Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2022. MLB trading card partner Fanatics has plans for new rookie card features this season as part of a bigger plan to increase the value of Topps baseball cards for collectors.
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Fanatics made waves in the sports and collectibles industries when it pried the rights to make trading cards for Major League Baseball from incumbent Topps in August 2021, ending a partnership that dated back to 1952. The sports platform company made another huge splash last January when it acquired Topps outright for roughly $500 million.
Now, after releasing its first major Topps set alongside the start of the 2023 MLB season, Fanatics is starting to show how it plans to elevate the trading cards and collectibles space.
“Fanatics is focused on the best experience for the fan, and collectibles is focused on the best collector experience,” said Fanatics Collectibles CEO Mike Mahan. “That means having the most innovative, thoughtful, authentic products possible.”
Mahan, who joined Fanatics in June to lead the company’s trading cards and digital collectibles business after serving as CEO of Dick Clark Productions, said the “the collector experience in 2023 will be the best collector experience ever, and 2024 will be even better.”
That belief is driven from Fanatics Collectibles’ main focus areas so far, Mahan said: educating new collectors and better onboarding them into the hobby, building out the marketing around collectibles, enhancing the existing collector ecosystem and experience, and innovation.
Rookies play a big role in increasing baseball card value
Innovation drove one of the new initiatives Fanatics is adding this year around typically one of the biggest points of excitement, and value, for card collectors: the debut cards of highly touted rookies.
“One of the central questions that we’ve been trying to answer is how do we get cards to really capture the big moments,” Mahan said. “Baseball cards have been about the rookies for so long, so if rookie cards are the biggest things in sports, how do we make the best possible card? How do we bring people closer to that moment?”
That led to the creation of MLB Debut Patches, which Fanatics is touting as the first-ever memorabilia made in partnership with a pro sports league specifically for the inclusion on trading cards. Working with MLB and the MLB Players Association, every player who makes their debut this season will have a patch on their jersey. After the game, the patch will be authenticated and placed directly onto their rookie card in a future Topps set.
MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said that is the sort of the thing that will continue the momentum among collectibles and trading cards.
“It’s that emotional connection that drives the hobby, and brings fans closer to the game,” said Garden, who described himself as an avid baseball card collector. “They want to feel like a part of the game, and what is a better way to do that than to have something that was actually a part of it?”
While the sports trading card industry had seen growth in recent years, the pandemic put the hobby into overdrive. Cards across sports have been selling for record prices, including a $12.6 million sale for a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card, the highest price ever paid for a trading card.
U.S. Google searches for “best sports cards to buy right now” increased by 680% between January 2020 and February 2023, according to data provided to CNBC by online visibility management SaaS platform Semrush. During the same period, average U.S. monthly visits to Topps.com grew by 218.5% to nearly 1.2 million, Semrush data showed.
But even as other collectibles that boomed during the pandemic have fallen out of favor like NFTs and Funko Pops, trading cards have looked to maintain their momentum.
Jeff Owens, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, the largest trade publication covering sports trading cards, said that the resurgence of the hobby was “primarily due to a resurgence in buying and selling during the pandemic and a large group of wealthy investors looking for alternative assets.”
The softening of the economy led a decline in the market of modern cards last year, but values and demand are still “well above” what they were before the pandemic, Owens said, adding that the market for vintage cards like the Mantle rookie card is “very, very strong.”
Owens also pointed to the growth and support of card shows across the U.S. – nearly 1,000 planned for 2023, which is a significant increase compared to previous years.
Mahan said that from Fanatics’ perspective, “it’s a very strong time for the hobby right now.”
The global sports trading card market is valued at $44 billion and is expected to approach $100 billion in 2027, according to data from Verified Market Research.
“We think very firmly that the best days are in front of it; we can’t control the broader economy and like any consumer good there’s some correlation with broader spending but go to any card show or shop right now, this is a very vibrant and healthy marketplace,” Mahan said.
When Topps was considering going public in a SPAC deal that would have valued it at $1.3 billion in April 2021, the company reported that it had record sales of $567 million in 2020, a 23% year-over-year increase. That SPAC deal was later canceled after Fanatics acquired the MLB rights, which ultimately led to Fanatics’ acquisition of the company.
Mahan declined to comment on Topps sales today, but he said that “the business and the industry continues to be in a great, great place.”
What MLB gets from the Topps deal
For MLB, the return of trading cards has also served as a boon, which Garden said has parallels to video games or other ways that the league looks to bring in new fans and turn casual fans into diehards.
Garden noted fans like his son, who is an avid baseball fan but may not know every player on a West Coast team besides their stars. “When these players start to break through nationally, you already know who to look for” based on the rookie cards and other cards in the set, he said.
“The importance of cards in the evolution of fandom I’ve always thought was important,” said Garden, noting that’s how he got into baseball. “But the business hadn’t seen innovation in forever and in many ways, it had gotten harder to collect. … What Fanatics has done so far to innovate the product and support the ecosystem has been nothing short of fantastic.”
While MLB cards remain the crown jewel for Topps, Mahan said that Fanatics is excited for what the future holds not only for baseball cards, but also for the other rights the company holds, which includes the ability to produce NBA and NFL cards in the coming years.
“The good news is trading cards and sports cards have been vibrant for a long time, they’ve mattered for a long time, they’ve been meaningful for a long time,” Mahan said. “It’s a business that has traditionally been cyclical and had its ups and downs. … We’re focused on education, innovation, marketing, and community, and bringing all of those together – given where we sit today with all of these good things yet to come, we feel our best is firmly in front of us.”
Earlier this year, Fanatics hired former Snap global head of content and partnerships Nick Bell to head its new Fanatics Live business, which will focus on building a digital customer shopping experience where you can buy trading cards and other collectibles via curated and personality-driven content and entertainment.
Bell told CNBC that one of the first focuses of this new business division will be around “breaking,” a form of social trading card buying. Similar to a blind raffle, a set number of individuals purchase an entry from a seller — called a “spot” — and the seller then opens an entire case of trading cards live online and allocates each of them. Fanatics would receive a cut of each card sale.
Fanatics raised $700 million in December to bring its valuation to $31 billion, capital that it planned to use on potential merger and acquisition opportunities across its collectibles, betting and gaming businesses, according to CNBC.
The company estimates its revenue for Fanatics, including its Lids segment, will be approximately $8 billion in 2023.
Fanatics is a three-time CNBC Disruptor 50 company, and ranked No. 21 in 2022.