The a-Topps-calypse is upon us: Speculation on the Fanatics takeover of the sports world

A few weeks ago, I purchased one of those “Southside” City Edition Chicago White Sox caps online. I purchased it from the official Chicago White Sox online merchandise store, which, like the online merchandise stores for every other MLB team, and every NFL team, and every NBA team, and every NHL team, and every WNBA team, and so on, is run by Fanatics.

It’s a pretty slick operation. It’s also apparently a behemoth of sports memorabilia, apparel, and even gambling valued at $18 billion with tentacles in every major United States pro league as well as most college programs and many international sports entities. And this week, it made a big splash into the trading card world by negotiating trading card publishing rights with the MLB, NFL, NBA, and each league’s players unions. Or it might just be the MLB, its players union, and the players unions of the other two leagues, or maybe the MLB, the NBA, and all involved players unions but not the NFL itself (yet). And the deals might be exclusive, but it’s not confirmed yet. The reported size of the deals so far suggests Fanatics must certainly be seeking exclusivity.

Whew, did I say splash? I meant tsunami. This move, even with an incomplete picture of the details, makes Panini’s loud 2009 entry into the American sports trading card market look meek by comparison. Assuming the deals all hold up under antitrust scrutiny and other legal challenges, what does this mean?

  • It means that, assuming Fanatics closes the deal with the three leagues as well as their players unions, we’ll instantly have a new industry leader in United States trading cards. These deals won’t take effect until the current deals with Topps and Panini are up, but as things stand right now it’s only a few years before a near-complete Fanatics takeover of the trading card landscape.
  • Assuming these deals are exclusive, it essentially dooms the future prospects of its competitors in the North American market, including Panini and Topps, the latter of which already has had to walk back its big plans to merge with a venture capital firm and take its stock public due to the immense hit to earnings potential brought on by the loss of the MLB license.
  • Speaking of Topps, 2025 would be the first season in 74 years (!) the company does not produce an officially licensed MLB trading card set.

Suddenly, the whole world’s gone topsy-turvy and it seems anything is possible. Could Fanatics, who blew Topps out of the water with their bid for the baseball league and union rights (and apparently got the union to invest in their company as well, which seems fishy to me for a lot of reasons), be preparing a takeover bid to buy Topps outright? Will they also complete deals with the NHL, the MLS, WNBA, NASCAR, PGA and other major North American leagues currently signed to Upper Deck, Topps, and Panini? As I alluded to before, will any of this survive what is sure to be a tidal wave (keeping with the water-based metaphors here) of litigation from the current trading card makers?

I have no firm answers for any of these questions. My hunches tell me that yes, Fanatics will use its considerable wealth and existing close connections with the owners and teams of these other leagues to try to gain some sort of trading card licensing rights with them (exclusive or not) as well, and yes, they will use those same resources to overcome legal challenges, and yes, we will have a monopolized new lineup of trading card sets coming out in the latter half of the 2020s.

I’d also be very surprised if Fanatics, following the Panini model, doesn’t attempt to purchase some of its would-be trading card rivals, including potentially Topps, to leverage those companies’ existing infrastructure, industry experience, and brand-name recognition as they begin this new chapter of their business. Panini was ultimately smart to purchase Donruss and Score, among others, so that their new trading card lineups would have some continuity and following among collectors, even as they endeavored to establish the Panini name as a quality brand (which it obviously was able to with popular new sets like Prizm and Chronicles). They also more or less assimilated the Donruss HQ in Texas, Borg-style, for its own home base.

Will they be successful in any of this? The pockets are deep, the connections are strong, and Fanatics appears well-positioned to bully and buy their way to market dominance.

Will collectors follow? Early reactions from most collectors I’ve seen on social media are pretty negative, and mostly based in sadness that Topps, the brand most collectors knew best from their earliest days, is sunk without its MLB license. But collectors also complain an awful lot about Panini and they continue to buy their products at very high volume.

In a few years when these deals come to fruition and Fanatics starts producing cards, will the market be as hot as it currently is, or will it start to deflate again, leaving Fanatics holding the bag for properties not as valuable as they are at this moment, when they decided to pay 10 times the amount of the existing licensing deals (according to early reports)?

For my part, I’m not really a FAN of this move, pun intended. Panini has been the big dog in the kennel since I started collecting again, and I’ve already written about my love/hate attitude toward them. Fanatics would be even bigger yet, with an even deeper stranglehold on the industry, so any missteps or outright disrespect of collectors on their part would be even tougher for people to protest without leaving the hobby entirely.

That said, I personally don’t buy almost any sealed product, and only buy singles of players and sets that appeal to me. I’ve also recently been spending more time and money on older cards and sets, so maybe, assuming I’m even still collecting at the end of this decade when the takeover happens, it won’t be much more than a blip on my collecting radar as I continue amassing cards of players from past decades, including the years when Topps held the monopoly on the trading card market.

Maybe it won’t be so bad after all?

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