long-term deal” to produce NFTs. The first was slated to be a Lou Gehrig one-of-one featuring “Gehrig’s iconic ‘Luckiest Man’ speech that the Yankees legend delivered on July 4, 1939, at Yankee Stadium, after being diagnosed with ALS. The Gehrig NFT will be released July 4th weekend, and proceeds from the sale will support ALS charities.”36

Sports commerce has many other ways to incorporate blockchain besides collectibles, of course: SeatGeek just hired a new VP of Engineering from a blockchain company with an eye toward making digital ticket resale ironclad, and pro teams are excited about the fact this could give them a piece of each ticket’s resale.37 NFTs could be used to authenticate not just ticket licenses, but other forms of exclusive fan engagement such as VIP experiences, meet-and-greets with players, and the like.

But are NFT collectibles truly here to stay? In mid-May a lawsuit filed in New York State challenged Dapper Labs over Top Shots, alleging that the NFTs are essentially unregistered securities and should be regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.38 In spring 2021 signs began to point to the bursting of the blockchain speculation bubble with NFT collectibles taking a major dive at the end of May.39 Another major issue is that blockchain is not ecologically sustainable. Maintaining the technology and driving the value of most cryptocurrencies and NFTs requires an endlessly increasing need for computing power and electricity. (The negative environmental impact was cited as one reason auto manufacturing company Tesla no longer accepts Bitcoin.40) And skepticism from previous failed forays into high tech collecting is justified. “The largest reason people are skeptical of digital cards is that every single one of us knows how computer programs go obsolete within a year,” said Nick Vossbrink, co-chair of SABR’s Baseball Cards research committee. He points to some previous examples: In 1998, Pacific Online printed a unique URL on each card that supposedly went to a website about the player, but the domains are now long gone, and in 1999 the Upper Deck Powerdeck set consisted of baseball-card-sized CD-ROMs with movies on them, but CD-ROM drives are no longer ubiquitous and going the way of the VHS tape. Will a company like Topps keep the digital-asset servers running if at some point those servers cost them more than the profit the assets bring in?41

But whether the NFT collectibles bubble bursts in 2021, recovers to become a longlasting standard, or is superseded by some other technology, one has to expect that some form of digital authentication is going to be in place in the future.

Imagine in 2040, as part of Juan Soto’s career retrospective, Topps reissues NFTs from 2021-36 and retroactively creates Soto NFTs for the 2019 and 2020 sets. By then they also have MLB equivalents of Top Shots, creating the digital equivalent of game-used memorabilia: perhaps Launch Angle for hitting, Velocity for pitching, and Web Gems for fielding. Soto’s majestic home runs featured prominently in Launch Angle. Instead of autographed cards or a gameworn jersey of Soto’s being cut into slivers and included in selected lucky packs of cards, each limited-edition Soto NFT also provides access to a virtual reality meet-and-greet with the player.

VIRTUAL EVENTS

Speaking of virtual reality, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw the rise of many kinds of online events, including both in virtual replacements for in-person card-trading and selling conventions and the rise in popularity of new forms of interaction, for example “box breaks” and card pack opening livestreamed via Twitch.42 Although it’s expected that once the pandemic ends, in-person events will resume, the benefits and unique opportunities afforded by online interactions are likely here to stay.

On August 24-27, 2020, Topps Digital held its first online convention, Topps DigiCon2020 via its Digicast Twitch Channel. The convention included live and pre-recorded question and answer sessions, app activations, and watch parties. “Collector conventions are traditionally a great way for us to interact directly with our fans,” said Tobin Lent, VP & Global General Manager of Digital at The Topps Company. “But the impossibility of meeting in-person this year created an opportunity for our portfolio of apps to shine, and for us to engage digitally with our fans in this unique way for the first time.” The convention made the Topps Digital apps accessible to all attendees, and tried to “replicate the exciting experience of visiting show-floor booths.”43

While many virtual conventions in 2020 used streaming video platforms such as Zoom and Gather.town supplemented with text-based chat fora such as Discord or Slack, as virtual reality technology becomes ubiquitous through entertainment devices like the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift, can VR events be far behind?44 Imagine an online collector event to unveil the latest card set that would award each attendee a “door prize” NFT of some exclusive digital collectible. Expect Topps Digital to continue to host DigiCons, adding virtual reality for a more realistic attendee experience. By 2040, it’s possible the digital baseball card won’t be a mere “picture in your phone” but an interactive VR representation of the player. Software that is currently in use for analyzing the biomechanics of professional players and animating the players in video games like MLB: The Show could be used to create a virtual version of the 2040 Cy Young Award winner— or even Juan Soto, or Babe Ruth.

