The MLB and the MLBPA rocked the sports card collecting community when they both announced earlier this month they would not be renewing their licensing deals with Topps. Both licenses were awarded to Fanatics, with Topps losing the MLBPA license after 2022 and the MLB license after 2025. The transfer will end the iconic manufacturer’s 70-plus year run as a fixture in the trading card industry.
Topps was just days away from finalizing a SPAC merger with Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corporation II when the news broke; however, Mudrick announced a day later the deal was terminated due to the MLB and MLBPA’s decision to go with Fanatics moving forward. In the days following the announcement, the sparse information caused a frenzy with collectors, as the uncertainty of Topps’ future and Fanatics’ plans cast an apocalyptic shadow over the rapidly growing industry.
As collectors ponder what will happen next, many need to look to the smaller trading card companies currently operating without either license to see a model for the future. Onyx Authenticated, an Orlando based manufacturer specializing in highly curated prospect sets without either license, could be the answer to many of the questions the hobby has about its future.
“It’s maybe not a bad thing in the sense that the MLB and the [MLB]PA is willing to try something different,” Onyx president Lance Fischer said during a recent phone interview. “I think the old guard, per se, things were maybe getting a little stagnant. I think things were getting a little bit overproduced.”
Onyx has carved a niche in the sports card industry by featuring baseball players on their first cards before they become professionals, signing the top soon-to-be international free agents to card and autograph deals. Fischer has set his company’s sights towards the NIL space, one he feels is wide open not only for Onyx, but for all manufactures since the new rules went into effect on July 1st.
“It’s too much of an opportunity to pass up,” he said.
Fischer’s company has already signed a plethora of college athletes to NIL deals with the hopes of their fame growing during their college careers. The ability to featuring developing college athletes under the watchful eyes of a dedicated fan base will create valuable attention for his brand.
“We’ve signed up close to 60-70 guys, and it’s been building,” he said. “It’s crazy how excited the players are to be involved in this. We’ve got plans on doing a college football set and a college basketball set. It should be an absolutely insane loaded product because we can go after freshmen and sophomores. … It’s a huge deal having that ability to go out and get these guys so early.”
The focus on college athletes might provide the hobby with a much-needed youth infusion. Many have been critical towards the industry for losing young fans due to high price points and low access. Fischer hopes a shift towards the college ranks could help the hobby age down, drawing in kids for the long term.
“I think it is going to bring a lot newer collectors into it, because it wasn’t really available in the past,” he said. “It could help young kids. Two years ago, we were really begging for the younger group; how do we get them to collect? … I think with the schools and the NIL stuff, that may open some doors to bring in a bunch of new collectors into the industry.”
While Fischer has signed some of the NCAA’s elite talent including Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, he is using the keen eye he developed as a Florida State recruiting scout to identify under the radar athletes before they blow up on the college scene.
“Sometimes a three-star [recruit] will be the next big thing,” he said. “I know Tom Brady wasn’t a five-star when he went to Michigan. That’s where I’m going to come in and be able to see a name that not everyone’s going to know right now, but I think in a few years just like baseball, you’re going to start to recognize.”
Even with Fischer’s excitement around the NIL opportunities in many college sports, he is still moving forward with his baseball releases. Onyx’s Vintage Extended Baseball series, which is due for an October release, features Shohei Ohtani and Ken Griffey Jr., as well NIL signees from college baseball. It is all part of Onyx’s plan to continue to expand and innovate while the major players fight over the licensing rights.
“We’re gonna keep chugging along and do what we do,” he said. “We’re expanding and doing the NIL stuff now. … Our goal right now is to bring the best product for the consumer, keep people engaged in the industry, make things exciting and bring them something that no one’s been able to bring. That’s our focus. If it changes based on more information coming out from Fanatics or whomever, then we will evaluate it at that time, but for now we’re excited and we’re going to keep on going.”