The Alternative to Collecting Topps

These cards might lack team logos, but they are well-designed and attractive and are representative of the 2013 Panini Prizm set.

You don't have to collect Topps to get new Braves baseball cards. A look at unlicensed cards and 2013 Panini Prizm baseball.

A lack of competition.

You don’t have to collect Topps to collect new baseball cards. There are two major licenses needed to produce a fully licensed card. The first gives the manufacturer to right to use the image of any union player. This is the Major League Baseball Player’s Association (MLBPA) license. The second license allows a manufacturer to use the logos and uniforms for all of the major league teams on cards. This is the Major League Baseball Properties (MLBP) license. Currently, MLBP has made the decision to license a single card company to produce baseball cards. That company is Topps.

MLBP and Topps have done their absolute best to justify the de facto monopoly they have conspired to create. It’s obvious why Topps wants a monopoly. What business wouldn’t prefer to operate alone in its chosen market? It’s harder to understand why MLBP would want or allow a monopoly. Monopolies almost never work in the interest of the consumer. Major League Baseball itself operates a monopoly, originally granted by the Supreme Court and later codified into law with very specific exemptions from anti-trust law granted by Congress in 1998. I’ve often thought that since they operate without competition, they are unable to understand the benefits. I don’t think that’s the answer though.

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Both MLBP and Topps give regular lip service to the benefits of the exclusive license. They claim they have done it to reduce confusion in the marketplace. (Read “reduce confusion” as “limiting choice”.) They claim they have done it to bring children back to the hobby. (Read “bring children back to the hobby” as “a quest doomed to fail”.) They claim they have done it to restore the hobby to its previous prominence in the marketplace. (Read “restore the hobby to its previous prominence” as “deluded attempts to recapture past glories”.) Topps apologists in the collecting community defend the monopoly out of either selfishness (I don’t collect anything but Topps so why should I care) or stupidity (typically brought about by an ignorance of the history of the hobby). The monopoly exists for one simple reason: Topps has paid MLBP for it.

A lot of us believe there are too many products in the marketplace, but that should be for the marketplace to sort out. The hobby will never return to its previous prominence. The rise of the baseball card market started in the early 80s and it was a direct result of the competition that Topps faced starting in 1981. The competition led to numerous innovations that benefited collectors greatly. Still, the largest money making period was essentially a bubble. Blinded by the ever-increasing prices of vintage cards, people bought up tons of unopened material by the ton thinking they were an investment. The decline that began in the mid 90s was inevitable. The problem wasn’t competition, it was people who had no interest in baseball cards but looked at them as nothing more than an opportunity to make money. There was no appreciation of the beauty and the history of the cards themselves. They were just an opportunity to make money.

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Unfortunately, Topps is now run by people who lack the same appreciation for baseball cards. Every decision is made by what they think is best to make money in the short term. There’s no interest in the long term health of the hobby. There’s no interest in true innovation that brings in new collectors. The core collectors, the ones who have stood by the hobby year after year through all of the ups and downs, are now considered irrelevant relics. Topps new exclusive license with MLBP lasts through 2020. These will be the darkest days the hobby has yet seen.

The anatomy of an unlicensed product.

Of course, a card manufacturer doesn’t need a MLBP license to produce baseball cards. Any manufacturer with a MLBPA license willing to eliminate logos from their product designs and airbrush away MLBP copyrighted material out of the photos can produce baseball cards. (Actually, a manufacturer could also sign players to individual contracts and produce cards of those players.) Unlicensed sets continued to be produced after Topps was originally granted their MLBP exclusive before the 2010 collecting year. Unfortunately, none of the sets have been a massive success. Most collectors, myself included, have always been a little biased against cards without team logos and heavy airbrushing,

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The exclusive Topps MLBP license took effect on January 1, 2010. Upper Deck released two higher end “2009” products in early 2010 with little to nothing done to hide any logos on the uniforms. As a result, they were sued by Topps and MLBP. While the lawsuit continued, Upper Deck attempted to continue to produce their regular set despite the lack of a license. The set was a typical Upper Deck base set except that there were no logos featured on the design. Further, all of the photographs were taken from odd angles so that team logos were only partially visible. It was a cheeky attempt to get around licensing restrictions. They lost the lawsuit and agreed to scrap their existing baseball card plans. They were, however, allowed to sell off their remaining stock of 2010 product. So, ironically, Upper Deck’s first attempt at an unlicensed product is now considered a licensed product.

