On Manufacturing Collectability

Topps lost the the licensing rights to Major League Baseball which, prior to it actually happening, is a thing that your typical baseball fan would not have previously acknowledged as even possible. Topps makes baseball cards. Not the only baseball cards, but for most of the history of baseball cards, Topps were the baseball cards. How can baseball cards exist without Topps?

Major League Baseball (MLB), of course, simply sold the licensing rights to someone else: Fanatics. Now, to be perfectly clear, I don’t care abou, any of the corporate entities involved here, imaging rights, or even baseball cards. What I am interested in is the concept of a purposely designed collectible–not something that becomes collectible, an item designed solely to exist as a collectible.

The markets for baseball cards rise and fall, and there was one definitive bubble in the early 90s. Like any commodity, prices are an emergent outcome of supply and demand, and while in the short run price movements are associated with fad and event driven demand, in the long run a collectible item’s price ascent begins and ends with supply. For an item to exist as a collectible with investment-grade price growth potential, it’s supply must be short-term limited and long-term fixed.

Fanatics just paid a lot of money for the MLB imaging rights, more than Topps was willing to bring to the table as a 70-year producer and stake holder. Part of Fanatics reasoning in committing so many resources to the rights is their ambition to produce non-fungible tokens (NFTS), which they will no doubt restrict the supply of to a profit maximizing level. NFTs, I suspect, offer Fanatics the opportunity to pursue a parallel product distribution that will allow them a new channel for price discrimination. Specifically, I expect the physical cards to be relatively inexpensive, sold at a price comparable to recent historical prices in an effort to serve price sensitive kids and hobbyists. The NFTs, on the other hand, I expect to be greatly limited in supply, a promise to hardcore collectors that the assets in question will offer the investment-grade inelasticity of supply that collectors covet in their aspiration to hold collectible items that hold value as art-adjacent consumption value while also being long term lottery tickets.

Fanatics believe the key to unlocking this is the image rights to Major League Baseball. Their cards and NFTs are the real ones, the official ones.

But that begs the question: why does the market care that they are officially sanctioned? The value of the image rights was to be able to use the names and logos of Major League Baseball without getting sued. The only way to profit off baseball cards previously was to produce at scale – you couldn’t capture the future collectible value nearly as well as the present consumption value. And there was no way to produce at scale without the imaging rights – there’s no good way to secretly print and sell a million baseball cards with images you lack the rights for. A person or company can’t sell a million black market bootleg cards without getting caught.

But someone could sell three.

A person can sell three cards without getting caught. A person could sell an unlicensed NFT without getting caught. And so can it’s next owner, and the one after that, ad infinitum. In the crypto world of NFTs these transactions, especially in the long term, are feasibly untraceable. If anyone can sell three baseball cards and associated NFTs, then anyone can make them as well.

Remember zines? Actually, maybe you don’t. In the before-times, aficionados of musical, artistic, or even just aesthetic subcultures would print their own magazines at home, pay for a 100 copies at Kinko’s, and then distribute them independently on their own through the mail or at small local bookstores. Not dissimilarly, many artists have for years produced “Art Cards, Editions and Originals” (ACEOs). Essentially baseball cards, but with small collectible works of art instead.

An independent artist that tried to produce baseball ACEOs and sell them on eBay would probably fly below the radar. But in the unlikely event that their card did become the card that the market chose as the most sought after, then yes, MLB and Fanatics would likely pursue legal action. The thing about pursuing a copyright so vigorously is, like many consumer goods for which distribution is illegal, restricted supply only increases their value. And an NFT transaction is considerably harder to trace than a physical or even traditional software good. It’s called “crypto” for a reason.

Sure, Fanatics will be the only company that can sell the “official” baseball card, the “real” one. But who’s to say that they’ll be selling the best one? In a world without enforceable image rights, the market is likely to care a lot less about the what’s official, and a lot more what’s the, always ephemeral and hard to anticipate, best. When you’re talking about a commodity where limiting supply is the key to unlocking value, NFTs and crypto technologies change the entire landscape, because copyright and image rights are only only enforceable to limit production at scale, which means any effort to do so just creates great incentive for small scale independent production.

This isn’t just relevant to baseball cards, either. This is relevant to anyone designing a product with the intention of it becoming collectible, where some portion of its value today is it’s predictable scarcity tomorrow. Twenty years ago downloadable music changed the entire market for music. Musicians at the highest levels of popularity found themselves returned to a world where the bulk of their income came from live performance, which had of course been the norm for musicians for most of human history prior to the vinyl record. It would be interesting if baseball cards, and other portable pieces of functional art (such as Magic or Pokémon cards) found themselves on a similar path, where large scale production of collectibles becomes outflanked by anonymous independent artists.

You’ll probably never own a $5.2 million Mickey Mantle 1952 rookie card. But you maybe you’ll paint Shohei Ohtani as a half-man, half-Gundam neo-noir warrior prince pitching a no-hitter the same night he hit three grand-slams. And maybe the market will say that the official photo cards of Ohtani are nice, but your image, and your NFT, are the one true image that captured the moment he became the greatest baseball player ever. Maybe the market will select your card.

(What I’m saying is…maybe the market will say your card is….topps. Yeah, sorry, I’ll see myself out).

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