BOB: Baseball cards and minor league attendanceby Brian Borawski
August 19, 2009
Topps beats out Upper Deck, gets exclusive deal with MLBYou’d think it was the 1970s. I got started collecting baseball cards probably around 1976 when I was five years old. For the next four years, you were either buying Topps cards or you weren’t collecting because they were the only player in town. Fleer and Donruss entered the fray in 1981 and then in the last 1980s and early 1990s, you had several other companies trying to make a go at the industry. Only one of them stuck and that was Upper Deck. Now, over 30 years later, we're going back to one card company because Major League Baseball made the Topps Company its exclusive trading card maker beginning next year.
Right now, card collecting is in a funk, and both the league and Topps hope that this is the answer. With an over-saturated market that has existed for years, baseball trimmed things down to just Topps and Upper Deck a couple of years ago, and now MLB is going a step further and giving Topps an exclusive deal.
Right now, Topps is owned by a private equity group led by Michael Eisner, the former head of Disney. The ultimate goal is to get kids back into the trading card game; having one card—and not 10 or more as in years past— of your favorite player may make things more appealing. I couldn’t find any details on how much Topps is paying for the exclusivity, and I’d be interested in seeing whether MLB is actually taking a small hit by keeping Upper Deck out. In addition, I'm pretty sure Upper Deck could still produce cards; the company just won't be able to have any team logos in the pictures. Upper Deck might be able to get something done, but it would severely restrict the ability to compete with Topps' exclusive deal.
Minor League Baseball continues to rollWhile Major League Baseball has seen some declines in attendance, Minor League Baseball has been able to come about as close to breaking even as possible. Through the end of July, attendance was down just 2.9 percent, which is just 120 fans per game fewer than last year. That’s impressive when you compound it with the fact that Minor League Baseball is coming off record attendance in 2008. (MLB fell just short of its 2007 record.)
Eight of the 15 leagues have year-over-year gains with the Florida State League leading the way with a 12.5 percent increase. Attendance for the Tampa Bay Rays and the Florida Marlins may be rather lackluster, but the minor league circuit in Florida is showing a spike from the year before. The California League has shown a 4.9 percent increase while the International League, thanks in part to a new stadium in Columbus, Ohio, is up 2.2 percent.
Business entertainment policies stifle extravagant ticket purchasesBeing wined and dined and sitting in the expensive seats used to be one of the perks for those in the business industry. Now, with the government ownership of several financial institution as well as increased scrutiny from their own companies and the Internal Revenue Service, taking advantage of old perks can cost a guy (or woman) their job. This is prevalent at both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field, where executives don’t want to be seen in the expensive seats. I thought the analogy in The New York Times article comparing buying seats behind home plate at a baseball game to an auto executive taking a private jet to testify before Congress was a funny one.
What we could see in baseball this year is less of a downturn in attendance, but more of a bigger shortfall in the profit department as well as a more severe downturn in revenue, because several teams are discounting tickets and the seats being sold are the less expensive ones. We probably won’t get an idea as to the end affect of this until free agent season when contracts will most likely be down, but you know it’s not going to be good.
Baseball, softball loses to golf for Olympic considerationDespite some concessions and marketing promises from MLB, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) rejected baseball’s bid for reinstatement to the Olympics for the 2016 games. Softball also lost its bid, as did three other sports, while golf and rugby were added. For now, the IOC hasn’t said why baseball wasn’t let back in, but you have to wonder if the World Baseball Classic has anything to do with it. MLB was willing to let major league players into the Olympics under certain circumstances, but the fact the baseball basically created its own tournament may have played a role in the decision.
Brian Borawski is a member of SABR's Business of Baseball Committee and writes about the Detroit Tigers at his own website, TigerBlog. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail.
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