Topps Company, Inc.
Topps Company, Inc.
Incorporated: 1947 as Topps Chewing Gum Inc.
Sales: $268.04 million
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICS: 2759 Commercial Printing, Not Elsewhere Classified; 2067 Chewing Gum; 2064 Candy and Other Confectionery Products
Topps Company, Inc. is one of the most recognized makers and marketers of trading cards and bubble gum in the world. With products sold in 40 countries, a variety of entertainment licenses including exclusive license arrangements with virtually all the players in Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, and trading card sales in the millions, the company that introduced baseball cards as premiums to sell gum has become part of Americana. Topps’ popular BAZOOKA Bubble Gum is almost as familiar to consumers as its trading cards; in fact, BAZOOKA’S aroma was one of those most frequently cited in a study of smells that elicit memories. Besides trading cards and bubble gum, Topps has marketed high-quality color comic books, collectibles, and candies. Since 1966, Topps has manufactured its gum at its plant in Duryea, Pennsylvania. Since that time, the company has established candy manufacturing plants in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and the Republic of Ireland. Though it faces greater competition than it did in the early years, Topps has retained the economic and imaginative leadership of its field.
The company was founded in 1938 by four brothers experienced in marketing tobacco, fuel, and other products. Abram, Ira, Philip, and Joseph Shorin named their organization the “Topps Chewing Gum Inc.” after their ambition to produce the best chewing gum available, adding an extra “p” for distinction. The company’s first product, single pieces of chewing gum selling for a penny apiece, promptly became popular throughout the country.
When sugar was rationed during World War II, the fledgling Topps Chewing Gum company bought smaller candy companies, closed them, and used their sugar quotas. With such ingenuity and with the popular slogan, “Don’t Talk, Chum. Chew Topps Gum” (reflecting the wartime campaign for reminding civilians to keep closemouthed regarding war information), the company was able to thrive while larger gum manufacturers had to cease operations.
To improve business after the war, the Shorin brothers introduced BAZOOKA Bubble Gum. (The BAZOOKA Joe comics found inside the wrapper were introduced later, in 1953, and the main character, BAZOOKA Joe, was modelled after co-founder Joseph E. Shorin.) Topps also soon introduced “Magic Photos,” its first picture products. These cards featured 252 different subjects, including 19 baseball greats. The cards appeared blank when taken from the packages, but when moistened they revealed black-and-white photos “magically.”
In the same year the Topps Chewing Gum’s major competitor, the Bowman Gum Company, began to market baseball and football cards as premiums. Baseball cards had first been offered as premiums in cigarette packs during the late 1880s, but the practice had been given up during World War I’s raw material shortages. Topps was intrigued by the premium idea but needed to obtain the legal rights to depict the players and teams. Sy Berger, hired in 1947 to assist with a promotional campaign for Topps salesmen, personally took up the challenge, overseeing the signing of many sport figures of the time to individual contracts. Topps was able, therefore, to enter the baseball card business in 1951.
In that year the Topps Chewing Gum Company, began marketing two 52-card sets, known to collectors in the 1990s as “Blue Backs” and “Red Backs,” which were designed so that a game of card-baseball could be played by those who had collected all 52 in the set. Each card featured a hand-colored picture of a player and instructions on how to play the card-baseball game.
In 1952, Topps introduced the familiar format for its baseball cards, though their size was somewhat larger than the eventual standard. Sy Berger designed these cards to have color pictures of the players with their team emblems on the front and the players’ personal history and playing statistics on the back.
During this time, Topps was working on obtaining rights to feature players and logos, while also working to standardize its cards. From 1952 through 1955, Topps competed intensely with Bowman for contracts, and by the end of that period, Topps had managed to secure most of them, purchasing remaining contracts from Bowman. In fact, in January 1956, Topps bought the Bowman company itself, and from that year until 1980 Topps had virtually no competition in the sports trading card market. Standardization efforts were also complete, and in 1957, Topps introduced the standard 2.5 by 3.5 inch cards and began replacing the hand-tinted pictures with color photographs taken by Topps photographers at spring training camps as well as during the official season.
The 1950s also saw Topps enhance its trading card lines with new product lines featuring notable football, hockey, and basketball players. After two years of experimentation, Topps entered the football card market in earnest in 1951 with a 75-card set of college players. Although its football card line would not reappear until the college All-Americans series of 1955, Topps issued football cards every year thereafter. In 1956, Topps sold its first NFL set. Topps also began to compete with the Park-hurst Company for market share in hockey card business; Topps introduced a set limited to players from the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Rangers in 1954. The next Topps hockey set came out in 1957, and thereafter sets were issued each season through 1981. Finally, in 1957 Topps began to market NBA basketball cards. Since these were only mildly successful, another full set of basketball cards was not produced until 1969.