Upper Deck started including baseball cards again with their 2011 and 2012 Goodwin Champions set. They’ve also released a few other baseball card sets, mostly geared towards the high end. The baseball cards in these sets were of the typical unlicensed variety in that any hint of trademarked or copyrighted material was not included. (They also lacked any current players since they lacked a license from the MLBPA as well.) It was announced recently that Upper Deck had acquired a new license from the MLBPA and will return to producing baseball cards later this year with a product named Fleer Retro. Judging from the football product of the same name, it is unlikely this will be the type of product for which set collectors have been hoping.

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Other manufacturers have been producing sets as well. ITG and Leaf have continued to produce sets without a license from MLBP or the MLBPA. Their sets have been geared towards either retired players or draft picks. Panini produces sets of current players, but none have captured the mass attention of collectors. Yet.

The Braves of 2012 Panini Prizm.

A recent product from Panini seems to be getting a lot of attention. Is it a result of the quality of the set, or is it related to the general disgruntlement collectors have with Topps? I suspect that it’s a little of both. I don’t follow football or basketball cards so I haven’t been familiar with the Prizm brand. Ultimately, the set seems to be comparable to Topps finest. The set is small, but not tiny. The cards are printed on thick chromium stock. There are parallels, but not so many that they overwhelm the packs. There are numerous inserts that are far better thought out than most Topps sets. (You can find the complete checklist at baseballcardpedia.com.)

The set certainly isn’t perfect. The altered photos with concealed logos is a little off-putting, especially at first. I’m not sure how they disguised the uniforms, but looking at the Braves cards pictured here, it’s hard to figure out exactly which uniform the player was wearing when the picture was taken. The team names aren’t included on the cards. (Each Braves player is identified as playing for the “Atlanta Baseball Club”. Players for both the Cubs and the White Sox belong to the “Chicago Baseball Club”. Yes, the team names are trademarked and cannot be included on cards produced without a MLBP license.) Most annoying is that Panini claims this is a 2012 set, despite the fact that it was released in April of 2013.

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The 200 card set includes a mixture of current and retired players. For the Braves, the player selection leans towards the obvious. Both of the Uptons are pictured as Braves, and with the strangely disguised uniforms, the cards don’t look any different than those for the other Braves players. The Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman cards are very nice as both look imposing in their photos. Panini selected Kris Medlen and Craig Kimbrel to represent the pitching staff which seems appropriate. (The absence of Brian McCann and Tim Hudson cards is a little surprising.) The set includes two players from the Braves in the rookie subset, and both Andrelton Simmons and Tyler Pastornicky were obvious choices. The retired Braves players include one major surprise. The inclusion of Greg Maddux and Chipper Jones is both obvious and welcome. Who would complain about having another Braves card of either player? The final choice of retired Braves, Deion Sanders, is a bit of a surprise. I like Sanders a lot, but I can think of many more deserving Braves, both retired and current.

The autographs are stickers, but they’re nice since the design does its best to hide the sticker on the card. There are only a few Braves autographs to be found. There haven’t been many Deion Sanders’ autograph cards on eBay, but the ones that have shown up are selling in the twenty to forty dollar range. Julio Teheran’s autograph is both plentiful and affordable. (You can get them for as little as six dollars, shipped.) The best of the autographs featuring a Braves player though is the Justin Upton team USA autograph. The card is serial numbered to just 25 and can generally be bought from 30 to 40 dollars. (Although, one individual paid 80 dollars, which is ridiculous.) I hope to get my hands on one.

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I like the Prizm set more than I anticipated. How much? I’m thinking about purchasing a hobby box and maybe completing the set. I’d like to put a set together the old-fashioned way, but I have no intention of buying a hobby box of any of Topps products. Maybe this will be that set. The cards are attractive and easy to find. The inclusion of parallels, inserts and hits are at rates that can be considered normal. Best of all, the set is gimmick free. I highly recommend this set.

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