Topps Dropped: Fanatics strikes deal to become exclusive licensee for MLB cards

Fanatics was founded by Michael Rubin, a co-owner of the 76ers.

ByDan Hajducky Reporter/researcher ESPN logo
Friday, August 20, 2021
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PHILADELPHIA -- Memorabilia leviathan Fanatics, continuing its push into the collecting space, has cemented a deal with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association for the exclusive licenses to produce baseball cards.

Michael Rubin is the founder and executive chairman of Fanatics and a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers.

According to a memo from the MLBPA obtained by ESPN on Thursday, a Fanatics-founded company that has yet to be named will be the exclusive licensee "in the baseball card category" after Panini's and Topps' licenses with the MLBPA expire at the end of 2022.

The deal also includes the National Basketball Players Association and the NFL Players Association, who along with the MLBPA will have equity in this new venture, as will MLB and the NBA, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. (The NBA and NFL union deals with Panini expire at the end of 2025 and 2026, respectively.)

FILE: A group of Topps baseball card packs wait to be given out to fans to celebrate National Baseball Card Day on August 12, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan.
Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The distinction between rights with a players' union and/or a league are notable. For example, Panini, which has an MLBPA license but no MLB license, produces baseball cards but isn't allowed to show MLB team logos. Topps, which has deals with MLB and MLBPA, currently produces baseball cards with players' images and MLB team logos.

MLB's deal with Topps was extended in 2018 and runs through 2025. Topps has been the exclusive licensee of MLB-backed baseball cards since 2009. It was also recently announced that Fanatics-backed Candy Digital has the exclusive MLB NFT rights.

According to the memo, Fanatics' deal with MLB and the MLBPA is more than 10 times larger than any the union has ever agreed to. The memo also states that the deal, when combined with other recent deals, is expected to generate roughly $2 billion by 2045.

Per the MLBPA's annual report, Topps paid the MLBPA $20.4 million in 2020 licensing fees, the largest sum from any MLBPA licensee and up roughly $1.67 million from 2019.

The Fanatics deal is a blow to card giant Topps, which first produced baseball cards in 1951, packed with taffy and not gum, as would become commonplace. Topps, founded in 1938 and long a public company, went private in 2007 with a nearly $400 million deal, spearheaded by Michael Eisner's Tornante Co. and Madison Dearborn Partners, LLC.

In April, after sales hit $460 million in 2019 and $567 in 2020, Topps announced it was going public again with a special purpose acquisitions company (SPAC) merger involving Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corp. II, a behemoth accord that vaulted Topps to a $1.3 billion valuation.

Without baseball, its flagship sport, Topps will have only soccer -- notably, Major League Soccer, Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League -- and NHL stickers in terms of major sports. Upper Deck is still the exclusive license holder for NHL cards.

Fanatics and the MLBPA declined to comment. Topps could not immediately be reached for comment.


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