Once upon a time, trading cards were meant to be touched, flipped, put into the spokes of bicycles and, of course, traded among friends.
Then came another once upon a time when trading cards were purchased with the intent of putting them into safety deposit boxes to be used for future financial purposes.
At one point in the 1990s, sales in the trading card industry topped $1 billion, with some 4,500 card shops in the United States. A decade later, sales were hovering around $330 million and nearly three-fourths of the stores had closed, according to industry analysts.
The industry has since shed many companies that flooded the market and drove down fun and value, leaving the best—and iconic—ones standing. It has also reinvented itself, moving into digital cards, offering apps and seeking ways for kids to actually enjoy their cards not just with friends but with parents who see trading cards as a special way to connect with their sons and daughters.
The Topps Co., founded in 1938 (and currently owned by former Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner and Madison Dearborn Partners), is a prime example of a trading card company that evokes the history of sports, works to connect with consumers today and seeks ways to build the category for the future. Along with its Bowman division, its roster of sports alliances include Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball, the NFL, Major League Soccer, English Premier League, Bundesliga, Indian Premier League, WWE and UFC.
Among its new products for 2014 is the Archives Collection, the initial release of which offers boxed sets of memorabilia (including hats, T-shirts, pins, pennants, patches and a wax pack of cards) from, respectively, the 1974 Oakland A’s, 1977 New York Yankees, 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, 1984 Chicago Cubs, 1984 Detroit Tigers, 1986 New York Mets and 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers. Other products that combine the past with the present include an app where people can download virtual cards to their devices, then collect and trade them.
Here, Zvee Geffen, brand manager at Topps for MLB, MLS and EPL, talks about connecting past traditions with digital and other new media options, working with Bloomberg Sports to activate statistics and analytics and the art and sport of card collecting.
What are the challenges of maintaining the history and tradition of Topps and its products but growing your consumer base by using social media and other elements that are relatively new to the industry?
The most delicate balance we deal with is keeping the traditionalist card collectors happy while trying to grow the consumer base and appeal to a younger market. I feel that our Major League Soccer release is a good example. When you look at the release and what’s in the product, and granted it is on a smaller scale, we have advanced analytics on the card back, which we get from Bloomberg Sports. We’ve seen some secondary research that suggests the younger age groups, 12-24, are very interested in Major League Soccer, and that advanced analytics appeal to that demographic. It provides more insight into the game.
How do these stats differ from those that have traditionally been on the backs of cards?
Statistics always have been part of baseball cards. You would turn your cards over and that’s how you got your information before you could go online and get that education. It was in print in newspapers. Now, that information is readily available with the click of your finger. But we wanted to provide something more to our consumers. So we took it a step farther with Bloomberg Sports and their access to advanced analytics. We can provide great stats such as goal percentages and passing efficiency.
Are you finding that traditional card collectors are willing to embrace digital cards, which you can’t physically hold, or is that more in the realm of attracting new and younger consumers who have grown up with the Internet and cellphones?
As it currently stands, the digital team has done really well with our apps: Topps Bunt [MLB], Topps Kick [NFL] and Topps Huddle [EPL]. Here, it would seem to me that you would be playing the digital games for the sake of playing the games. It’s an experience. I’m pretty confident that traditional collectors still collect the cards because they are cool, but also because they have a value. You could sell them on eBay. You could trade the physical cards with your friends. You could have a collection of autographed cards—with the intent that in the future they would maintain and hopefully increase their value. On the digital side, we haven’t as yet seen any monetary correlation for your digital collection. That’s the primary distinction. They are unique, two different worlds. One is for the experience, one for the investment, to a degree. Again, we have to find a solution that would appeal to both.
How do you see this evolving?
Eventually what you will see in the industry is some sort of tangible product that has a digital tie-in where you can extend the pack-opening experience online. We have tried some of that with limited success but are still looking for the answer. But there is no tangible card tie-in. Those apps exist exclusively in the digital world. I would like to see us find an integration between the two.
When it comes to marketing, trading card companies traditionally have never been in the league with the marketing budgets of General Motors or AT&T. But word-of-mouth has always been strong, so how has the rise of social media impacted the strategy of getting news to consumers and fans?
When you look at cost-effective marketing, social media is at the forefront. Using social media has been a very fruitful way to drum up interest and market to our consumers. They are always looking for behind-the-scenes stuff. They love seeing photos of the production process. They love seeing cards being produced that we look at months before the product release. We do giveaways and all the checklist reveals online. It’s that type of insider information element that appeals on social media. We have a strong following there. Our Twitter account [has more than 74,000 followers]. We have multiple Facebook pages. We have a Bowman Scout Facebook page. A Topps Page. Those are pretty fruitful for us. We will continue to build along those lines because it is cost-effective and impactful at the same time.
