Eventually, the digital revolution comes for everything, even our nostalgic hobbies.
That revolution now includes one of the most nostalgic hobbies of all — baseball cards — which have seen a resurgence in the past few years thanks to a movement into the digital realm. Baseball cards are bringing in big money, especially for Topps, the industry giant who remains on top after decades in business.
This transition to electronic cards has led to a resurgence in the industry even as some fans have spurned them, continuing to collect only physical cards even as the digital market has moved more into offering pricier, premium selections.
This digital revolution has created an incredibly interesting marketplace that attempts to appeal to collectors seasoned and new by offering up snazzier options like instant-reaction digital cards that are created almost in real-time and the gamification of collecting. The digital card makers are attempting to bring in a younger audience into the market even as the sport of baseball itself struggles to do the same.
The history of card collecting
Baseball cards have been around for over a century and have evolved over the years, from the early days of being issued along with tobacco to, by the 1980s, becoming a thriving stand-alone industry with multiple companies vying for market share. Cards have been such a vital part of baseball’s popularity that they’re even the subject of a new exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It was in the 1980s that the baseball card market exploded, going from school kid hobby to big-time business as stalwart company Topps was joined by a wide range of competitors, from Donruss to Fleer to Score to — at the end of the decade — the premium card company Upper Deck.
The 1980’s and early 1990’s were a boon for the baseball card industry.
Image: John Prieto / The Denver Post via Getty Images
I spent the better part of my childhood and early adolescence hanging out in card shops and spending my allowance, birthday money, and cash from mowing lawns buying and trading these cards. I spent hours poring over my haul, checking the cards’ values in price guides, and amassing boxes and binders overstuffed with cards that still reside in my parents’ storage unit to this day.
In the ’80s, the industry turned into a speculation market as collectors young and old emptied their pockets trying to grab the most valuable cards, particularly rookie cards from the hot stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s like José Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Ken Griffey, Jr.
And I was part of that action. While I loved collecting full sets of cards, I also cast aside hundreds of “commons”— cards of average players that were released in abundance — while searching out the cards of superstars.
Prices of cards for the most popular players, especially older cards, on the open market skyrocketed and price guides flooded bookstores, including Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, a monthly price guide magazine put out by statistician James Beckett. A player’s hot streak could send the prices of his cards skyrocketing for a few months, and a slump could bring those prices back down to earth.
But, as with all bubbles, something had to give. In the case of baseball cards, it was a combination of things, including an increasingly flooded market and the 1994 baseball strike that led to the historic cancellation of the World Series and turned fans away from the game in droves — an event that damaged baseball’s standing in America’s cultural landscape far beyond baseball cards.
So those countless boxes and binders of my cards didn’t pay for my college education like I had envisioned. Instead, they just take up space (to my parents’ annoyance), collecting dust in a dark corner.
Dave Jamieson, whose book Mint Condition is perhaps the definitive history of the baseball card industry, also noted other factors that drove collectors away from baseball cards, specifically “video games and Pokémon.”
Whatever the cause, the bubble had burst. And as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium, baseball cards were no longer a hobby pursued by millions, including large swaths of kids, but, rather, the territory of die-hards collectors.
Surviving the bust
After the bust, the card companies went through a series of upheavals — including sales, acquisitions, liquidations, and other types of financial turmoil associated with the bursting of an economic bubble. Fleer was bought by Upper Deck and Donruss by the Italian company Panini.
Meanwhile, in 2007, Topps was sold to former Disney chief Michael Eisner’s The Tornante Company and Madison Dearborn Partners. In 2009, Major League Baseball agreed to a deal with the company making Topps the exclusive baseball card of MLB.
Topps’ current main competitor, Panini America, maintains an agreement with the MLB Players Association allowing Panini to publish cards (physical and digital) featuring MLB players, but they can’t use other MLB copyrights like team names and logos. Upper Deck no longer sells baseball cards.
During the 2000s, the baseball card business expanded to include high-priced, premium offerings aimed at older collectors with deep pockets, like cards that featured game-used uniform swatches, a practice that still continues.
But in 2012, Topps changed the game again, rejuvenating the collecting hobby for the masses.
From cardboard to smartphones
In April 2012, Topps introduced its BUNT app, a digital space for buying, collecting, and trading its card products.. Initially, the BUNT app was geared more towards kids and just giving Topps a digital foothold. But as it evolved, BUNT not only brought a collection element into the digital space, but it gamified that collection, making the experience something more akin to fantasy sports.
