Topps has been synonymous with trading cards, particularly baseball cards, for 70 years.
That era will soon be over. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association are ending their licensing agreement with Topps in favor of a deal with Fanatics, the up-and-coming sports collectible brand. The loss of baseball rights also led to the abrupt cancellation on Friday of a plan for Topps to go public, casting its future into question.
The company, which also owns Bazooka gum, announced a deal in April to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, run by Mudrick Capital. The $1.3 billion merger was set to go to a shareholder vote next week.
Topps and Mudrick announced Friday morning that the deal was off, a day after they were notified that the baseball contracts will not be renewed when they expire in 2022 for players’ images, which the players’ union controls, and 2025 for team logos, which Major League Baseball controls.
Andy Redman, executive chairman of Topps, said in a statement that the company was left in the dark by its negotiating partners at the league and the players union.
“Not only were we unaware that Major League Baseball was negotiating with anybody other than Topps regarding our rights beyond 2025,” he said, but Topps was told on Thursday by Noah Garden, the league’s chief revenue officer, “that a deal was completed, finalized and exclusive with Fanatics.”
“Similarly, as recently as the All-Star Game on July 13 in two one-hour conversations, Evan Kaplan from M.L.B. Players Inc. never indicated to Topps that the union was negotiating with any other parties about our rights,” he added. Mr. Kaplan is managing director of the players union.
A representative for the league did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the union did not have a comment.
Topps has been owned by Tornante, the investment firm of the former Walt Disney Company chief Michael Eisner, and the private equity firm Madison Dearborn since 2007, when the two acquired it for $385 million.
Fanatics, most recently valued at $18 billion, has been drawing on its ties to major sports league teams to expand beyond hats, hoodies and other branded merchandise. In June, it started a digital collectibles firm, Candy Digital, which has teamed up with Major League Baseball to introduce a series of nonfungible tokens. Fanatics has also poached a number of executives from sports teams, gambling companies and tech firms as it considers expanding into ticketing, betting and gambling.
The baseball deal reflects Fanatics’ growth ambitions, moving into baseball cards when they have exploded in popularity, amid growing interest from homebound traders and digital investors buying NFTs.
Fanatics will create a new trading card company and give both Major League Baseball and the players’ union seats on the board, said a person familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because those plans were not yet public. The union and the league will get a stake in the company, a shift to owning a piece of the company that makes money from its members’ images rather than simply licensing those images. Sports unions have in recent years bolstered their commercial arms to help players earn more from their likenesses.
Riding high on its new licensing deals, Fanatics could consider trying to acquire one of the three major card companies: Panini, Upper Deck or Topps, a person familiar with the company’s thinking said. That would mirror its strategy with the apparel company Majestic, which it acquired after winning the rights to make major-league uniforms that Majestic previously held.
Kevin Draper and Ephrat Livni contributed reporting.