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    Fanatics In the Hobby: Boon or Boondoggle?

    Fanatics In the Hobby: Boon or Boondoggle?
    by Drew Pelto AKA *censored*

    NOTE: the opinions expressed herein are strictly those of the author as a sports card and autograph collector and historian, and are not reflective of any other person, business, or other entity.

    Thursday afternoon, the other shoe dropped. In the midst of a booming economy in the card world on both the industry and hobby sides, sports apparel and collectibles giant Fanatics has bought the rights to large portions of the card production market.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, their move comes as a partnership with the Major League Baseball Players Association, the National Football League Players Association, and the National Basketball Players Association, as well as the NBA and MLB, starting at various points as early as 2023 and as late as 2026. It is not yet known if the NFL is involved, or any other leagues, associations, or athletes.

    Currently valued at close to $18 billion, Fanatics is an absolute giant in the sports world. They own a significant minority share in hat provider Lids, they bought Majestic in 2017 (then the official provider of jerseys to Major League baseball), and purchased the biggest player in autograph and game-used memorabilia in Steiner Sports in June 2019.

    Until this deal, the majority of the card and autograph hobby was a tug-of-war between three parties: Topps, Panini, and Upper Deck. Over the last decade, Topps has controlled baseball, Upper Deck has had hockey, and Panini has had basketball, football, Nascar, college sports, and more recently gained control of the majority of soccer and UFC. A few individual athletes have deals outside of those companies' main sports, but this is where the concentration lies. Recent figures put the valuations of Topps and $1.3 billion, and Panini at $3 billion; current numbers for Upper Deck are not known.

    So... what does this mean for... well... everyone? Collectors, companies, the very existence of the hobby: what is in our future?

    To tell you the truth, I don't know.

    The fact of the matter is two-fold: Fanatics doesn't have a staff that has a deep understanding of card design, production, and markets, and the card companies are up a creek without the big three sports leagues. What Fanatics does understand is marketing, sales, and the value of brand name recognition. Note that they still use the site and branding for Steiner, Autograph Warehouse, Majestic, Lids, and others. NFL Shop, MLB Shop, NBA Shop, and NHL Shop all carry Fanatics logos and site design styles as well. All of these existed well before Fanatics and they are carrying on their logos and names even following their buyouts and mergers.

    Could we see the same happen knowing the brand loyalty and name recognition that come with Topps? With Panini? With Upper Deck?

    If Fanatics merges with or buys out the big three card companies, what actually changes? Sure, there's a different name on its ownership, but so what? If it has the same staff of workers who have created the juggernaut that we're seeing in the card industry right now, how can this be a negative?

    Both Topps and Panini have hinted to various levels that they are for sale. Topps of course announced in April that they were going to be bought by Mudrick Capital (a deal which officially fell apart Friday morning with this announcement and saw Mudrick's stock take a 10% tumble in the final hours of Thursday trading; Mudrick has now lost all of its market gains since its January 2020 start). Meanwhile Business Insider reported that Panini was in talks with a SPAC led by Alex Rodriguez in July. There have been no updates on this potential deal and its present status.

    So if both have weighed potential sales, this could be the perfect storm for some sort of a massive merger.

    A major merger also could bring about a resurrection of discontinued brands. If Fanatics somehow takes over all of these, you could see Michael Jordan in Hoops, National Treasures, Prizm. You could see Upper Deck making a 40th anniversary baseball set in 2029. Donruss baseball with logos. Fleer football. Topps Chrome basketball. Prime hockey featuring Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe.

    Sure, some near-duplicate products might get eliminated, or merged, or have years skipped, upsetting those collectors who focus on specific products. Unfortunately change is inevitable. But the hobby has survived it and will continue to do so.
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    Of course, the fatalist in me realizes that this could very well be the end. Topps, Panini, Upper Deck, all could potentially just disappear with Fanatics controlling it all under their own name and creation of new brands. But considering Fanatics' recent history of scooping up well-known and well-respected names and still using them, I don't see this as being very likely. Instant brand recognition and credibility is gold.

    Personally, I believe Thursday's news is just the start to this story, that many more dominoes will fall between now and 2026-- but not necessarily in a bad way.

    My biggest concern is for the local card shop. Fanatics primarily operates via a direct-to-consumer model. If you can get boxes shipped straight to you, what does this do for card shops? We're already seeing online shops take over, with the likes of Dave & Adam's, Blowout, Steel City, and others dominating in sales with the mom and pop shop in every town scaling back and even closing up. Will this be the final nail in their coffin?

    Change is inevitable. The question is what will those changes be? One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; Fanatics will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new corporate overlords. I'd like to remind them as a trusted collector and media personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to buy into their new products.

    In all seriousness though, the card industry and hobby are in a time of extreme uncertainty with this news. Hold on tight, and let's all hope for the best.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Drew Pelto has spent the past 30 years collecting cards and autographs, and is a veteran of both the hobby and industry side of the collectibles world. He hopes that Topps Heritage will continue, Donruss Retro will be enhanced, and Upper Deck Vintage will be resurrected.
    Last edited by *censored*; 08-21-2021 at 02:56 PM.

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