Alex Chen, director of digital content strategy for Topps, told me, “Really around 2014 we had the idea of just kind of taking the model of this physical baseball business that Topps has had for the last 50 or so years and then translating that into the digital medium.”
Chen says, as that transition was made, the company wanted to explore “what kind of things can we do digitally that they can’t do physically?”
NEW PRIZE WHEEL CONTENT: 150 Years of Fun! https://t.co/U6nbYvPz5u #BUNT19 pic.twitter.com/b9I1umyEN5
— Topps BUNT (@ToppsBUNT) June 11, 2019
Thus, the fantasy sports aspect: “We added the gameplay where you can take your card collection and play a contest against other users where you score points based on the on-field performance of the players in your collection. And we have leaderboards where you can compete and earn prizes.”
The BUNT app quickly became a success, selling tens of millions of digital packs in its early years and gaining notice from both the collector press and the mainstream media.
In an effort to appeal to collectors of physical cards and help the transition, the BUNT app kept many of the same elements, like special rare inserts and the ability to trade cards in your collection.
But there was pushback. Says Chen of that initial resistance, “Straight off the bat, even some really hardcore baseball collectors [complained], ‘I don’t understand this. Why would anybody pay money for a card that you can’t hold in your hand?’”
But the buy-in from most fans was stronger than the resistance of some. One advantage was physical space, Chen says, as users could amass their entire collection on their phones instead of taking up so much binder and box space. And the app offered immediate access to all collectors for trading, not just the kids down the street I was limited to when I was trading physical cards growing up.
One other advantage? Speed. Physical cards were generally designed and printed up months in advance of release, meaning that companies put out small, updated sets after the season to supplement rookie call-ups and trades. Now, Topps is able to turn those cards around almost immediately thanks to a team of designers and the ability to just drop the new cards on a digital app rather than print them.
Same faces in new places as @bryceharper3 & Machado land a Change of Scenery! https://t.co/GYNVM8wNv9 #BUNT18 // #RingTheBell // #Padres pic.twitter.com/NPsffCk3Ax
— Topps BUNT (@ToppsBUNT) March 12, 2019
2019 Debuts continues with Houston’s Yordan Alvarez! https://t.co/xDskaPGF9e #BUNT19 // #TakeItBack pic.twitter.com/BJP1voxhda
— Topps BUNT (@ToppsBUNT) June 11, 2019
It also makes it a whole lot easier to fix error cards, which always drew attention on the physical card market.
This is now fixed! Thanks to all who brought it to our attention. https://t.co/dCVUFoRDCi
— Topps BUNT (@ToppsBUNT) May 30, 2019
It’s worth noting that baseball cards are hardly Topps’ only output. Over the years, they put out physical cards for a range of other sports, including the NFL, NBA, WWE, various professional soccer leagues, and even big-time non-sports properties like Star Wars. And many of these have also made the transition to successful digital apps like BUNT, including a new Marvel app that launched alongside the theatrical release of Avengers: Endgame.
The success of the digital card has also been good for the physical card market, according to Clay Luraschi, Topps’ Global VP of Product Development. “Because the digital cards are on a different platform, it’s just brought more exposure to trading cards and the Topps name,” he says.
Luraschi also insists that the physical card business is as healthy as it’s ever been, with price points that appeal to collectors of all kinds, from boxes of cards for $20, to hardcore collector items that can cost $25,000. “There’s a little bit of something for everyone,” he says.
Better printing technology also allows for quicker turnaround times on some print offerings, such as with Topps Now. When something momentous happens in a game — for example, three-straight home runs hit by Los Angeles Angels players Tommy LaStella, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani — Topps will create a card for that moment and make it available to buy for a 24-hour window. The physical card is then shipped in a few days, and once that window closes, the card is never offered again. (Topps Now has digital options as well.)
“Now we can deliver you a card in a couple of days that has information from a couple of days’ ago so it’s not taking us a year to commemorate pop culture,” Luraschi says. “We’re able to do it instantaneously and it fits perfectly into the age of instant gratification, immediate consumption.”
And the numbers reflect that. According to Topps, the physical card business has seen double-digit gains in each of the last three years, which has led to an overall doubling of the physical card business over the last four years.
