In bygone days, kids gathered around in small groups to trade baseball cards of much-beloved star players. But today's kids are playing baseball video games on smartphones -- a fact of digital life that hasn't escaped Topps, the top manufacturer of baseball cards. To mark the beginning of baseball's 2012 season, Topps is venturing into the digital world in hopes of reinventing its legacy brand.
While the company began making bubble gum in 1938, Topps' claim to fame was the introduction of baseball cards in 1952. These wondrous little pieces of cardboard carried color photos of players on the front and thumbnail bios on the back. Packs of cards, which included a stick of bubble gum until 1992, became cherished possessions. Eventually, as baseball fans grew up, they recognized the value of the cards, particularly rare ones, as collectibles. Now "trophy cards," some with original autographs, have become hot items with adult collectors.
But what about those kids of today? In an effort to entice Gen Z, Topps has brought two baseball apps to the iPhone/iPad market, Topps Pennant ($2.99) and Topps Bunt (free). Android versions are also planned.
The company describes Topps Pennant as "the modern box score. It's the only application that captures over 60 years of baseball -- every team, every season, every game, and every play -- from last night's games back to 1952." Using infographics, the application walks users through game details.
Topps Bunt, however, is more like a digital version of baseball cards. The "cards" feature players and their information, just like printed cards, but the digital cards can be moved around on the screen and used to create teams, trade, and play games with others, not unlike fantasy baseball.
The new apps "represent important pieces of a larger strategy intended to slowly expand the fading baseball card business into a broader media company complete with digital offerings, and potentially shows, movies and clothing lines," writes Amy Chozick in The New York Times.
If that sounds Disneyesque, there's a good reason: None other than Michael D. Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, is behind the Topps revival. The private equity firm Eisner runs purchased Topps in 2007 based on its brand awareness. Eisner told the Times, "In the world of media, there's Disney. In the world of beverages, there's Coke, but it's very hard to find companies that have the emotional brand of Topps."
Eisner sees some similarities between today's Topps and the Walt Disney Company in 1984, when he became the Disney CEO. "We're not starting with a company as big or worldwide as Disney," he told the Times, "but Disney was also in postbubble decline and a lot of time had passed since a new product had come out."
Topps is also trying to integrate digital media strategies into its baseball card sales. "Topps Golden Giveaway" encourages consumers to "unlock cards, collect coins and win." Purchasers are instructed to find codes in select packs of baseball cards, then "unlock and trade" exclusive die-cut cards or special digital coins. "The more coins you collect, the more prizes you can win," according to Topps. Participants need to register online to take advantage of the Golden Giveaway.
In addition to baseball cards, Topps makes football, UFC and WWE sports cards, along with a number of entertainment card packs, such as Garbage Pail Kids and Star Wars. The company is not without competition; Panini America, for example, makes basketball, football and hockey sports cards, as well as Justin Bieber and Michael Jackson collections. Panini has experimented with digital card versions as well.
Still, Topps intends to stay on top of its game. It'll keep churning out those cards, along with a few new digital apps each year.