This could lead to a whole new meaning for the term “fantasy baseball.” Collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering already pit one player’s card collection against another. In 2009 Sega introduced an arcade cabinet game, Sega Card-Gen MLB 2009 that used real cards to populate a team.45 Imagine if you could create a fantasy team based on cards you owned, and then play that team against a friend’s lineup in a realistically simulated game? You could stack your lineup with Juan Soto as cleanup hitter against the friend who built a collection of the 1927 Murderers Row Yankees. Now imagine if you could insert yourself through VR as a player in that game. The value of owning digital cards would only be increased by such capabilities.

Another way Topps has already leveraged their online presence is through Topps Now. In 2016 they launched a program that would produce cards commemorating daily moments in sports and culture with varying print runs and prices. They issued base, autographed, relic cards, and sets. These cards are only available for 24 hours. Along with Topps Now, they instituted “Moment of the Week” cards. Fans would vote online in a weekly ballot of potential cards by ordering one of the cards featured, and the cards would only be available for a limited time. “That creates a certain level of engagement and competition among fans to have their favorites chosen, which is an excellent strategy Topps uses it to effectively generate excitement,” wrote John Collins at FrontOfficeSports.com.46

In the future we could see Topps Now or its successor commemorate not just current events, but daily or weekly anniversaries of milestones by great players. Topps Now issued a career retrospective for Derek Jeter before he was to be inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2021. We could eventually see Soto’s accomplishments highlighted through Topps Now: his 2000th hit, 1,500th run, 400th home run, 1500th RBI, and so on. Perhaps we’ll see a Topps Now card when he becomes eligible for the 2041 BBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot.

Topps has also leveraged their deep back catalog with online exclusives. In 2017 they added Throwback Thursday, a weekly set, with various themes, set sizes, and print runs. These sets utilized Topps’s vast baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and non-sport card design library. With weekly turnaround, such offerings are made possible by the fast pace of e-commerce. Another online item is Topps On Demand sets with various themes, print runs, and set sizes.

In 2018, Topps added the Living Set, a set without a final card. These cards are in the 1953 Topps design and feature active and retired players, with varying print runs and prices. The Living Set is available in single cards and fine art prints. In 2018 they also introduced another online-exclusive product, Topps 3D, a 100-card set 3-D version of its base and update sets.47 Then in 2019, continuing to leverage nostalgia, Topps issued 1955 Bowman Baseball-designed rookies and prospects cards. Some other examples of Topps online exclusives include the 2018 Topps Chrome Baseball Sapphire Edition and the return of Topps Total in 2019. Topps also issued 2019 Bowman Chrome X as a StockX Initial Public Offering (IPO) for three days in October 2019.

In 2020, Topps launched Project 2020 Baseball, with 20 different artists interpreting and redesigning 20 cards, for 400 total cards. These are also available in Silver Frame Artist Proofs, Gold Frames, and Fine Art Prints. Each weekday Topps would release 2-3 cards via their website, and the cards would only be available to buy for 48 hours. In a similar vein, to celebrate its 70th anniversary of producing baseball cards, Topps launched another series of art cards, Project70. These cards were created by a group of 51 artists utilizing 70 years of Topps baseball card designs, with each artist creating 20 cards. New cards launched daily on Topps.com and were only available for 70 hours. These cards were also available in various premium formats, including Rainbow Foil, Gold Frame, and Artist Proofs, and if a collector bought all 20 individual cards from a specific artist, they would receive a print with all 20 cards on it. Print runs for each card were posted after the sales window ended.48 In 2021, Topps is continuing to offer “fine art” style offerings, with the set of art cards entitled Game Within the Game. These art cards are available individually, with varying print runs and 10″ x 14″ fine art prints, serial numbered from one to 99. Topps also launched another online product, Sports Illustrated Trading Cards.