That said, Luraschi says they’re keeping the lessons of the past in mind. “We don’t want to oversupply the market because that was one of the major issues of what happened in the late ’80s, early ’90s,” he says. “If there’s any challenge right now it’s being able to make enough and delivering to the market the right amount to make it a sensible collectible market that people want to keep coming back to.”
Fans still split on the digital evolution
But, as with so many other elements of baseball, the digital evolution of card collecting has fans split, despite its success.
I haven’t collected cards in decades, but the BUNT app got my attention. I’ve poked around it a bit and the gamification aspect is certainly intriguing, as is the freemium option; I could collect these “digital” cards without spending a dime.
It sure LOOKS pretty!
Image: ToPPS Bunt App
But while there’s still that thrill of not knowing exactly what you’re going to get, something is lost in the unveiling process. Simply tapping a phone screen brings a lot less exhilaration than ripping open a pack and flipping through the cards, seeing what players you got, holding onto that hope for the big score until you’ve thumbed through the final card.
While researching this story, I reached out on Twitter, looking for fans who still collected so I could gauge their interest in digital cards versus physical ones. While that’s neither the most scientific method nor the largest sample size, there was still a split.
There were certainly plenty of fans who would steadfastly stick to the physical cards, eschewing the BUNT app and other digital options for a variety of reasons.
My insanity is restricted to the tangible.
— Eric Killian (@BasebAllDayRCs) March 14, 2019
My digital collection is what I call the stuff that I added to my eBay watch list, and then forgot to bid on. That’s about as tech savvy as my collection gets. All analog for this old fart. #DoYouEvenCollectBro?
— Steve M (@SteelCurlin) March 14, 2019
What, people collect #GraphicDesigns?
— Cardboard Chaos 2020 Is Coming… (@CardsFromAttic) March 13, 2019
But I also found collectors from different eras who found themselves drawn to the BUNT app.
One longtime collector I exchanged emails with, George, told me how he had first started collecting in the mid-’70s: “My mother sent me to the local market to get cigarettes for her and my dad. She handed me a dollar and let me keep the change. We were always broke as a family so me getting fifty cents was a fortune. As a huge baseball fan, the packs of 1975 Topps caught my eye and I have been hooked ever since.”
Ironically, George said he mostly stopped collecting during the “wax junk era,” the name collectors use for that period in the late ‘80s through early ‘90s when the hobby spiked. “I stopped collecting because I got married, had kids and re-prioritized,” George told me.
“I still had my old ones and occasionally would spend a couple of bucks here and there at a local card show as a treat, or receive a few packs from the kids as a Christmas or birthday present.”
When it comes to physical cards, George was turned off by the newer issued sets and what he says is the “seemingly inevitable return to the junk wax era as I find collectors back into the mentality of ‘What’s it worth?’” and, instead, has returned to filling in his older sets.
But BUNT definitely appeals to him because, “an avid collector plus free plus being a technogeek is kismet. It definitely doesn’t hold the same appeal for me as the physical cards but I still appreciate them as art, as a collector and as a new pastime that costs me nothing but maybe a half hour at night.”
Like me, George still holds love for physical cards: “None of it really appeals to me OVER physical cards. There really is no comparison to the look, feel, and smell of a physical card, but it is fun as a passing-the-time sort of thing better than Candy Crush.”
Then there’s Ethan Strange, who got into card collecting as a kid in the post-bubble year of 1999, when he received a box of Topps baseball cards for Christmas. From then, he says, he was hooked. He told me via email, “The first check that I wrote in my life was for $6.00 for two packs of cards at my local card store.”
Like millions of kids before him, Strange strayed from collecting cards as he got older and hit high school and college, focusing “on video games and other hobbies.” But when the Bunt app dropped in 2012, he was intrigued.
Strange says that the collecting bug bit him again thanks to the digital options: “Getting into BUNT reinvigorated my love of card collecting. Since BUNT, I’ve gotten back into collecting physical cards. I’ll buy a few packs a month (sometimes a [few packs per] week when a new set drops).”
“Something that I like about digital collecting is that it can be done anywhere,” he adds. “I’ve opened hundreds of packs while at work. I love the trading feature and the sense of community on the app. This feature is great, especially if you don’t have a local card shop.”
Ultimately, it’s those like George and Strange who have helped BUNT become as successful as it has and have contributed to the business growing again on the physical side. But that success also means that those who don’t like the digital operation had better get used to it, because it looks like it’s going to be sticking around.
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