In a few short weeks, the Panini exclusive will take hold in physical football cards, and Topps will be prevented from making any sets for the first time in many decades. This past year was Topps’ 60th anniversary in Football, and it will also be the last. I am bitter about this in many different ways, especially because the company who is taking over doesnt make the best NFL cards.
Although Topps is out of physical football cards, it does not appear to impact their digital presence outside of a few minor details. We wont be able to get a full picture of the impact until next season starts, but I doubt it will hurt all that much. If anything, it makes Topps Huddle the last piece of Topps Football that will remain in the sport. Not only is that very interesting, but its a lot of pressure to put on a digital brand that has only been fully licensed for 1 year.
For those of you who arent familiar with exclusives, they havent been around forever. Starting in 2009, Topps and Panini signed the first exclusives to be sole provider of licensed cards in the respective sports. Panini got the NBA, Topps got MLB. There are many reasons why this was done, but like we are seeing with the NFL, the company that produced the best cards in the sport, wasnt necessarily the one who got the exclusive.
There are ways to produce unlicensed football cards, something which is an option for companies like Topps and Leaf, who currently makes them today. The issue is that collectors dont value the cards as high as they do licensed ones, and Topps has Huddle, which is a bigger deal than any unlicensed set could be.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Last year, Huddle really showed what was possible with a fully licensed digital NFL card app. They were at or near the top of the rankings for top grossing sports apps each month, and I dont see that changing if they continue operate the way they did before. Despite what the venomous user comments in the articles might say, Huddle had a great year.
The difference between last year and this year is that Topps physical was a road map for many of the different releases used during the year. The base set was modeled after the physical flagship set, there were a lot of physical cards that were brought into the app, and a lot of content was derived from a place that wont be there next year. The question is – will this be a good thing or a bad thing?
To me, it has its pros and its cons. First, the Topps Digital graphic artists that staff each app are talented as hell. They can build some really sleek designs, and in many cases, they can do things the physical guys just cant do. Based on this situation, we can assume that giving them free reign to do as they please with the design of the app is a REALLY good thing. They can focus on building custom content for a completely different type of sports card. They wont need to worry about brand continuity like Bunt does, and they can really go to a place that fits digital better in that way. Kick and SW already have some of this freedom, and they use it very well in most cases.
Being that they are the only thing left for Topps in the NFL, it should be a beacon for some of the collectors who are upset that Panini is taking over. If played the right way, Topps Huddle could be a test of what digital is capable of in that fashion. I think they could do it very well. The target market may need to be shifted a bit, but that isnt hard to do.
The Train That Could Be That Light
Being that there is no source material left to pull from, there might be a lot of pressure for the team to get really creative. Although digitization of a physical card isnt always the easiest thing to do, it gives a place to start the context of a program. Even though I know the digital design team is up to the task, having a second perspective to use as inspiration isnt a bad thing. The physical graphic artists are of a different mindset, and fresh takes are always in short supply. Im not saying the digital team is going to run out of ideas, but you need multiple notes to play a song. Hopefully they will continue to be able to capture the whole spectrum of what is possible, and not settle into a monotone approach.
That being the case, it doesnt mean that stuff like Platinum or Valor go away. They can still build new versions of the sets for 2016, they will just have to start from scratch. As I was saying above, that might not be a bad thing. The digital design team has award winning artists on staff as well, so the perspective lost in physical’s departure can be made up other ways.
Secondly, physical football was a significant portion of the Topps company’s portfolio. Losing that revenue is a big deal, especially in a hobby where the health of the supporting industry isnt what it used to be. To be clear, I dont see anyone closing up shop over the next few years, but its possible that losing football could be a hit to the overall position of the company itself. Again, this shouldnt impact Topps Digital in the short term, but long term is unforeseen. Its worth talking about, even if the apps are self sustaining at this point.
Lastly, Topps’ physical side being in existence helps create opportunities for the digital side, which is still a fledgling in the card industry. I say it is a fledgling because most people in sports still think of trading cards as a physical only product. I understand that digital has come a LONG way over the last few years, but I dont see athletes paying the same attention to digital that they might have paid to physical.
Explaining a sports card to a player’s agent is pretty easy. There is historical context there. On the other hand, explaining a digital sports card to that same agent is not as easy. Im curious to see if the Topps team can continue to build relationships with Panini taking over everything football is on the physical side. There are many more questions that are going to come up, and Topps will need to be prepared. Its DEFINITELY not impossible to grow at all, but it seems to me that its going to be a bit more difficult. Chris, Marc and the team are veterans at this type of thing, so they will find a way. They always do.
In closing, 2016 is going to be a very interesting year for Topps Digital, for many reasons outside of Huddle. Being that Huddle is the most important app to my existence in the digital world, my curiosities lie with many of the things I talked about here. I have confidence that things are going to be amazing, but the questions still linger until they dont.