Given the success of these exclusive sets and high quality, premium printing options, we can expect that trend to continue. Topps will continue to create limited print run and varying print run sets through online exclusives. Major League Baseball creates new moments for nostalgia every season, providing a never-ending vein to be mined. In addition to the 2040 Juan Soto career-commemorative set, imagine that every year as more cards are added to it, the Living Set breaks its own Guinness World Record as the largest baseball card set. I’m going to predict that by 2040, Topps will have opened its own museum—with both physical and virtual exhibits—featuring works from the Fine Art Prints, Living Set, Project 70 and its successors, and original pictures from the Topps Vault.

As Front Office Sports’ John Collins concludes, “Topps has managed to bring tradition and nostalgia into the future by evolving with consumer purchasing habits and behaviors. Who would’ve thought we’d be talking about on-demand baseball cards one day? Yet, initiatives like that have enabled Topps to continue solidifying its place at the top of the baseball card industry.”49 We can expect Panini and other collectibles producers to follow suit as well as digital upstarts with new “disruptive” technologies. Collectibles companies will keep adapting to the changes in media, technology, and consumption habits, and collecting will remain a vital form of engagement for fans with their favorite sports and culture far into the future. 

STEVEN M. GLASSMAN’s article, The Future of Baseball Cards, will be his seventh for The National Pastime. He previously wrote for the Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, San Diego, Miami, and Baltimore editions of the journal. Steven has been a SABR member since 1994. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sport and Recreation Management from Temple University. Originally born in Philadelphia, Steven currently lives in Warminster, Pennsylvania.

 

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Nick Vossbrink and Jason Schwartz of SABR’s Baseball Cards committee for sharing their expertise.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also used the following online sources for this article: Newspapers.com and Trading-CardDatabase.com.

 

Notes

1. Pew poll results show 84% of the age 18-29 and 81% of the age 30-49 cohorts are active social media users. “Social Media Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media.

2. Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Online Shopping and E-Commerce,” Pew Research Center, December 19, 2016. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2016/12/19/online-shopping-and-ecommerce.

3. Alex Parker, “From wax packs to mobile apps: Baseball card collecting goes digital to reconnect with kids,” Chicago Tribune, March 26, 2018. https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-baseball-card-collecting-industry-20180326-story.html.

4. The card backs indicate whether it is either Baseball-Reference.com or Fangraphs WAR.

5. Jesus Salas, “Topps and Bloomberg Sports Partner to Add Analytics to Baseball Trading Cards,” SportTechie.com, September 24, 2014. https://www.sporttechie.com/topps-and-bloomberg-sports-partner-to-add-analytics-to-baseball-trading-cards.

6. Salas.

7. Press release, September 23, 2014, Stats LLC, http://www.stats.com/pr_092314.asp.

8. Fred Goodall, “Evolving Topps going to WAR on card stats,” Dayton Daily News, June 3, 2014, C2.

9. Jay Jaffe “Topps baseball cards go to WAR. Here’s how they could be even beKer,” Sports Illustrated, June 13, 2014. https://www.si.com/mlb/2014/06/13/topps-baseball-cards-go-to-war-heres-how-they-could-be-even-better.

10. Based on the projections of Jay, Jaffe, “Extending Juan Soto…All the Way to Cooperstown,” https://blogs.fangraphs.com/extending-juan-soto-all-the-way-to-cooperstown, but extended with two invented stats for illustrative purposes, “xOAA” Extended Outs Above Average under the assumption that by 2040 we’ll have advanced OAA, and FD+.

11. Trey Treutal, “Top eTopps Cards of All Time,” CardboardConnection.com, May 3, 2018. https://www.cardboardconnection.com/top-etopps-cards-of-all-time.

