Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Is it too late for me to Bat Around?

My ideas probably aren't original, and you've probably already read a ton of these, but I've been thinking more and more about the way of things recently, and Play At The Plate's March contest and the ensuing posts have had me thinking a bunch today about what constitutes a good line of products from a card company, and on a larger scale, what constitutes a good card company. So, without further ado, a modified version (because I can't ever just stick with the format, can I?) of the following:

Part I: Base Topps:
Now, with Topps' main line, I'd do the following:
Simplified numbering. No UH-, no US-, just 1-990 (if the checklist has to be that big; might wanna shrink it), split over 3 series!

Look into a smaller checklist. I kinda miss 792. If it can't be done, so be it, but 330, 330 and 132 for the 3 series could probably work with some elbow grease. Kill the All-Stars (bring back the All-Star designation on base cards!), have the Rookie Cup on the base card, do less of the combo cards, and do 1 team card per team. If you have to a 990 card checklist, make sure everyone makes it in, ala Topps Total.

Bring back factory Traded (or, in this case, Series 3) sets, and use the original box design (or a stylized version if you go over 132 on Series 3) just to be weird!

I'll probably incur the wrath of my peers for this, but I'm gonna say it anyway: there's gotta be a way to sneak legible Attax stats onto the back of the card without totally harshing everyones' buzz. If you want kids to buy Topps base cards and get involved in the hobby, that's how you do it, not with some offshoot, standalone product that most retailers sell near the Pokemon cards. I'm not recommending frontal placement of those 3 numbers, but damn it, they should be on there somewhere. Josh Wilker is STILL playing "Play Ball" from '78, so don't tell me people wouldn't play the game if it was on the back. You could even do a Toppstown code variation (Ha, there's something to do with those infernal numbered gold cards!) which gets you some internets cards! Do 'em maybe 1 every 4 packs. I built the 2010 Toppstown virtual set with 8 codes by trading, so it can be done.

While we're on the subject of Attax (which is now part of the main line without even involving us getting bombed out with inserts), I've read that they're looking at making the game a bit more complex this year. This will not do. If you've ever played any of the Attax games, the appeal of the game is that it's so damned simple. Plus, it'd take up more room on the card back if you futzed up the rules some more, and we don't want that.

Finally, addressing The Insert Addiction: 1 insert per pack, period, and it's either a Chrome card, a gold card with a Toppstown code, a Giveaway card (see part IV) or a hit. No debate allowed. Why Chrome? Because...

Part II: Other Topps Products:

I'd kill Chrome as a stand-alone set that you can buy wax of. Why? Because every year, it's production Russian roulette, and last year was the worst. I seriously think people are going to be terrified of '11 Chrome when it launches, which of course means no one will order any and prices will go through the roof in a hurry. That's no way to win friends and influence people, Topps! Put 1 Chrome card in each of your 4 base or de facto base products (Topps, Bowman, Topps Heritage and Bowman Heritage). "Wow, Bowman Heritage is back?", you ask? Don't worry, we'll get to that in a minute when I do the Bowman rundown.

Next up is Topps Heritage. Keep it exactly as it is, aside from the 1 Chrome card per pack rule. That was easy, right?

Onto everyone's favorite argument starter, Allen & Ginter. Ginter is grandfathered in for as long as it stays fresh and/or popular (and I think that, even if the designs get weirder and don't resemble the original cards at all after a while, there's still a lot of life left in Ginter). If it tanks eventually, convert its spot in the product line to one with which Topps can test out new product lines. Yes, new, as in "stuff that hasn't been done before and doesn't pay homage to a set created before we were born!"

What about all those retro sets? People still like them, right? Well, for as long as they do, have a fan poll on the Topps web site every year to let the customers decide which type of retro set they'd like Topps to make the following year. Don't narrow things down too much, either. Don't let people choose between EVERYTHING (you'd drive the art department nuts and the product would suffer, too), but go with a mix of anything from your old tobacco designs to '60s Deckle Edge to Stadium Club to recently retired lines like Moments & Milestones, and give people a write-in vote for the ones who wanna get really weird. The only designs I'd leave off-limits would be base Topps (remember, Heritage) and original Bowmans (I swear I'll get to explaining Bowman Heritage soon!). 
An interesting twist in this would be to only let people who use a code card from the current year's retro set (the code cards would have to be really cleverly done, being in retro sets and all) vote for the following year's set. This way, people who buy packs of these sets are given almost a "shareholder" say in what comes out.
 Next up, we'll deal with the part of the market that wants a hit in every pack and gets pissed when it doesn't happen that way. Upper Deck has done really well with Sweet Spot since they went to single packs, because a $20-ish price point with something (a relic or an auto) really works for people. I'm thinking that Finest would be a good line to bump down to this price point and do this with, but your mileage may vary. Go with an auto every 4 packs, relics for the rest. Make 1 out of every 10 autos on-card (don't worry, we'll address the sticker auto hate shortly). For player selection, use a mix of current players (anyone with a full season or better logged), retired veterans and Hall Of Famers, hits tiered accordingly.

