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MLB Is Ending Its 70-Year Partnership With Baseball Card Manufacturer Topps

A young fans searches through Topps Baseball cards prior to the game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals on Sunday April 28, 2019, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
A young fans searches through Topps Baseball cards prior to the game between the Los Angeles Angels and the Kansas City Royals on Sunday April 28, 2019, at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Conor Donahue says 1987 was the first year he remembers going to the store by himself to buy a 40 cent pack of Topps baseball cards.

Donahue, now an adult and the vice president of publicity for the Washington State Sports Collectors Association, has been collecting baseball cards since he was seven.

Now he says his collection is up to a "few thousand," he told NPR.

All of the memories, history, nostalgia, and sentimentality tied up in these small cards are closely aligned with the brand that made them — Topps, Donahue said.

"Those memories stick with you. And that's pervasive across all collectors. Their first memories of the sport are tied up in these cards and those memories circle around Topps," he said.

Members of the collectors community like Donahue were left reeling this week after news that Major League Baseball is set to end its 70 year trading card partnership with Topps.

The news was like a "huge shockwave," Donahue said.

Fanatics, a sports apparel company, is reportedly expected to be the new partner with MLB to manufacture trading cards.

Representatives for Topps and Fanatics were not immediately available to respond to NPR's request for a comment.

Citing a memo from the Major League Baseball Players Association, ESPN reports an unnamed Fanatics-founded company will be the exclusive licensee "in the baseball card category." This license gives Fanatics the power to manufacture the only cards that can show team logos.

Fanatics wedges into a lucrative business

Collector and Taylor's Baseball Cards and Collectables store owner Ian Taylor, displays a very rare 1965 Topps promotional sample sheet.
Mindy Schauer / MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Collector and Taylor's Baseball Cards and Collectables store owner Ian Taylor, displays a very rare 1965 Topps promotional sample sheet.

The new deal with Fanatics could be hugely lucrative for players and MLB. It's more than 10 times larger than any other deal MLB or players have agreed to, according to ESPN. MLB and the player's association as well as the NFL and NBA players unions will have a stake in the new company.

The news of this deal could be a huge blow for Topps, which was set to soon go public in a deal that valued the company at $1.3 billion.

Topps was founded in 1938 and began producing baseball cards in 1951. It's current deal with MLB as exclusive license holder of league-backed cards extends through 2025.

Topps produced the 1952 Mickey Mantle card that sold for $5.2 million last January. Without baseball, Topps is left mainly with Major League Soccer, according to ESPN.

Though there are a few years left before Topps' license expires, the concept that the company as he's known it for years might be going away, is hard to think about, Donahue said.

"It's kind of hard to put your finger on it. It's like losing a friend. Every year there is a new Topps issue and everyone is looking forward to it," he said.

Collecting cards is a hobby "steeped in tradition and regularity," Donahue said. "For [Topps] to not have a licensed baseball issue, that's going to be a tough pill for a lot of collectors to swallow."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.