Tuesday, June 30, 2009

There's Something About O-Pee-Chee

When Upper Deck announced O-Pee-Chee for 2009, I was thrilled. I have very fond memories of the Canadian brand. These memories include better card stock, updated player affiliations and exclusive cards of the Blue Jays and Expos, in a familiar Topps setting. In the nineties, O-Pee-Chee branched out from Topps shadow and produced a few baseball card sets of their own.

Upper Deck bought out O-Pee-Chee a few years ago. The purchase was intended to resurrect the O-Pee-Chee brand back into hockey. The NHL had revoked all card licensing renewals, except for Upper Deck. Since Topps had a long standing relationship with O-Pee-Chee, this must have been a slap in the face. Without a license, Topps couldn't do anything with the hockey card company anyway.

It was only a matter of time before someone at Upper Deck thought of the baseball side of things. Retro cards are big sellers and with the rights to O-Pee-Chee, why not find a way to incorporate older O-Pee-Chee designs into a new product? The only problem was that the old designs were actually Topps designs.

Upper Deck's lawyers must be a cunning bunch. One of them figured out that Upper Deck could move forward with a retro set using a Topps design because technically it was an O-Pee-Chee design. Full stealing of a Topps design would surely attract the attention of the sleeping giant, so Upper Deck tweaked the base card design to be reminiscent of a vintage seventies O-Pee-Chee design, but would save the full Topps robbery for the planned parallel base on the 1971 Topps set via the fully licensed O-Pee-Chee 1971 set.

Now, Topps (the sleeping giant) would be forced to take notice. Topps filed lawsuits and eventually prevailed through the court system, for the moment. Here's the thing though... since O-Pee-Chee had the proper licensing to use the Topps designs on their cards for any year in which they produced a set incorporating said design, wouldn't Upper Deck be able to use the designs from a company they rightfully purchased? My first instinct would be yes, but it would depend on how the contract between Topps and O-Pee-Chee was actually worded.

From an outsider perspective, I'm going to side with Upper Deck on this one. Licensing issues have long plagued the baseball card industry, even in the fifties. In 1994, Topps issued an archive set of their 1954 baseball card set. Included in the archive set, were players that were not issued a card in the original 1954 set, for whatever reason. During this time, Upper Deck had licensing rights to Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter had two cards in the 1954 Topps set.

Upper Deck produced both Ted Williams cards and added them as inserts to their All-Time Heroes set in 1994. The backs of each Ted Williams card was numbered in accordance to their place in the original set. There was absolutely no reason for Upper Deck to do this. There was not much to gain from including a few Topps Archives cards in their product.

Upper Deck did one better. Due to licensing issues, Mickey Mantle could not be included in the 1954 Topps set. Mickey had an exclusive contract with Bowman at the time. Topps buying out Bowman solved that snafu back in the fifties, but in 1994, Mickey Mantle had an exclusive contract with... Upper Deck.
So Upper Deck also produced this card for the Topps Archives set, to be included in their All-Time Heroes packs as an insert. Again, Upper Deck had nothing to really gain from producing this original Mickey Mantle card to help Topps with their set. When I think about the 2009 O-Pee-Chee lawsuit, I will be reminded of this 1994 Mickey Mantle card. I will be reminded of the generosity of Upper Deck and the pettiness of Topps.

Can Topps and Upper Deck put aside their differences? If they don't, the hobby is likely going to suffer. Topps and Upper Deck may find themselves out of business, if they can't learn how to work together.

Might I offer a suggestion to each company that will prove beneficial to both parties? Between Topps and Upper Deck, there are numerous exclusive contracts. Why don't both companies come together on a joint product featuring retired players? Many of which will have exclusive contracts with one company or the other, so this could help revitalize the industry.

Each company could have an x amount of players with exclusive contracts. The number must be equal on both sides. The rest of the set would feature retired players without exclusive contracts. These would be divided equally between the two companies, using the best unique pictures from company archives. The cost and profits would be split evenly between both companies.

Stop the silly bickering and let's start to work together!


Captain Canuck said...

good luck with that. what colour is the sky in your world anyway?

seriously though, a great idea, for the hobby, and the companies. Which is probably why it will never happen.
Work together.... crazy talk....

Steve Gierman said...

Desperate times make strange bedfellows. I could see a situation where both Topps & Upper Deck might have to concede into an agreement like that for at least one set.

I could see Upper Deck extending its hand and Topps refusing to acknowledge it. With the licensing contracts on retired players becoming more complicated and more exclusive, I can see the companies hands being forced into this direction to generate hobby interest. What is the likelihood that it will actually happen? Not too good.

The colour of the sky in Chicago today is gray and slightly overcast. :)

GOGOSOX60 said...

Hey! Topps makes decent money on it's Heritage products and it would benefit them a lot to protect all their past issues and keep Topps as the only makers of Heritage designs containing modern players.

They want to protect the future issues of Heritage baseball lets say...2020 Heritage featuring the 1971 set.

Matthew Glidden said...

Nice combo of analysis and inclusion of past cards. While companies trade to some extent on their exclusive players, don't the designs still figure in a big way? For example, I only purchased A&G cards last year because they so surpassed the competition in overall look, despite some odd subject choices.

What do you think, is the money at stake (for retired players) big enough to overcome performance of the larger product itself?

Steve Gierman said...

Design is definitely a big issue. To get around the sticky issue of which company will design or combining design teams, a design contest might be issued to the public. This way, the public will play a large part in the overall quality of the set and it will generate more interest throughout the collecting community.

With a lot of deceased players images being controlled by licensing companies, it might be more cost efficient for card companies to combine the efforts for a set. Add in some exclusive contracts by retired players and no company will ever get all they want out of a retired set.

This should bring out more players to be included in a set, rather than the same retired players over and over again.

As for the White Sox aspect of this, I would start to see players other than Luis Aparicio in a card set. Potentially, I could see Doc White, Leo Najo and Gary Peters get cards.

If such a venture were to ever get off the ground, it could turn out to be one of the greatest retired player sets ever. It could possibly surpass what Legendary Cuts used to be.

David said...

Very well said.

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