12. COMC home page, accessed June 2, 2021. https://www.comc.com.

13. Cision PR Newswire, “Topps Announces Acquisition of Leading Digital Currency Card Company, GMG Entertainment,” https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/topps-announces-acquisition-of-leading-digital-currency-card-company-gmg-entertainment-126163153.html.

14. Topps joined Twitter in July 2009. Topps Digital joined in December 2014.

15. Amy Chozick, “Apps Take Positions in the Topps Baseball Lineup,” The New York Times, April 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/business/media/apps-take-positions-in-the-topps-baseball-lineup.html.

16. Susan Lulgjuraj, “Topps Creates Baseball-Centric IPhone, IPad Apps,” Beckett Collectibles website, undated 2012 article. https://www.beckett.com/news/topps-adds-baseball-centric-apps-to-the-apple-store.

17. Lulgjuraj, “Topps Creates Baseball-Centric Apps.”

18. Cracknell.

19. Cracknell.

20. Cracknell.

21. Andrew Cohen, “Nostalgia Never Dies: Panini Gives Fans What They Crave With Digital Collectibles, On-Demand Printing,” https://www.sporttechie.com/panini-america-trading-cards-digital-collectibles-fan-engagement-sports-technology.

22. Taylor Soper, “Future of sports collectibles? Player Tokens brings together blockchain and baseball cards,” GeekWire, September 2, 2018. https://www.geekwire.com/2018/player-tokens.

23. Soper.

24. Soper.

25. Soper.

26. Soper.

27. Soper.

28. Soper.

29. Jabari Young, “People have spent more than $230 million buying and trading digital collectibles of NBA highlights,” February 28, 2021, CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/28/230-million-dollars-spent-on-nba-top-shot.html.

30. Tedman presumably did not predict the May 2021 turn of events in which Dapper Labs is being sued by users who allege that the NFTs are essentially unregistered securities. “The documents claim that NBA Top Shot moments are securities because their value increases with the success of the project. The plaintiff says Dapper should therefore be registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchanges Commission, which Dapper Labs has allegedly failed to do. The company is also said to have used its control of NBA Top Shot to prevent investors from withdrawing funds for “months on end,” ensuring the money stays on the platform “propping up” its value.” Jamie Crawley, “Dapper Labs Sued on Allegations NBA Top Shot Moments Are Unregistered Securities,” Coindesk, May 14, 2021. https://www.coindesk.com/dapper-labs-sued-on-allegations-nba-top-shot-moments-are-unregistered-securities.

31. Panini America, “Panini America Becomes First to Launch Officially Licensed Trading Cards Featuring Blockchain Technology,” https://blog.paniniamerica.net/panini-america-becomes-first-to-launch-officially-licensed-trading-cards-featuring-blockchain-technology.

32. Tim Copeland, “UFC to put fighters like Conor McGregor on the blockchain,” Decrypt, February 25, 2020. https://decrypt.co/20479/ufc-to-put-fighters-like-conor-mcgregor-on-the-blockchain.

33. T. Skevington and M. Bacina, “Trash to treasure: Garbage Pail Kids NFTs sell out in 28 hours,” Bits of Blocks, June 11, 2020. https://www.bitsofblocks.io/post/trash-to-treasure-garbagepail-kids-nfts-sellout-in-28-hours.

34. Michael Waters, “Why Would Anyone Bother Collecting Digital Baseball Cards?,” Slate, November 12, 2020. https://slate.com/technology/2020/11/digital-baseball-cards-collectibles-blockchain-cryptocurrency-investment.html.

35. Waters wrote about blockchains: “You can think of blockchain as an open-source ledger. It records each transaction and pegs it to a location, represented by a number string that allows a digital good to exist independently of the company that sold it. A blockchain-based trading card, for instance, can be moved between online platforms in the same way that collectors can sell physical baseball cards wherever they want.”

36. David Adler, “MLB Strikes Long Term Deal as First NFT Partner of Candy Digital,”MLB.com, June 1, 2021. https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-strikes-long-term-deal-as-first-nft-partner-of-candy-digital.

