A Gridiron Era Ends: 2015 Topps Base Brand NFL cards
In 1956, Topps, after purchasing Bowman, entered the business of making pro football cards. For about one-third of the years that followed, Topps was the only pro football card maker for the hobby. Beginning in 1989, though, Topps has faced a slew of competitors, many of whom could not sustain the interest of collectors, flooded the market with product, and either merged with other competitors or closed their doors. In recent years, though, the NFL and other sports leagues have taken steps to narrow the competition, or grant their card licenses to just one company. In 2010, Topps avoided losing its place in the football hobby when rival Upper Deck could not pay the licensing fees. In 2015, the NFL decided that Panini, a sticker maker who entered the card hobby in 2009 when they acquired Donruss Playoff, would be the exclusive manufacturer of NFL cards, beginning with the 2016 season.
I will miss this brand, as Topps has been a part of my entire card collecting career. When I started, cards were five for a nickel, included a stick of gum, and had other fun collectible gridiron-related items. In 2015, I got - at best - twelve cards for $1.99. The gum and the extras long ago vanished from all Topps base brand packs. I've always enjoyed the informative nature of Topps gridiron cards, though my biggest criticism of the cards has been Topps' dogged insistence on making cards of players who change teams between seasons seem current. The photoshopping has never worked for me. Not only do many of these efforts seem obvious, but Topps's competitors get actual updated shots, which is something Topps rarely did. Then again, I am writing about a company that spent more than a decade (1970-81) airbrushing team logos from helmets because they didn't want to pay to include them.
Nevertheless,Topps did two things right. First, they made many of the most inclusive sets during the years they faced competition. The 2015 collection has a base set of 500 cards, which was the largest base set among the 2015 releases. Second, they gathered the information any sports fan should want to know about the players. Only Pro Set and GameDay, two competitors who quickly came and went, rivaled Topps with regards to pertinent information. The information helped to compensate for the lack of flash Topps often displayed, even as competitors made more colorful and attractive card designs.
In fact, as I first stated in 2014 in Gridiron Greats magazine (issue #47), I thought that the 2014 Topps basic set was one of the worst-designed sets in their run, looking like a picture with ugly framing. Perhaps Topps took notice of my comment, or criticism from others that agreed with my point of view. The look of the 2015 basic set used the same concept to better effect. The edges on the front of the card resemble a picture frame, but this frame never obstructs the view of any featured player or team. The bottom shows the player's team in scoreboard fashion, with the name, team logo, and position and number (if applicable). The back has the same frame design, with all of the details about how the player came to both the NFL and his current team. Most players also have pertinent stats about their previous two seasons, as well as career totals. These cards might look neat in a real transparent picture holder - or at least in a top loader for a collector's most treasured cards of the set. Among the subsets in the basic set, in addition to the team cards, are Fantasy Studs, which focus on the best players in fantasy leagues, MVP cards of the league's top pros, and Topp 60, where Topps rated the 60 best players going into the 2015 season. The final 110 cards of the basic set include many of the rookies of the NFL. In addition, Topps created over 100 variations of base set cards, which can be found in both packs and the factory set.
In recent years, Topps has made more different base and insert cards than ever, and created an impossible master set in the process. In both 2014 and 2015, Topps created some 7000 unique items, many of which are one-of-one printing plates or platinum parallel cards. Topps, all told, made eight different levels of serial numbered parallel cards, from a gold set limited to 2015 per card number to the aforementioned platinum card. I never understood the appeal of the parallel card, as most of them I've seen don't sell for much more than their base set equivalents. I would rather have seen Topps devote more time to more players rather than be this repetitive. If they had wanted (and I'm not advocating this), Topps could have made at least three cards for every player who played in a 2015 NFL regular season game with the resources they used to create so many different items.
I'm not saying, though, that the chase card portion of the collection does not have merits. I always enjoyed the 1000 and 4000 Yard inserts, which honor the top achievements of skill position players from the previous season. I've also been a fan of their retro inserts, which recall the best designed cards of the company's past. For their 60th Anniversary season, Topps created a 100-card retro insert set with designs from several issues. Though only a few years gained representation here, Topps included a year range from 1957-1992 on these inserts. On this and the 30-card Past & Present Performers cards, Topps included retired stars from their time in the hobby, from Paul Hornung to Brett Favre. Another favorite of mine is the 14-card Presidential Celebration set, which featured a US President in a photo with a Super Bowl champion. Every living chief exececutive appears at least once, but most of the photos include either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. The Fantasy Focus and All-Time Fantasy Greats, though, appeal as little to me as fantasy football itself, and smacks of overkill. Collectors who like autographs and like memorabilia also get a chance to get some of the assortment of these inserts.
I find it ironic that in the comings and goings of the football card market since 1988, when Topps last held a monopoly on the mainstream manufacturing of player cards, Topps has endured, and will continue to make cards in other sports. Even Fleer, who challenged Topps over their monopoly for years before the courts ruled in their favor, wound up in the hands of Upper Deck, who last made NFL cards in 2009. Panini, who now has the NFL-granted monopoly of the card market, has not made a base brand the way Topps did (Panini's first NFL cards debuted in 2010). Their biggest volume set is Score, but their annual early arrival on shelves (about a month after the NFL Draft), means the rookies in the set appear in college photos instead of NFL uniforms. When I buy NFL cards, I expect NFL players in their pro garb. As a result, I'm undecided if I will pursue any Panini product in 2016. I have one more reason as well. I'm not sure what's worse for the hobby - many companies releasing product, or one company releasing many lines of cards, as every major American sport now has. I may have my issues with Topps, but Panini doesn't give me reassurance that the NFL card market is in the best hands. They may have a good run, but that will now be seen.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give the 2015 Topps base brand NFL cards 3.5 stars. A strong finish to a fine run.