By the early 1960s Topps baseball cards were a well established part of American culture, and production was increasing annually.
Football and hockey cards were also selling, particularly after Parkhurst discontinued its hockey line following the 1963-64 season. In 1968, Topps formed a joint venture with the Canadian company O-Pee-Chee to better reach markets for hockey cards in Canada; this relationship continued until 1993.
Topps also began including premiums inside packages of trading cards to entice their young customers. From 1961 until 1971 various lines of Topps cards included collectible items such as stamps or specially embossed cards. Other premium experiments in the 1970s included Topps Story Booklets, Topps Baseball Tattoos, Topps Coins, Topps Posters, Topps Puzzles, and Wacky Packages. Moreover, the company bolstered its lines at the end of the 1974 season to include “Traded” cards for players who had changed teams. This would become standard practice for the sports card industry.
In 1975, the Fleer trading card company filed a $17.8 million federal antitrust suit against Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Specifically, Fleer alleged that Topps’ exclusive contracts with the players kept competitors from the baseball card market. Four years of litigation later, Judge Clarence C. Newcomer ruled against Topps and the Players Association in a district court in Philadelphia. Newcomer ordered Topps not to enforce the exclusivity clauses in its contracts and required the Players Association to review applications for licenses to market cards and to enter into at least one agreement by 1981. While the industry would change considerably as a result of the ruling, the damages awarded to Fleer amounted to only $3 plus attorney’s fees.
In 1980, with company sales at $60 million, Arthur Shorin, son of founder Joseph Shorin, became chairman and CEO of the company. The younger Shorin had begun working for Topps in 1958, and had gained experience in every department, noting in a 1995 interview in Topps Magazine, “I came up principally through the marketing and sales route, but also did my time in manufacturing.”
Arthur Shorin’s first years as CEO were filled with challenges. As such competitors as Fleer and Donruss (and eventually Upper Deck) were entering the baseball card market, Topps was experiencing some problems. First, the company was focusing on a new product, chocolate bubble gum, to help grow its sales, and that product was failing to provide results; Shorin would later recall, “I don’t know a lot about racing, but that was the wrong horse to bet on.” Moreover, the company had become unwieldy, with a huge work force and little focus. Shorin promptly jettisoned the chocolate gum scheme and began scaling down the work force and implementing cost cutting measures.
His company was also involved in an appeal of the antitrust suit brought by Fleer. In August 1981, Newcomer’s ruling that Topps and the Players Association had violated antitrust violations was overturned. However, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia did not prevent the Players Association from licensing more than one company in the future, encouraging increased competition with Topps. Sy Berger noted at the time that “The Supreme Court confirmed the Court of Appeals decision by not hearing the case. ... The one thing that the law said is that Topps does not have a monopoly, that others could enter the field and if they worked as hard as Topps, took as long as Topps, maybe they could do as well as Topps.”
Basketball and hockey cards were underperforming during this time. After experimenting with its line of basketball cards, introducing an unusual 176-card set of larger cards displaying pictures of three players, the company returned the cards to their normal size and tried distributing them in a different way, tailoring various sets for different geographic regions. After these experiments failed to bring NBA card sales to an acceptable level, Topps left the basketball card market in 1982 and did not return for ten years. Topps likewise bowed out of the hockey card market during this time, while the company’s Canadian partner, O-Pee-Chee, continued these efforts.
Despite such difficulties, Topps was on the rebound by 1984; indeed, baseball card collecting in the 1980s was rapidly becoming an investment market in addition to a hobby. Periodicals emerged featuring price information and describing industry trends. Computer hotlines and investment advising groups helped investors pick out the best cards for their money. In fact, throughout the decade, rookie baseball cards outperformed all other comparable investments—including corporate bonds, common stocks, treasury bills, U.S. coins, and diamonds. During this time, however, Topps underwent a dramatic change. In conjunction with the company’s law firm, Forstmann, Little & Company, Topps management took the company private, paying just $98 million in a leveraged buyout. Three years later, Topps became publicly held again, selling a limited amount of stock that raised $22 million. In 1988, to reward loyal shareholders who weren’t seeing increased stock prices during this transition, Topps borrowed $140 million in order to pay out a special dividend.
By the late 1980s, Topps was reporting a negative net worth, resulting from a heavy debt load and the instability of the trading card market. Indeed, analysts had began warning investors of a potential decline in the value of their baseball memorabilia. Others, however, remained more optimistic about the future of Topps and its competitors. Topps did, in fact, have a good cash flow, and baby-boomer fathers, it seemed, were getting their children interested in card collecting as an investment.
