Baseball Card Boom: How Nostalgia and Innovation Have Made Topps Unbeatable
Last month, trading card giant Topps took over Citi Field for an entire evening, the company’s logo displayed on the Mets’ jumbotron and plastered around the stadium. The air was full of excitement as 30 or so baseball card collectors filed past security and up to the VIP area for cocktails, nibbles and networking, ahead of a much-anticipated dinner. Despite the intricately designed baseball card centerpieces and the decadent food—a gorgeously fresh Caesar salad, the option of equally mouthwatering chicken or short rib and a rich chocolatey dessert—the main stars of this meal were MLB Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Mike Piazza, who joined halfway through for an intimate Q&A session.
The event was part of Topps Transcendent Collection, one of the most exclusive baseball card collections ever produced. Priced at $25,000 and limited to 50 cases per year, each collection comes with a coveted invitation to wine and dine with baseball greats—an idea that came about as the Topps team pondered what an “ultimate product” would look like without having to take price points into consideration.
“We started talking about what the ultimate product would look like…if I opened up a box of trading cards, and my favorite player was in the box of cards,” Clay Luraschi, vice president of product development at Topps, told Worth. “We can’t do that. But how about we put an invite in there where you can meet the player. And then, this kind of like fantasy product came about…How do you get the player even closer? You bring the player to the fan. That’s where the concept is kind of crucial.”
Launched in 2016, Topps’ first Transcendent Collection event, which took place the next year, featured former Cubs player Kris Bryant straight off the team’s first World Series win after 108 years—and just like that, the event became a must-attend affair for baseball card collectors and fans worldwide. It was at this first Transcendent gathering that baseball card collector and CEO of Brand Vending Products Scott Jochim met his best friend.
“It was an amazing feeling—we’re seated at the same table, we’re sharing this experience together,” Jochim explained. “Kris Bryant walks through the door, and we’re just awestruck. We’re business owners. We’re leaders of industry, and we’re awestruck. One of the World Series winners walks through the door and we’re like, ‘Oh, wow!’ And he sits down at our table, and that bonded us. It was the most amazing thing. So, that group of people at the table, I’m still friends with, and we travel every year to events like these.”
The feelings of community, nostalgia and togetherness were running deep at this most recent Topps Transcendent event in July. After having been delayed due to the pandemic, attendees seemed overjoyed to be back with their buddies, sorting through packs of baseball cards and reminiscing over past sports moments. However, despite the negative impact COVID had on in-person events, the pandemic has actually been credited with creating a boom in the trading card market. Last month, one of the nation’s most extensive collections of historic baseball cards was sold at auction for $21.5 million, and a frenzy of high-tech, next-gen traders seemingly turned the collectibles into commodities overnight.
Although many recent headlines around post-pandemic baseball card trading have indicated otherwise, correlation does not imply causation. In fact, Topps had seen an uptick well before COVID hit, according to Luraschi. “The pandemic obviously added a different layer,” the Topps VP explained. “A lot of people went up into their parents’ attics and down into their basements to look for their old cards. Also, a lot of parents were looking for parent-child activities. And with the tie into sports, it made for nice entertainment while you were at home.”
“People were sports starved,” he continued. “And when you don’t have sports, you start thinking about, ‘OK. Well, when we watched sports, who were our heroes? Who did we follow? What were the moments that we appreciated, enjoyed?’ And Topps has been all about that. That’s what we’re doing, we capture those moments. Topps is a great tool to reconnect with your favorite moments in the past.”
And while baseball cards might be riding a bull market at the moment, they shouldn’t be considered an alternative asset, like jewelry or artwork, that will necessarily appreciate in value over time. As Investopedia puts it: “A collectible is an illiquid, taxed investment that produces no income and can lose its value if you drop it. If you are going to buy one, make sure it is one you will be happy to own forever, rather than counting on some big money sale in the future.”
“It’s also different because, depending on how the player performs, the perceived value of that trading card changes,” Luraschi said. “So, for example, if player X hits a home run, you see activity around it. And just going back to the whole [idea of] like ‘value for dollar saved’ or ‘value for just because you appreciate it.’ We don’t push anything because we encourage people to collect how they want to collect. If you just make great products that are collectable, people have a choice on how they want to collect. Like I said earlier, whether it’s a parent-child activity, just trying to collect the set, if you have your favorite card and you want to encase it and keep it in a drawer, so have you. But we want to encourage all types of collecting.”
Now, more than ever, people have the opportunity to collect in ways previously never imaginable. From collaborations with street artists to experimenting with cards that include pieces of jerseys in them, Topps has been continually innovating and stepping up its game for the past 70 years—while continuing to capture moments and connect collectors with some of their favorite memories.
“Topps allowed me to, in a sense, enjoy being an adult,” Jochim explained. “You reflect on what it was like to be a kid again. It allows me to empower, I guess, even in my toy factory, knowing that I’m making a difference. That’s exciting for me, this is fun. This is what I get to do as an adult. I get to be a kid again, and Topps allows me to do that.”