Inside the Pack: Minor League Unionization Could Have Major Impact on Cards

It’s Labor Day, and on past Labor Days I have talked about the former head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Marvin Miller. Miller, now a Hall of Famer, played a huge role in baseball history, helping players secure free agency rights, large salaries, and guaranteed money.

My interest in writing about him, however, has mainly been as it relates to baseball cards. As a quick recap: When he began as head of the union, Miller saw that the way Topps was operating — signing individual players to low-cost contracts to appear on their cards — left lots of money on the table for the players. He proposed a group licensing fee; he wanted Topps to pay the union for access to all of the players’ rights. Topps declined, and Miller organized a player boycott of Topps photographers, forcing Topps to reuse or airbrush photos in the late 1960s. They eventually acquiesced, and the group licensing fee — still the gold standard today — was born.

It was against this backdrop that I viewed last week’s news about a potential unionization of Minor League players. Unlike minor league hockey and basketball players, Minor League Baseball players are proposing joining the MLBPA, which would become a catch-all union for all players in both the majors and minors.

To be clear, this is still quite a long way from happening. Minor leaguers are just now filling out cards to state their interest in joining a union. Should at least 30% say yes, the idea will be explored. If at least 50% say yes, Major League Baseball would have the option of voluntarily recognizing the union, though there’s nothing in the league’s past suggesting they would do so.

If the MLBPA became the union representation for the Minors, it could have drastic implications on the card world. Topps and Fanatics, which will have exclusive rights with the MLBPA when such a unionization might take place, would almost certainly not get to suddenly add the rights of 3,000 minor league players to their stable for free. But paying the same rate per player for minor leaguers, the vast majority of whom are unlikely to ever appear in an MLB game, wouldn’t be palatable, either.

It’s quite likely that however the unionization happens, minor league players will not be included in the major league portion of group licensing. But given its strong history of using the group licensing fee to its advantage, might the MLBPA create a second, separate group to license for use on cards? If so, would Fanatics and Topps even be interested in paying for 3,000 players just to use a couple hundred on their cards each year? Would minor leaguers instead continue to operate individually and sign with card companies on their own?

There are still many steps that are needed, and many years to figure out the intricacies. But rest assured, if minor leaguers do unionize, there will most certainly be an impact on the card industry.

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