37. Andrew Cohen, “SeatGeek Hires Blockchain Executive As VP of Engineering,” SportTechie, May 21, 2021. https://sporrtechie.com/seatgeek-hires-blockchain-executive-as-vp-of-engineering. From the article: “SeatGeek chief product officer Eric Waller told SportTechie that his company is talking with NBA and NFL teams about creating tickets as NFTs, with hopes to launch a marketplace for blockchain-backed tickets by the end of this year. ‘I think what a lot of teams are most excited about is, if we put our tickets on the blockchain, can we collect a royalty on every resale and can we always know who’s in every seat?’ Waller told SportTechie in April. ‘I think that’s something we hope to get to eventually.’”

38. Jamie Crawley, “Dapper Labs Sued on Allegations NBA Top Shot Moments Are Unregistered Securities,” Coindesk, May 14, 2021. https://www.coindesk.com/dapper-labs-sued-on-allegations-nba-top-shot-moments-are-unregistered-securities.

39. “The NFT market bubble has popped and we’ve got the charts to prove it,” Protos.com, June 2, 2021. https://protos.com/nk-market-bubble-popped-crypto-collectibles-are-over.

40. As of June 2021, Bitcoin, Etherium, and even Dogecoin are falling in value as some speculators have begun to suspect that cryptocurrency may ultimately be more of a Ponzi scheme than initially believed, as revealed in the New York state attorney general’s case against Tether, a “stablecoin” exchange supposedly backed by real dollars, but exposed as holding only the equivalent of 3 cents per dollar. See Stephen Diehl, Twitter thread, May 15, 2021. https://twitter.com/smdiehl/ status/1393669812220465162; and Jemima Kelly, “Tether says its reserves are backed by cash to the tune of…2.9%,” May 14, 2021, Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/529eb4e6-796a-4e81-8064-5967bbe3b4d9. Re: the environmental impact, see Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Bitcoin is Bad for the Environment,” The New Yorker, April 21, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/why-bitcoin-is-bad-for-the-environment.

41. Nick Vossbrink, private email correspondence, May 23, 2021.

42. Rick West, “Watching People Opening Trading Cards Online is Actually Big Business,” Chicago Daily Herald, September 4, 2020. https://www.dailyherald.com/business/20200904/watching-people-opening-trading-cards-online-is-actually-big-business.

43. Topps, “Topps’ DigiCon 2020 to Celebrate Collector Fandom Across Sports and Entertainment with First Virtual Convention,” https://www.topps.com/blog/topps-digicon-2020-to-celebrate-collector-fandom-across-sports-and-entertainment-with-first-virtual-convention.html.

44. Over 1 million Oculus Rift headsets were sold in the fourth quarter of 2020 according to Statista. Thomas Alsop, “Virtual reality (VR) headset unit sales worldwide in 4th quarter 2019 and 4th quarter 2020, by device,” February 25, 2021. https://www.statista.com/statistics/987701/vr-unit-sales-brand.

45. “Sega Card-Gen reportedly failed in its location tests in North America, but succeeded in Japan (despite the use of American teams), where it gained sequels,” according to SegaRetro.com. “You stick the cards on top of the cabinet to simulate eleven position (sic) of a real baseball field. The game is played with just the touchscreen and one button that is shaped like a baseball. The cards have stats in Power, Contact, Speed, Throwing and Fielding. The game has both pitching and batting, with the former being simply played with the button, while the former has some more touchscreen elements.” From “Sega Card-Gen MLB 2009,” Segaretro.com, accessed June 2, 2021. https://segaretro.org/Sega_Card-Gen_MLB_2009. To see an example of the game in action, see “Let’s Play Sega Card Gen,” Uploaded by DJDriveus, January 23, 2013, YouTube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c919Q0ypHZk.

46. John Collins, “Topps Keeps Tradition and Nostalgia Alive by Innovating the Trading Card Industry,” https://frontofficesports.com/topps-trading-card-industry.

47. Topps also produced 3-D versions of its 2019 base and update and 2020 base sets.

48. https://www.topps.com/project70.

49. Collins.

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