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The Topps Trading Card Saga is an Episode of Showtime’s ‘Billions’

The announcement that Topps will be replaced by Fanatics for licensed baseball cards is giving off strong ‘Billions’ vibes.

Topps Fanatics MLB Cards
Photo: Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

On Thursday, August 19, 2021, Major League Baseball and the MLBPA announced that they were ending their partnership with Topps for licensed trading cards. Topps has been the exclusive license holder since 2009 and will remain so through 2025 when their current agreement ends. This is all incredible news on its own, but I can’t help but feel my pop culture spidey senses tingle. This whole thing feels like an episode of Billions, and I can’t help but feel like Topps is getting Axelrod-ed. Some context.

Topps: Baseball Card Juggernaut

Topps released its first baseball cards in 1951. That initial batch was playing cards rather than trading cards, where you had 52 card decks and it allowed you to play card baseball. Basically, they invented Pokemon. In 1952, the company rolled out the standard for what we know today, the annual set of trading cards. Topps has been a privately held company since 2007, but in April 2021 they announced their intention to form a SPAC with Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corporation II (MUDS). That was evaluated at $1.3 billion. That’s where things get a bit shady.

Fanatics Over Topps — Why, MLB?

The trading card business is absolutely booming. The COVID-19 pandemic drove the popularity of NFTs and other digital collectibles, but trading cards exploded too. The costs to get cards graded have soared, and despite that, the demand still exists. On top of that secondary market action, Topps makes a lot of money for MLB and the MLBPA through their deals. The MLBPA received $18.7 million in 2019 and $20 million in 2020, per the U.S. Labor Dept. MLB clearly wants an even bigger piece of the pie, so they may have set a series of events in motion to achieve just that.

Financials and Fanatics

Fanatics is a big company, recently valued at $18 billion after a recent investment round. In 2017, MLB and NFL invested in the company and thus hold equity. As the evaluation goes up, so too does their profits. In a way, MLB played a part in awarding itself, via Fanatics, its next trading card contract. How are they going to have the infrastructure in place over at Fanatics though? Why not buy Topps? As mentioned above, Topps was in the process of going public again. Was is the operative word there, because not 24 hours after the MLB-Fanatics announcement came an announcement from MUDS that the SPAC with Topps “has been terminated by mutual agreement.”

Sure, mutual. No one is going to want to get in bed with Topps. They are a lame duck in baseball and unlikely to muscle out Fanatics in other sports. Fanatics could look to swoop in and buy Topps for pennies on the dollar, get back all of the production, infrastructure, and the rights to IP that fans have come to expect over the years.

In summary, I think what may have happened was this: Fanatics attempted to acquire Topps, Topps said “naw, all gucci.” Scorned, Fanatics went full bore into plot mode waiting for the perfect moment to make their announcement with MLB to cripple Topps’ prospects as a publicly traded company. Now Fanatics will come back with an offer 1/5 of what they previously made to acquire Topps. And MLB moves from getting a fee to a chunk of the whole operation. Devious, but effective.

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Schwartzy is a DILF and (participation) trophy husband. More Splenda Daddy than Sugar. I do the twitter, hit me up! @drschwa_96

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