Im not sure how many of you are familiar with the NFL and the way the licenses have always been different than the other sports. Have you ever wondered why Michael Jordan or Lebron James never had autograph cards in Panini NBA products? Ever wondered why Ichiro was never in any Topps baseball products? Its because they had signed autograph exclusive deals with other companies that prevented them from signing with everyone.
One of the major differences between the NFL and MLB/NBA is that no player specific exclusives were ever allowed. Now with a changing atmosphere, that may not be the case any more, and you should be quite scared if you are someone who enjoys many of the products that will likely not exist in the same capacity. Lets discuss this.
Current NBA Situation Could Be New NFL Situation
With a new potential exclusive for Panini and the NFL, it is all but assured that exclusive player licenses will be granted around the same time. Here is how that impacts the NBA – a sport where Panini has the exclusive but competes with UD for all basketball products.
Each time the NBA draft rolls around, Panini goes and figures out which players are likely going to be top picks. After that review process is completed, they approach those prospects with exclusive contracts that basically tell a rookie if they want an NBA basketball card, they better sign with Panini. Some dont care and happily sign whatever, others may review and decide based on that specific situation. Every once in a while, you have an exception like Damian Lillard, who chose to sign with Leaf, but those are few and far between.
Currently in the NFL, that isnt allowed to happen, which means that companies like Leaf and UD can sign players to contracts that allow them to participate in their products, but doesnt prevent them from others. These group licensing agreements, or GLAs, are the reason the unlicensed products exist. Every once in a while, you have specific exceptions like Andrew Luck, who signed an exclusive with Press Pass, for all non-NFL products. It didnt exactly go over well, so that was scrapped for future classes. Luck was still able to sign for Topps and Panini because of rules in place.
How does this affect product lines?
With an exclusive, Panini will likely operate the way they do in Basketball, signing enough of the top picks, that UD and Leaf will not be able to support any rookie themed products. They could pretty much cannibalize a class with signing the top QBs, WRs and RBs to exclusives. Exquisite, SPA and most of UD's product line would need drastic new directions, and that is going to make a lot of people upset. Similarly, Leaf will likely not be able to do their pre-draft products the same way, as its likely that Panini will have too many of the top picks under exclusives.
Its also likely that Panini will ink exclusives with current top non-rookie players to further prevent Topps, UD and Leaf from competing in the same capacity they once used to. Players like Luck, Manziel and others who already have Panini authentic deals in place will likely be easy targets for Panini card exclusives as the new spokespeople for their licensing.
This will have a dramatic enough effect on existing products that strategies will need to change or be completely axed. If Panini’s goal is likely to eliminate competition rather than just make money, they will not stop until they have damaged enough for the competition’s product to be junk.
They might not take this approach, which would be good – but that doesnt speak to the situation that Panini has operated under previously. It also doesnt serve their potential goal of further putting competition on the path to extinction. If they just want to make money, they will not waste time with exclusive deals. If they truly want to drive out the other companies, there will be a huge push to sign as many deals as possible. That alone could dictate a hobby wide shift that ripples into many other sports.
Why Doesnt Topps Sign Many Exclusives in Baseball?
Long story short, they dont really need to. Unlike in Basketball and Football, Topps was, is and always will be the best product in town. For lack of a better explanation – they should have gotten an exclusive because no one else really competed other than UD (who had pissed off a lot of the wrong people at the wrong time). Baseball is also a completely different sport that doesnt rely on autograph content the way NBA and NFL do.
Panini's baseball products dont even deserve to be on the same shelf as a Topps product in most cases, which is similar in football as well. As a result, Topps is smart enough to recognize that signing exclusives in MLB is wasting money they dont have a lot of. They also dont have a death wish for the hobby’s market, and have made a decision to let things be unless they are put into a corner. Its just not worth it to them.
Although they recently signed Bryce Harper to an exclusive, that was likely one of two things at play. The rumor is that Harper signed with Topps over an exclusive with Leaf originally because of his desire to have MLB rookie cards. Leaf supposedly offered him a lot of money, but he wanted MLB and he also wanted Topps. This might have been defensive, or it might have been solidification of the above mentioned story. It also just might have been cheap enough to do it, or that Harper’s agent really didnt care.
Obviously, they could have done the same thing with Jose Abreu, but why waste the time and money to get that done. Its not that his Topps cards wont be worth more intrinsically in his White Sox uniform, and its likely better for the hobby overall. Although I doubt that entered their mind, its just the truth.
What Happens if Panini Gets a CLC License?
This is a truly interesting question, as it seems as though this might be coming sooner rather than later. Although UD has the exclusive to produce NCAA themed cards, Panini DESPERATELY needs a piece of the action to really set their plan in motion.
By securing a CLC license, and an NFL exclusive, its basically Panini saying that they will be effectively replacing UD's niche in the hobby with their own, and doing it with many more available resources. Although you might think the CLC license isnt that big of a deal, its a huge deal in just about every sport. College baseball makes for some great prospect themed products when you dont have an MLBP licesnes, and College Basketball is a new genre that makes their NBA license much more attractive to collectors.
It also effectively reduces the value UD has as a company, as they are no longer the only game in town when it comes to college sports. Former president Richard McWilliam’s death opened a lot of doors for new buyers, but the asking price remains high due to the value of their current brand names and licenses – both of which are exclusive to this day. If that changes, you can expect that they are no longer worth as much, especially with a relative 100% loss in rookie football products that make up 80% of UD's calendar.
Can UD still be profitable? Definitely. As profitable? Not a chance. Panini is basically going to run them out of town because they can. Maybe not out of the country, but they arent going to be living as close to the city as they once used to. That isnt good when the company is for sale.
What can we conclude here?
If Panini does get an NFL exclusive, your collecting life will change, and its likely not going to be for the better. Although we might get some improvement in product lines, its clear that the overall ripples may eventually become tidal waves that overturn all boats. Panini is pretty much looking to expand their own venture, but not expand the market from what it looks like. They can eat slices of everyone’s pie with new licenses and exclusives, but it doesnt look like they are going to be making the pie bigger.
With the only choices a collector has being generally inferior to their previous choices, its going to drive people away from buying new cards. It will impact shop owners (who were interestingly a target for improvement that Panini touted years back), and it will also impact manufacturers who are going to fall prey to Panini’s resources baiting the NFL into an exclusive.
If you are a fan of Leaf, UD, Press Pass and SAGE, its likely going to be a drastic shift that could put a few people out on the street. Yes, Panini’s exlcusive has that potential. If the CLC license also comes their way – look out.
If you are a fan of Topps, better start collecting baseball. Topps is not likely going to want to spend money in a sport where large print runs cannot make money – something UD and Leaf really havent ever had to deal with. In order for Topps to stay in football, they need to be able to produce products on a large enough scale to make money. When you have lost the ability to produce products without exclusives or licensing, that’s no longer possible.
Listen, Panini does a great job with social media and networking to understand the people they need to influence, so its likely that will happen. Someone, somehow, will come out and vehemently support the exclusive on a large scale if it happens. Panini will obviously blow the shit up about how great it is, but have no fear, that wont last. Heads will roll, because otherwise the money isnt worth it.
As mentioned above, if the exclusive takes place, your collecting life will change. You need to be prepared and you need to speak out. Tweet @NFLPA, @NFL, @NFLPlayersinc, and anyone you can think of. Tell them how much this means to you. Tell them they are making a big mistake. Make sure they hear your voice, because they might not have made the decision yet, and we need to stop it.