Sunday, July 24, 2005

Not so long ago, baseball cards were the sun of the sports memorabilia universe. Kids couldn’t get enough of them. Grownups treated them like shares of Microsoft, with hot-blooded rookie card speculation forming sort of an early version of day trading. Hotel ballrooms from coast to coast were booked with card conventions.

Those days are gone, left in the wreckage of a baseball card crash that in the last month has claimed Fleer and Donruss as players in the industry.

Both companies were major pioneers, helping to break a 30-year monopoly held by Topps Corp. and usher in an expansive new era in collecting that saw the introduction of holograms and bits of game-used jerseys and bats in card packs. But a perfect storm involving an oversupply of card releases, out-of-sync pricing at retail and flagging fan demand prompted a $1.2 billion industry in its go-go days of the early ‘90s to collapse to less than $270 million in projected revenues this year.

The downbeat figures mark another dip in a wild roller-coaster ride that saw collector interest plummet after the 1994 players’ strike only to rise briefly to a new froth in 1999 with the Hall of Fame inductions of Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount.

With the card industry in tatters, Fleer Corp. fell $33 million into debt, declared bankruptcy and had its assets purchased by Upper Deck Co. And last week, the Major League Baseball Players Association, which licenses the production of big league baseball cards, gave new contracts to just Upper Deck and Topps in the hope of sharply reducing marketplace clutter and reviving interest in perhaps the most classically American of hobbies.

Limits will be placed on how many different sets of cards each company releases per year, though the specific numbers have not been finalized.

“There’s been simply way too much high-end, short-run product out there, all chasing the same customers,” said Evan Kaplan, the union’s director for trading cards and collectibles. “Not enough is being done to broaden the base of collectors and engage kids back into baseball cards. The idea of just going forward with two companies is to halt the decline, clean up the market and really move forward in an aggressive and organized fashion.”

Though the need for a back-to-basics strategy and an end to the wanton mass production of cards was universally acknowledged within the industry, most major companies still expressed shock at the move. Donruss executives released a terse statement noting its “love [of] being a part of this industry.” Unscientific polls conducted last week showed a split opinion among baseball card collectors over losing Donruss.

Cynics might argue baseball cards now are an anachronism in an age when the Internet, video games and cable TV serve the role of introducing players to fans and delineating statistical records. And it certainly doesn’t help when card packs routinely exceed $3 each, 10 times the cost of 25 years ago. But the union, Topps and Upper Deck are uniting under the opposite argument and aim to see baseball cards return as an important, low-tech tool to help young fans connect with the game.

Such has been the case recently in football and basketball, shown most fully by the collector frenzies surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James and several other young stars. The same situation is about to occur with hockey phenom Sidney Crosby, who soon will be drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And with baseball as a whole continuing to post major gains in overall revenue and general fan interest, card companies see no reason why a revival cannot happen within that sport.

Topps, Upper Deck and the union, however, have agreed to promote young stars in a much more rational fashion. Beginning next year, the card companies will not include any players in their sets until they reach the major leagues. The move will end a long run of speculative issues for seemingly can’t-miss prospects who never cracked a big league roster.

“Baseball cards are such a specific and powerful part of pop culture with a base that is still very interested in collecting, so we believe there is a major opportunity going forward,” said Kerri Stockholm, Upper Deck senior marketing manager. “We’ve done some strategic things already in the youth space, such as our sponsorships with Little League. There’s certainly going to be more of that from my end, things that make the kids a big, big focus.”

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