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Fanatics MLB Debut Patch Announcement Comes During a Rough Patch for Swatch Cards

Fanatics MLB Debut Patch Announcement Comes During a Rough Patch for Swatch Cards
April 6, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Fanatics

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"The enclosed officially licensed material is not associated with any specific player, game, or event."

That's the "assurance" many high-end patch card collectors have been force-fed in recent years. Even a generous paraphrase might translate: these patches are utterly meaningless, but you'll spend handsomely on the card anyways. Maybe that's finally all set to change.

Last week, Fanatics and Topps made mainstream sports headlines with the announcement that MLB rookies would make their debuts wearing an "MLB Debut" patch on their sleeves, with those patches ultimately making their way onto one of the player's rookie cards.

The reveal was met with near-universal excitement and praise in a collecting landscape frustrated with the staleness and lack of creativity on offer in recent card product. It's not yet known what form the patch cards will take, or in what product (high-end or low-end) they might be released. With 303 MLB debuts in 2022, it's also quite clear that a customer's chances of landing one of these cards are effectively non-existent.

That being the case, the excited reaction may not be so much to the specific patches, but to the statement of intent itself from Fanatics. If this development is any indication of the creativity and attention with which the company might approach refreshing stale card product, then there is indeed reason to be optimistic. Beyond that, the idea that a major sports league and its player association are fully on board with a uniform modification made solely to accommodate the trading card industry is extraordinary.

There is perhaps no area of the card market in more dire need of attention and effort than patch cards, which are frequently the subject of both scrutiny and mockery, owing in no small part to the large prices they command. What started as an exciting addition to the chase card universe, underpinned by the fusing of game-worn memorabilia with card collecting, has become an increasingly opaque and confusing product. Despite slipping standards, the monetary stakes have remained significant. While there are indeed still cards featuring game-worn patches, they are fewer and far between, with flagship product eschewing significance for convenience and cost.

Take, for example, the evolution of the National Treasures Rookie Patch Autograph in basketball. Over time, the assurances of what that patch represents have grown looser and looser.

  • 2009-10 Panini National Treasures Stephen Curry Jersey Auto: "The autograph and enclosed event-worn swatch are guaranteed by Panini America, Inc." Got it, the player wore the jersey at a certain event, but not in a game. Not ideal, but more on the event in a second.
  • 2018-19 Panini National Treasures Luka Doncic Jersey Auto: "The enclosed player-worn material and autograph are guaranteed by Panini America, Inc." Alright, player-worn. Where and when did the player wear it? Beats me. Did they just toss a boatload of jerseys on their body, à la Mark Ingram? Did they pop it on and immediately pop it back off? How special.
  • 2020-21 Panini National Treasures Anthony Edwards Jersey Auto: "The enclosed officially licensed material is not associated with any specific player, game, or event." Who needs association of literally any kind anyways?!

The debut release, produced for Curry's rookie season, was believed to carry patches worn by the player at the rookie photo shoot. So, while they weren't game-worn - and weren't sold as such - there was still a certain charm to the swatch likely belonging to one of the first NBA jerseys the player ever wore.

Fast forward to today, and....what?!? Perhaps "officially licensed" is doing more heavy-lifting than realized, but it sure sounds like any of us could head out to Dick's Sporting Goods and buy a jersey not associated with any specific player, game, or event. That's how some patches produced today become known as "Dick's Sporting Goods patches". They bear no significance, essentially serving only as an aesthetic flourish enclosed by cardboard.

Big money sales, then, stymie some collectors, though it's worth bearing in mind that plenty of cards with neither autographs nor patches command mouthwatering sums. Nonetheless, it does seem that National Treasures has been riding the momentum of established brand desirability in recent years, rather than creating a product worthy of the high price tag.

In recent months, collectors - or speculators - have grown skeptical of the stature of these cards, many of which were the most prolific headline fodder during the market's charge higher. At the highest end, it was patch cards that became the most prominent arena for speculation on active players. That speculation is a double edged sword.

We looked at cards from 5 prominent active players in both football and baseball, comparing the most recent sale to the card's 2022 peak. We analyzed patch cards, consisting mostly of National Treasures, against high value non patch cards for which there were sales in both 2022 and 2023.  We found that on average, the non-patch cards are down 20% from their 2022 peak, while the patch cards are down a whopping 53%. While that experience isn't uniform across players, it's most pronounced for those that have materially strengthened their collectability on the court/field in recent months, like Trevor Lawrence and Jayson Tatum for example. Even those performances can't arrest the decline of the patch.

The news from Fanatics comes at a critical juncture, when it appears collectors are preparing to ask for better...for more than materials "not associated with any specific player, game, or event." The good news: if you're offering a patch, it's just about impossible to offer less than that.

At the rate things were going, we were a few years away from "The enclosed material may or may not be a swatch of any kind, and we can guarantee that."

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