Major League Baseball is announcing this morning that it has signed an exclusive trading card deal with Topps. In an article commenting on the deal, Michael Eisner, who acquired the company two years ago, told the New York Times that the exclusive deal would lead to "redirecting the entire category towards kids." Baseball's executive vice president for business Tim Brosnan also mentioned how important it was to get kids back into the game.
While it's nice to say that the industry needs kids and it certainly helps, bringing it back to any level that resembles the $1 billion business it once was in the early 90s from the less than $200 million industry it is today, actually requires a bigger buy-in from grown-ups.
If you go back to when things were exploding, kids were certainly in the game. I was one of them. But if you ask any industry insider who drove the business, it was the 25- to 35-year-olds who were spending huge money at card shows hoping to cash in on the next greatest speculative investment of the rookie card.
Sports trading cards is one of those deceptive businesses that needs to be lumped into the same category as video games and The Simpsons. Why did Nintendo's Wii sell like crazy? Sure, it was for the kids. But anyone at Nintendo would tell you that they were suffering because they geared too much of their business towards kids, while the numbers told them that the average video gamer was somewhere between 30 and 33 years old. The Wii was successful not because many parents bought it for their kids. It was successful because guys with steady jobs and and full beards got on these lines (I saw it with my own two eyes) to pick up a console for themselves.
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It's the same thing with The Simpsons. On the surface, it's a cartoon for kids. But anyone who watches knows that's not true. What drives ratings and advertising dollars is the fact that the average viewer is about three times older than Bart, who is still 10 years old.
One would think that the card business would be driven by children because it once was. But that was when packs were cheap and companies didn't pay millions to baseball or the union in guarantees and royalties. Today, it's impossible to be driven by children because the high margin cards -- where a company like Topps can really make its money back -- are only going to be bought regularly by adults for themselves.
I hope Michael Eisner and Baseball are mentioning the kids line because it's just a nice thing to say and it truthfully does help the marketing of the sport. But I hope they really know that true recovery in the card business won't come from little Johnny. It will come when Johnny's father wants to crack open packs for himself again.
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