Now, there's that $50-60 price point occupied currently by Tribute and Finest. For this, I'd either keep the Tribute name or steal Sterling from the super-high-end set (so the $50-60 pricepoint matches Bowman Sterling finally, which we'll get into in a minute), a checklist format slanted more toward older players (guys who we know are all bonafides), retired players and Hall of Famers not unlike Tribute, and, get this: an on-card auto in every pack! No relics, just autos! Maybe you'll get a Brian Downing auto instead of an A-Rod relic, but it'll be on-card and the cards will be really sharp looking. Also: every base card will be numbered to whatever a suitable production level would be. Just one set of numbers, though. Triple Threads does the tiered numbered base cards already.

Oh yeah, Triple Threads? Leave that one as-is. It does very well locally, and the grown-ups seem to dig it.

Finally on the Topps side, because you have those insane 300 bucks a pack types, let them eat cake. Continue doing something in the Sterling format with insane hits, insanely low-numbered base cards, etc., but maybe swap the Sterling name with Tribute. It'll confuse folks at first, but they'll grow into it. Tribute just sounds swankier.

Part III: Bowman Products:

Bowman base and Draft should be turned into Series 1 and 2, also with a simplified checklist ala Topps base (if there are what look like complete, standalone sets of draft picks and prospects at the end of each series, so be it). 1 Chrome card per pack. No Attax stats on these unless people demand them. The one other major change I'd make besides the checklist (wait for it...) is to merge Topps Pro Debut with the Bowman line. Bowman is where people have come to expect those prospects, and while it's cute to see minor league teams on Topps card designs, I think having Pro Debut and Bowman on the market at the same time creates a huge glut (especially when you get into the various unlicensed prospect/college stuff like Donruss Elite, Tristar's offerings, whatever Upper Deck ends up doing, and so forth). It's just too much prospect material for anyone to keep up with. So, yeah, Pro Debut becomes part of the base Bowman set, and if Topps wants to use their license to put big logos of minor league teams on their cards, they can put those logos on the back as so not to screw up the Bowman-ness of it all.

Next up, the moment you've all been waiting for: Bowman Heritage! I'd almost forgotten this line existed until I started going through cards about a week ago and came across a ton of them. Here's where I'd get clever (and would probably drive people nuts): since there are a limited number of pre-Topps Bowman production years, each year, I would put out all of them. Yes, you heard me. I'd do a variation of every player's card that accurately resembled every year of Bowman's original run (I'm not sure if I'd try to size-match the earlier stuff, but it's a thought as an insert). I'd run a short checklist, again, possibly decided by fan votes (again, perhaps with a code card enabling voting), but I think this would be a great line to use to give the variation nuts fits every year. Plus, it'd look purty.

Next up, I'd do a $20 price point, guaranteed hit Bowman product similar to my plans for Topps Finest. Maybe a Bowman Finest. Maybe I'd use an amped-up version of the Topps-era Bowman cards every year ala Topps Heritage, just to appease the Bowman nuts, or maybe not. Unlike the Topps Finest, my hit checklist would contain players with 5 years or less of service time and minor league prospects.

Last set! Bowman Sterling! I'd change almost nothing, since people seem to have fun with this set, except for a guaranteed on-card auto in each pack. Same kind of hit checklist, players with 5 years MLB experience or less, and prospects (but good ones).

Bowman really doesn't need a $100+ brand, since the line's so focused on prospects, who we all know can fail.

Part IV: Other Customer Stuff:

First up, the web sites(s). Unified login for toppscards.com, etopps.com and toppstown.com. eTopps, I don't know enough about to make any assessments, so we'll skip that for now. Ability to make user-to-user trades on Toppstown or the toppscards giveaway sites enabled. Ability to trade previous years' cards or cards from multiple sports in Toppstown or the toppscards giveaway sites enabled. Do what Upper Deck did and move your No Purchase Necessary contests to the web site instead of creating all of that mail. Continued serious integration of the social gaming dynamic (where I think Topps could make a mint; a lot of you would play Farmville if you could get your favorite players instead of cows and if it wasn't too dumbed down). Also, perhaps most importantly for Toppstown, give players the ability to buy/win Toppstown codes through heavy use (don't give the stuff away, obviously, but have that option for players instead of just giving them big screen TVs to hang in their silly little clubhouses). This would be especially important if you limited Toppstown codes to 1 per 4 packs or some in a Topps base "starter deck" for Attax players.

Second, redemptions: no redemptions on anything you don't have on-hand or can't guarantee having on-hand (I liked the Gridiron Rookie Redemptions this year, and don't mind waiting for something that will definitely show up), period. Being "first" isn't worth making customers unhappy. The only exception I can maybe see for the redemption rule is in the case where you've got some insane Murderer's Row booklet (if something like that ever gets attempted again) that'd be impossible to put in a normal pack or a T206 Wagner or something like that, but again, have that stuff on hand before the redemption card goes into the pack, and under no circumstances whatsoever will there be an expiration date. The storage and insurance costs are part of the cost of making your customers happy, and knowing that the redemption isn't dead will help your retailers and wholesalers move old product, making them happier as well.

Third: sticker autos. I mentioned the 1 out of every 10 on-card ratio on the $20 products for Topps and Bowman, and I think that's a fair ratio across the base lines, too, since those aren't guaranteed hits anyway. It'd get autos in products on-time, and there'd be less pressure to abandon sticker autos entirely, which would keep the production department happy. Heritage cards would look lousy with stickers, so those are on-card, but harder to get, obviously. Ginter could stay as-is, and the higher end stuff, I covered specifically.

Finally: production quality. Keep an eye on your factories, eh, guys?

That's what I've got so far.

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