Because Topps’ major competitors were concentrating their efforts on higher priced cards and their high-bidding collectors, Topps came to virtually own the market for less expensive cards. Topps even improved the paper stock of the inexpensive cards and boosted prices from 50 cents for 16 cards to 55 cents for 15. At the peak of the baseball memorabilia market, Topps sales rose 28 percent for the fiscal year ending February 1990.
Moreover, to compete with Upper Deck, which was offering trading cards of a higher quality, Topps introduced premium Stadium Club baseball packs in 1991. The innovative cards featured “full-bleed” photographs rather than the traditional ones with cropped borders, glossier laminates, and gold foil stamping. They proved especially popular with collectors, many of whom bid as much as $12 for a pack of 15. Topps introduced Stadium Club lines of its hockey cards the following year.
The company’s Bowman subsidiary was experiencing improved sales as well. Topps had brought Bowman back into the baseball card market in 1989, with disappointing results, but in 1992 Topps reduced the Bowman set and added new sets featuring retired ball players. The subsidiary’s sales went up, establishing a new card brand for Topps.
By 1992, Topps was free from debt and it resumed its marketing of Topps basketball cards. In addition, the company issued an Archives set which showed NBA stars from the 1980s as they would have appeared had the company kept up the NBA line. Football card lines were also resumed and enhanced. But the company’s most profitable line remained its baseball cards, consisting of four brands: Topps, Bowman, Stadium Club, and Stadium Club Dome; these brands were augmented in 1993, when the company premiered its Baseball’s Finest line.
Baseball cards remained the biggest seller as the company approached the mid-1990s. However, after being deluged by all of the new cards marketed by Topps and other companies in these years, collectors staged a rebellion of sorts in 1992, and overall sales for the sports card business dropped 20 percent. Topps’ profits decreased by 65 percent in the fiscal year ending February 1993, and the following year its stock value fell significantly also.
The baseball strike that began August 11, 1994 didn’t help matters. Nevertheless, Topps’ response to the strike was unique. The company simulated full season statistics for the backs of its cards by means of a software program that calculated what players might have done if not for the strike. Other new developments at Topps during this time included a move from its old Brooklyn headquarters to new corporate offices in lower Manhattan.
Topps also made efforts at diversifying in the face of a stagnant baseball card market. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, Topps had become quick to introduce trading cards that capitalized on fads unrelated to sports. For example, after learning that children were increasingly interested and apprehensive about the war in the Persian Gulf, Topps took only six weeks to introduce its Desert Storm line of trading cards. Other lines featured pop music stars and characters from such films as Jurassic Park.
The company’s success was something in which its executives and visionaries took pride. In his introduction to Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, A 40 Year History, Sy Berger, vice-president of sports and licensing at Topps, wrote: “I must confess that I am proud of what we have achieved. I feel we have given Young America a wholesome interest; we have satisfied the desires of those who are prone to collect; and for the nostalgia buff, we have made something that he can reflect on.” Moreover, CEO Shorin remained optimistic about the company’s future, asserting in a 1995 Topps Magazine article: “Anyone who doesn’t think the [recent] unrest has caused real damage to the industry can sell his or her brain for shoe leather. But I think the hobby is resilient, as are the fans, and creativity still works.”
Topps International, Inc.; Topps Ireland Ltd.; Bowman Gum, Inc.; Goudey Gum, Inc.; Topps Comics, Inc.
Ambrosius, Greg, “Leading Topps Profitably into the 21st Century,” Topps Magazine, July 1995, pp. 14-15.
_____, “One on One with Sy Berger,” Topps Magazine, July 1995, pp. 16-18.
_____, “The History of Topps,” Topps Magazine, July 1995, pp. 8-13.
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Jaffe, Thomas, “Topps Pick,” Forbes, April 30, 1990, p. 456.
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Lazo, Shirley A., “Payment By Topps A Strikeout Victim,” Barron’s, December 19, 1994, p.32.
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Slocum, Frank, Topps Baseball Cards: The Complete Picture Collection, A 40 Year History, 1951-1990, New York: Warner Books, 1990.
Teitelbaum, Richard S., “Timeliness Is Everything,” Fortune, April 20, 1992, pp. 120-121.
“Tempting Takeover Morsels That Could Gain 38% Plus,” Money, September 1994, p. 62.
Topps Football Cards: The Complete Picture Collection: A History, 1956-1986. New York: Warner Books, 1986, 350 p.