In the top of the first inning of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game last month, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant clubbed a home run off the leftfield scoreboard at San Diego’s Petco Park.
Twenty minutes later, the moment had been memorialized with its own baseball card.
Welcome to the new world of card collecting, where your collection can be as large as your data plan.
Since 2012, Topps Inc. has launched seven free apps that let users collect and trade digital cards. As app store visits surge and hobby store visits decline, these programs have injected cash and interest into one of the last vestiges of print media to go digital.
Digital trading cards look a lot like their paper forebears: a photo on the front, stats on the back. Users open the apps to ogle their collections, make trades with other players, and get new cards by opening a limited number of free packs. Die-hards pay for additional packs, increasing their chances to land rarer cards that can be swapped for real-world money.
Topps also has apps for the NFL, soccer, the UFC and the WWE. It has also broached nonsports markets with trading card apps for “Star Wars” and “The Walking Dead.” The company would not discuss the profitability of its apps, but said physical sales currently outweigh digital sales. Its digital business, however, is rapidly growing.
Topps said its apps have been downloaded more than 9 million times. Kick, a soccer app, is its leader, with more than 4 million downloads. More than 600 million packs have been opened across its apps, with an increase of more than 50 percent in the past year.
According to AppAnnie, an app tracking service, five Topps apps have ranked among the top five most downloaded sports and entertainment apps; three have held the top spot at times. The digital products have allowed Topps to build a business that is in many ways the opposite of its printed cards.
Paper cards take days to make, package and ship. They are generally released in sets just once or twice a year — and interest in them peaks around opening day.
With digital apps, it takes just minutes for Topps to release new cards after big plays, decisive victories or trades, or update existing cards with up-to-date statistics. And the company doesn’t have to worry about paper, ink, packaging or shipping.
The company’s success has led competitors to quickly build their own e-card businesses. Upper Deck Co. launched e-Pack this year for fans to buy and trade NHL cards. Upper Deck has free cards available but also allows fans to buy a physical version of any digital card for a fee.
Panini America launched Panini Instant for soccer cards in time for this summer’s Copa America Tournament. Its digital basketball card app launched a year ago.
Topps and other companies use algorithms to limit supply. This rewards the lucky — and the persistent.
When Topps released its baseball app, Bunt, it was met with skepticism at Beckett Media, the leading sports card appraiser.
But after subscribers of the Dallas company’s digest of card prices wrote in asking about digital cards, the publication realized Topps was on to something. “The market forced us to start taking notice,” senior market analyst Brian Fleischer said.
Like paper baseball cards, most digital baseball cards are worth close to nothing. But collectors are willing to pay a premium for rare cards — even if they’re just a digital image, not something they can touch. A 2015 Topps Hi-Tech signature card of Angels star Mike Trout sold on eBay for $550 months ago. A Jared Goff draft day card went for $450. A purple “Star Wars” Rey Classic variant commanded $1,000.
All trades are done within the app, but the money moves through third-party platforms like eBay or PayPal.
The company will soon launch a physical set of Bunt cards based on designs used from the app. Each card comes with special codes that unlock a digital version for app users.