EDITOR’S NOTE: SCD contributor Tony Reid works full time selling sports cards and collectibles at Sports Zone Toys & Comics in Sunbury, Pa.
The collectibles community was in a state of shock as news spread on Aug. 19 that Major League Baseball had made a deal to award their trading card license to Fanatics, effectively taking Topps out of the lineup as they celebrate an iconic 70-year run.
As that news was still being digested, reports surfaced that Fanatics had also secured the trading card licenses for the NBA, the National Basketball Players Association and inked a 20-year deal with the NFL Players Association that begins in 2026.
As you can imagine, that was the hot topic of conversation the next day in the shop. I half-jokingly asked the shop owner if it was too early to call on Fanatics to open a dealer account.
The news was definitely met with concern. With no details yet from Fanatics or the sports leagues, that makes for some uneasiness, leaving our imaginations to run wild and raising never-ending questions.
Will the hobby remain the same with Fanatics jumping in?
Will Fanatics cut out every layer between the manufacturer and the final customer, crippling some wholesalers, distributors and even card shops?
Can it manage and sustain the current level of production the hobby demands? And can it do it all with the quality we've come to expect?
The biggest concern is that Fanatics, the world’s largest producer of sports apparel and merchandise, will produce cards and sell directly to collectors, all but eliminating card shops like ours from even carrying new product.
Some of the hobby’s heaviest hitters have raised similar concerns.
“They have crazy distribution reach through the merchandise business. I think it will be direct to consumer, more than we’re used to,” Collectors Universe CEO Nat Turner told SCD. “I’m nervous about local card shops and their access to product, I guess, because that is a big source of revenue for those guys.”
Aside from wondering what it will mean for the hobby when Fanatics officially begins its reign, we're also left wondering what it means for the hobby that is being serviced now by what may be lame-duck card companies. Will Topps and Panini phone it in over the next few years with production, quality and customer service dropping even further? Will they just pump and dump more and more products and oversaturate the market to make every last dollar they can before they are shown the door?
I'm hoping the answer to all those questions is no.
One dealer we work with in southern Pennsylvania said he would retire before dealing with whatever comes in four to five years. Apparently, he doesn't feel the Fanatics partnership will be good for shop owners.
As an overly positive person, I am trying to see the potential benefits of this new deal.
Young kids have been all but cut out of the hobby with the soaring prices of new products and the lack of availability at retail. If Fanatics comes in and finds a way to bring kids back into the game, that greatly benefits the future of our hobby.
I can't even begin to tell you how many times we've had customers come in with issues about Panini's customer service. If Fanatics can make some inroads into improving customer service — whether through reducing redemptions by inserting the actual cards in packs or figuring out a way to simply respond to emails or calls — that would go a long way toward improving the attitudes and impressions around the community.
Aside from our shop in Sunbury, Pa., we are lucky to be surrounded by a number of other card shops within a 10-mile radius.
Shaffer's Trading Cards in Lewisburg has been a staple in the hobby and community for more than four decades. They are the second-oldest card shop in the United States. That was the destination when I was a kid if you were looking to buy sports cards in the area. Shaffer's operates today, as they have over the years, through almost exclusively brick-and-mortar sales.
Darlene Shaffer, the wife of owner Bill Shaffer, has been more involved in the business since retiring from a local hospital. She’s had employees listening to customer concerns since the recent Fanatics developments.
"They are more confused than anything at the thought of when Topps actually loses their license and what that means,” she said. “It's a little bit confusing as to the MLB/ MLBPA switch and what's going to happen. It could affect a lot of things, including the redemption cards. Topps is famous for substituting cards. If you have contracts with the players and pay them, then the players don't want to find the time to sign the cards. That happens a lot.
“I guess there's sort of been a monopoly for quite a while now with a lot of things from sports cards, including Upper Deck in hockey, Panini in multiple sports and Topps in baseball. I'm interested in what will happen with this new deal."
Shaffer seems to echo the thoughts of other card shop owners. It appears as though brick-and-mortar shops are at the bottom of any priority list for card companies and distributors.
"If they push out the brick-and-mortar stores, which they've been trying to do for years, and they only want to cater to breakers [that’s a concern]," she said. "Years ago, when they set this up for distributors to send cards to store owners, they set it up with the intention that they were going to give the store owners a fair amount of product. Whatever the reason is, it hasn't gone that way.
“There aren't many distributors left. They hold back product to sell at a higher price at a later date. We might order two cases of some product and they will give us three boxes. I don't know how they can get away with that. They aren't supplying the store owners the agreed upon contracted amount of product. Will they cut us out all together? I don't know. I just don't know."
With Fanatics taking over in a few years, it would be great to see it move physical card shops up the priority list and make them more of a partner as they were years ago. Many believe the company should bring card shops back toward the forefront of the hobby or at the very least give them their rightful place at the table.
"They really don't care if we've been around a long time." Shaffer continues. "It's just all about who buys the most. I've also been told by the distributor that if we don't buy off there in-stock list we won't get much product. We have to continuously buy from the in-stock list to keep our numbers up so that they can give us the product we actually allocated.
"I don't understand why these contracts with MLB, the NBA and the NFL have to go to the highest bidder. Why can't it go to the company that they think can do it the best?"
The key for any physical card shop these days is diversity. It's something we specialize in at our shop and those that work at Shaffer's know that all too well.
"I would rather have a full store than the store that's half empty and I don't have anything to choose from," Shaffer said. "People are buying singles, boxes, packs, memorabilia and autographs. You have a little bit of everything that people buy in our store. That's the only way we have survived this long."
Doc's Card Attic in Danville, Pa. is another great location just a few miles from our shop. It's a place I frequent often just to look through rows of random cards to see what might be hidden in unmarked boxes. Doc's also offers a wide selection of boxes and packs of modern sports cards. Though the guys at Doc's declined to officially comment for this piece, they have the same concerns as the rest of the shop owners and employees I've talked to around our area.
Working in this industry full time and, in turn, having a solid percentage of our income derived from sports cards, we hope everything works out in a positive fashion for all those involved.
The sports card industry is filled with constant change. To continue to grow we have to adapt and move forward one way or another. Here's hoping for the best outcome for all parties involved.
— Tony Reid has written about sports collectibles for such publications as Beckett and Sports Collectors Daily. He collects RCs of star players in baseball, basketball and football. You can reach him at @reidrattlecage on all social media platforms.