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Topps Closing in on a Deal with Bonds

by Paul Angilly
December 15, 2004

After declining to sign the Major League Baseball Players Association group licensing agreement, new 700-HR club member Barry Bonds did not appear in any baseball card sets released during the 2004 calendar year. But the Topps Company recently announced it has signed a deal to get him back into its sets not only for the coming season, but on a specially-made 2004 card as well.

According to a report at Beckett.com, Topps will offer a 2004 Topps Traded Bonds card through an exclusive hobby store promotion within the next few weeks. Topps has indicated that details will be announced soon. It will be numbered as the last card in the 2004 Topps Traded set (card number T221).

Also expected by the end of the month, Bonds will have a base card in the 2004 Bowman Heritage set and will sign a limited number of original, previously-issued Bowman Chrome cards for insertion with the new 2004 Bowman Sterling set.

The deal also grants Topps exclusive rights among MLB trading card manufacturers for autographed cards, game-used memorabilia cards and the use of Bonds’ image on packaging and advertising.

Beckett.com reports that the deal is good for two years and that some speculation suggests it cost Topps between $1 million and $2 million.

Now with 703 career home runs, Bonds is expected -- barring injury, other health issues or steroid-related disciplinary action -- to pass Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career homers early in the 2006 season. The new deal should put Topps in a position to be the only company able to issue cards commemorating that event until at least 2007.

Under the MLBPA’s group licensing agreement, each player receives a percentage of the MLBPA’s total licensing revenues, with the union charging fees to card companies and other memorabilia makers in exchange for permission to use the players’ likenesses and names. By not signing the agreement (which nearly every player does), Bonds was free to negotiate his own deal.

Topps is the only card company that negotiates individual deals with players, rather than signing a group deal with the MLBPA, putting it in a unique position in terms of being able to add Bonds to its base sets.

Bonds did not have a base card in the 2004 Topps set, released in November 2003, but he did appear in two insert sets: Own the Game and Hobby Masters.

Bonds had base-set cards and assorted inserts included with five other 2004 card sets that were released late in 2003: Donruss, Leaf, Playoff Prime Cuts, Fleer Ultra and Upper Deck.

Good for busting, or just a bust?: I have to give Topps a great deal of credit for continually trying to come up with new ideas. Other companies keep cranking out sets that all seem the same -- $5 or more per pack, designs emphasizing foil more than photos, lots of game-used and/or autographed inserts of backup catchers or utility infielders and serial-numbered rookie cards of players who’ll be lucky to make it out of AA ball on a regular basis. But Topps tries to make each of its sets stand apart from the others.

The company recently announced plans for a new series of cards it thinks will encourage collectors to bust open packs in a frenzy -- but I think it will end up being simply a bust.

The set, called "Pack Wars," is based upon a gambling game hobbyists have played for years at card shows or card shops. In the traditional game, two or more (usually at least four or more) collectors all purchase a single pack of a certain product together. After opening the packs, the collector who pulls the best card based upon a previously agreed-upon criteria wins the contents of all the packs.

For instance, participants might all buy packs of 2005 Topps series 1, with the winner being the person who pulls a card of the player with the most career home runs, or the highest 2004 batting average; or it might be the most expensive card in an agreed-upon price guide, or the highest card number. Whoever pulls the best card would get all the cards from everyone participating, including any valuable inserts.

Here’s how the new Topps product works: Two collectors together purchase one pack ($20 suggested retail price). Inside the pack they’ll find two "Game Packs" (three cards in each) and one "Prize Pack," which goes to the winner. They then play a statistics-based game matching up one card at a time, and whoever wins the best of three rounds takes the prize pack.

Inside the prize pack will be one memorabilia or autograph card, including: cut signatures (from players such as Jackie Jensen or Joe Cronin), autographs (from Aaron Boone and Alex Rodriguez, among others), autographed relics (Carlos Beltran, Miguel Cabrera, etc.) and relics (Albert Pujols, Sammy Sosa and others).

There are 175 different cards in the base set (found in the game packs), with a foil parallel numbered to 125. Each box also includes one of 25 different MLB Collector Chips, which appropriately enough look like gambling chips, available in four versions numbered to 499, 99, 25 or 1. The set is due out on Feb. 14.

While this new product may sound like a good idea to some, to many others it will probably seem to be encouraging gambling -- which it does, and with a product (baseball cards) traditionally viewed as being for kids.

Perhaps more important for most hobbyists (who, it should be added, are mostly adults these days), is that based upon the checklist and photos I looked at, $20 seems to be a pretty high price for what you’re likely to get out of any given pack. Certainly a select few of the prize cards look good and are likely to be worth much more than $20, but it appears that the majority will be the type commonly found in large bins with price tags of $5 or less. And the base cards aren’t much to look at, either.

So even if you just buy packs for yourself without playing the game, you’re still taking a gamble and you’ll most likely lose.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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