Aug 7, 2009

John Hughes and contractual Monoply

I'm sure you've heard by now that director John Hughes has passed away. He was the genius behind movies like "The Breakfast Club," "Pretty in Pink," "Sixteen Candles," "Ferris Bueller," and many more 80's movies that not only hit home with teens (and those just about to be teens and those who had just come through theirs), but were also snapshots of how we WANTED life to be - the dork gets the girl, the girl gets her guy, and in almost every movie we learn that in some ways, we're all actually pretty similar. Jocks, preps, nerds, popular kids and outcasts ultimately share many traits that are hidden by the labels and stereotypes we, ourselves, put on each other - especially as teens.

Even though the movies are quintessential 80's, they are timeless. I could pop in the DVD of "Breakfast Club" and watch it with my son, and it would still be as relevant (maybe not the music, maybe not the styles) as it was when I was his age. I suppose that while Hughes was showing us how we are, he may have also been showing us how we would most likely always be. Rest in Peace, Mr. Hughes.

"Contractual Monopoly" - if that's not a phrase, then let it be said I coined it here, though I'm sure I could Google it were I so inclined. What am I talking about? Baseball cards, of course. Back in the early 80's, a small company called Fleer took Topps (the only company that was 'allowed'' to make cards featuring the actual team logos) to court over monopolistic practices. They won, and soon card companies popped up like online web sites did during the dot-com era. Competition was everywhere. Some say that was good, some say it was bad, for collecting. Where I come from, competition is ALWAYS a good thing.

Many collectors became disenfranchised with the hobby as the years went on, however. They complain of bad photos, stupid gimmicks, you name it, and say the hobby lost its focus. Do train collectors, Beanie baby collectors, teddy bear collectors, stamp collectors, currency collectors, ad naseum, feel that way about their own hobbies? I have no idea. And, I digress. Basically, though, they also complain about having too many sets to try to collect, too MUCH choice, not enough creativity in what was being offered, and in some sets, very shoddy photography and worksmanship - not to mention outright fraud in some cases of player auto's etc.

With the stroke of a pen (or ten or twelve, which will eventually end up as fodder in future "ink'd deals" sets, I'm sure), Topps and the MLB signed a deal once again giving the company exclusive rights to use MLB logos on cards from 2010 into the foreseeable future. Many card collectors are loving it. Many are hating it. And some collectors are still trying to figure how it will affect them at all.

I have two huge issues with the deal:

First, we have taken a 30-year step backward. Once again, Topps has managed to put themselves in a monopolistic position. I can only imagine this will get challenged in court. Supposedly, the argument is akin to the deal Reebok (or whomever) signed with the NFL for shoes. Here's my problem: it is not the same thing. If the cards were being supplied only *TO* the MLB, then sure, they could pick they wanted. Much like bats, helmets, cleats, EQUIPMENT, or heck, beverages, whatever. That is a different type of agreement. Baseball cards, any trading cards, are NOT the property of or the exclusive use of the MLB. in fact, I would venture many MLB-connected folks probably aren't even collectors. If the only place a person could buy cards was through the stadiums or through the team sites, then sure, ink the deal, we're done here. But that is not how it works. Evidently, hockey and maybe even the NFL for all I know have already inked similar deals. I don't collect those, so I dont pay attention. If so, those are also contractual monopolies. The collectors and fans should be pissed as hell at this move.

Will this move slim down the number of choices? Of course. Will this end the confusion of card collecting? Not even close. Take a look through a baseball card almanac. THOUSANDS of pages dedicated not only to the big brands, but also to all the goofy oddball brands that were around for as long as Topps has been. And why were there oddball brands? Because of the monopoly. We will see a return of the oddball cards, which will not only NOT clarify collecting confusion, but will actually ADD to it. Then again, I loves me some oddball cards, so as a collector, maybe seeing Topps shoot themselves in the foot is a good thing after all.

Secondly, an argument is being made by several collectors and fellow bloggers that the quality will rise now that there is no competition. I disagree. If only one company makes cars and they make crappy cars, they will always make crappy cars. Why? There is no competition to drive them to improve. Frankly, does any collector remember what kind of crap Topp was putting out UNTIL Upper Deck and Fleer came out with cards that blew Topps out of the water!? Yeah, Topps was on the slippery slope to suckdom until then. And, wasn't Topps recently about to be swallowed up by Upper Deck and everyone cried and boo-hooed because that would be then end of competition in the hobby? Yet, now, many of those same people applaud the contractual monopolistic move by Topps? How is that different? How is that going to give Topps ANY incentive to get better?

Topps just found their golden ticket to mediocrity, and I hate the fact that if I am going to continue to collect cards, I am forced to ride the only train in town.

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