There was a time when kids would buy sports trading cards and play with them. Then came an era when trading cards were considered too sacrosanct to be handled and had to be put into vaults for future investment purposes.
Fortunately, trading card companies such as Topps, Upper Deck and Panini are putting cards back in the hands of consumers and kids not only via traditional cardboard products but on computers and mobile devices.
"The most delicate balance we deal with is keeping the traditionalist card collectors happy while growing the consumer base and appealing to a younger market," said Zvee Geffen, brand manager at Topps for Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the English Premier League. "We've found that younger age groups, 12-24, are very interested in Major League Soccer and advanced analytics that provide more insight into the game."
While baseball is still king at Topps, which has been in business since 1938, football is a solid second, with soccer showing the most potential for growth. The New York-based company is in the second year of a six-year pact with MLS, which, according to Geffen, "is very strong in some demographics that are very appealing."
Topps this year is ramping up an alliance with Bloomberg Sports to put analytical statistics on the backs of soccer cards that drill down into such areas as goal percentages and passing efficiency.
In addition, Topps is enhancing its online and digital areas. The Topps BUNT app enables users to play a digital trading card game where stats are automatically updated based on how the real MLB players perform on the field. Apps are also available for NFL (Topps HUDDLE) and the English Premier League (Topps KICK).
Upper Deck, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary, has also been enhancing both its card products and online and digital presence.
The Carlsbad, Calif.-based company has exclusive contracts with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Wayne Gretzky. A multiyear deal with the NHL and NHL Players’ Association makes Upper Deck the exclusive licensed manufacturer of NHL Trading Cards beginning with the 2014-15 season.
It's most altruistic platform, however, may be Random Acts of Kindness, in which the public at large nominates others who have faced and/or overcome adversity for inclusion on an actual Upper Deck card to honor them and to help inspire others.
Among those who have been part of an "Heroic Inspiration" series are Mandi Schwartz, a former player with the Yale hockey team who died of cancer in 2011; Jack Hoffman, an eight-year-old boy battling brain cancer who is fan of the University of Nebraska football team; Jaclyn Murphy, a young lacrosse player who has been successfully battling cancer; and Jack Miller, a nine year old who has been battling brain tumors for six years and has been "adopted" by the Colorado State football team.
The college category, in fact, is a big upside for Upper Deck.
"We've seen a huge growth in collegiate trading cards over the last four years since we signed a deal with the Collegiate Licensing Co. (the exclusive trademark licensing firm for the NCAA)," said Jason Masherah, president for Upper Deck. "Nobody had really paid attention to that market. As crazy and avid as people are about their pro teams, people are even more passionate about their college teams."
According to Masherah, producing cards that include such memorabilia as game-worn pieces of uniforms and bats, plus the interactive development of social media and digital platforms, has revolutionized the business.
"If you haven't opened a box of cards in 20 years, the experience now would blow your mind," said Masherah. "We take pride in the fact that this is a healthy hobby, a healthy pastime, a way for parents to spend time with their kids. We see that as a big opportunity for growth. And my expectation is that 25 years from now, the experience will be completely different."
But as the saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same.
"Our traditional fan base is very passionate about collecting, and they are not looking for us to reinvent the wheel," said Geffen. "And younger consumers [want] beautiful-looking cards of their favorite team or players. That's the balance we try to find in all of our products."