Baseball cards always seemed to have the right stats and the right amount of stats, so how do you now compile interesting stats but not overload consumers with too many numbers?
There is a line and you can’t go too far. We certainly don’t want to alienate anyone. Our traditional fan base is very passionate about collecting and they are not looking for us to reinvent the wheel. That’s a primary difference between our Topps Baseball brands and our Bowman Baseball brands. The Bowman brands are really targeted toward the prospectors and collectors who are interested in early rookies, the draft picks who are coming right out of high school, getting in on the ground floor with those athletes.
Where do you see the biggest differentiation between the two?
If you try to split up those collectors vs. our traditional Topps collectors, with Topps brands being more Hall of Famers, All-Stars, veterans, you see a little difference in the collector in the sense of what they are looking for. The Bowman collectors are more interested in those advanced analytics because they are students of the game and they are looking for ways to quantify and to understand how Prospect X differs from Prospect Y. Any information you can give them along those lines they are going to take and use. That’s a discussion point and an educational tool for them moving forward. So if you can quantify, for example, a defensive metric on the back of a card, a hitting efficiency or a spray chart, you can potentially see success doing so on the back of a Bowman card with less push-back than you would necessarily revamping all of our Topps card backs.
The Archives Collection is relatively new, but what feedback have you been getting?
It has been good. I think that across a number of our products we are trying to find a balance among appealing to the traditional collector who is collecting now for the autographs and memorabilia pieces contained in the cards, the set-builders and the younger consumers who are not necessarily collecting for the autographs or memorabilia pieces but likes the cards of his favorite team or players and likes beautiful looking cards. That’s the balance we try to find in all of our products, except for the super high end. We don’t tell ourselves that Five Star Football, for example, which retails for $550 a box and you only get six cards, that someone would build a base set of Five Star Football. It would be exorbitantly expensive. But for some of our products, which retail for $80 a box, $100 a box, you could build the sets or collect your favorite players with limited investment.
Are you finding that with MLS cards, which are in the second year, soccer fans are discovering the cards and are excited about collecting and trading them the way baseball fans did in the 1950s and ‘60s?
Yes. Optimistically, we would like to see that wave coming. The feedback we have gotten so far regarding Major League Soccer has been very positive. This is not a consumer base that is accustomed to collecting cards. So we still have some work to do in terms of appealing to those consumers and letting them know that a sports trading card and a collectible market is out there. A large piece of this is an educational tool to make people aware that we are producing Major League Soccer cards. Once we get there, and more people are aware, you’ll see the excitement come with it.
Can you see it following the same road where people eventually will say, I have Landon Donovan’s Topps MLS rookie card or a Clint Dempsey autographed card?
I do see Major League Soccer taking on some legs. The growth of Major League Soccer as a league and soccer as a sport are unparalleled in North America over the last decade and we have developed a product that we know soccer fans of all levels will enjoy collecting. It attracts some demographics that are very appealing, and we are looking to become more prominent in those target areas. People will want to have the first card of their favorite soccer players. I don’t know if we are talking value on the level of Mickey Mantle. But when you are looking at the collectible market, so many things can become valuable. A rookie card, the first card with a certain brand. On the Bowman side, it might be the first Chrome card for a player. There are niches that create value within each product and within each sport. For us, it’s about finding those niches and making them available to consumers. With the soccer product we are in constant contact with Major League Soccer and SUM [Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm for MLS], and with team representatives.
Part of the fun back in the day was getting that square of gum with the cards, which ultimately was stopped. It’s interesting that Topps has a First Pitch 2014 product that includes Bazooka gum, as well as the opportunity to find a Golden Ticket to win a year’s supply Bazooka Bubble Gum.
That’s just part of the fascinating combination of items that Topps has to offer.
Do people tell you that they miss the gum?
I made the mistake recently of eating a piece of gum from 2006. I still remember the taste.
Is there a pecking order of sports when it comes to collecting cards?
If you are looking at sheer volume, and that correlates to popularity, our order is basically baseball, football, MLS. But if you are looking at areas for growth, football is rising so rapidly, which is not a surprise considering the growth of the NFL over the past 20 years. The football business is doing very well. With Major League Soccer, this is our second year of a multiyear deal. You will see growth there, particularly as we head into the World Cup. Soccer growth in this country has been steady but it does peak during World Cup years. We will see that this summer and then will try to capitalize on it during the latter half of the year.
Would you say that moving forward, as was in the past, Topps will be big on MLB?
Absolutely; that’s the bread-and-butter for us. We take that license extremely seriously. That’s our workhouse, and we continue to release brands, innovate and be the leader in Major League Baseball trading cards.
This interview was reprinted with permission of NYSportsJournalism.com.