Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are set to make a massive lineup change—ending an 70-year partnership with Topps to work with Fanatics on licensed trading cards starting in 2026.
Topps has been producing baseball cards since 1951, and received an exclusive license from MLB in 2009. That agreement was later extended through 2025. In 2020, Topps paid the MLBPA $20 million in licensing fees, the union’s largest source of licensing revenue.
Fanatics, recently valued at $18 billion, has expressed its ambition of expanding far beyond sports apparel. The company is the largest official sports merchandise seller, and has already been tied to NFT and sports betting efforts. In a memo sent to players Thursday, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said the Fanatics deal was one of several agreements that would generate almost $2 billion over 20 years.
Fanatics has also had discussions with the NBA, NBPA and NFLPA regarding their trading card licenses (Panini currently has exclusive rights with each), according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.
All of the parties—the MLB, MLBPA, NBA, NBPA and NFLPA—are set to get equity in a new joint venture with Fanatics, as well as a possible portion of secondary sales. Panini will not be included in the new ventures, which will be led by CEO Josh Luber, founder of StockX, according to a source, who was granted anonymity because the matter is private.
The MLB, MLBPA, Fanatics and Topps declined to comment.
The Topps Company first started making baseball cards in 1951, evolving from its initial incarnation as Topps Chewing Gum. In the 1960s, Topps became one of the first companies (along with Coca-Cola) to sign an overarching deal with the MLBPA, then led by Marvin Miller. That partnership continued through trading cards’ boom and bust in the 1980s and ‘90s.
In 2007, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner led a $385 million purchase of Topps. A series of exclusive partnerships between leagues and cardmakers followed shortly thereafter, stabilizing the market before a recent surge in interest.
In recent years, Topps has gone beyond standard packs of cardboard, offering on-demand Topps NOW cards and launching NFTs of its own. It has also branched into the pop art world with imaginative Project 2020 releases. Just this week, the company increased its full-year projected revenue by over 10% to $850 million. It is in the process of going public by a merger with SPAC Mudrick II that values it at $1.3 billion.
(This story was updated with details from an MLBPA memo sent to players.)