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How digital platforms will revolutionise the trading card industry

31 July 2015

The trading card market has been around for decades, featuring everything from our favourite sports superstars, to the characters of a Hollywood blockbuster. Their popularity lies in the fact that they can be collectible, durable, play-able and, in some cases, valuable. However, as our society moves into a digital age, where ones and zeros replace paper and pen, an important question to consider is whether or not card and sticker collectibles can have any place in a paperless world. The short answer? Of course they can!

The earliest form of trading cards, known as "Trade Cards", were beautifully designed pictures of company adverts, much like modern day business cards, which came free with packs of cigarettes. These cards proved to be incredibly popular, especially for young children, who would wait eagerly outside of tobacconists and newsagents to claim the cards from the adults who purchased them.

Following that success, trade cards were marketed alongside a wider range of products, including sweets. The themes of the cards also expanded to include businesses outside of the tobacco industry, such as food, drink, textiles and seasonal products.

The trading cards we know today have evolved beyond a simple advertisement. Gone are the hand-drawn designs of the Victorian-era - instead, trading cards are designed with photographs and movie/television "stills", short biographies or descriptions, statistics and facts. They have also evolved beyond that of a mere collector's item, with some made to trade or play against each other, (anyone remember the Pokémon craze?).

Furthermore, the internet has now extended this market from a simple hobby to a community, where people can meet online to trade and discuss the value of limited editions and older designs. Game stores host nights when players can pitch their collections against rivals, and eBay means that the little card hiding under your bed could have the potential to be worth thousands to the right buyer.

The trading card market is currently worth over £2.4billion annually, but despite the increasing connectivity aided by internet forums, the actual cards themselves rely on a model that inhibits immediacy and real time consumer engagement. In addition, geographical location and the potential lack of transport, as well as the depreciation of the value of the card caused by wear and tear, can cause problems for the seasoned collector, and potentially inhibit certain generations or communities (such as children relying on parents for transport and money, or people who live in remote areas) from having access to the sector. But what would happen if we were to digitise that model?

Digital trading card technology is still in its early stages but, at its core, it takes the principle of a traditional printed card or sticker album and turns it into an interactive digital trading environment.

The main difference between traditional and digitally-driven cards is one of immediacy. What this means is that digital cards can take live data feeds from licensors, external sources or current events, and use these feeds to update the information on the card in real time. Imagine, for example, a football player scoring two goals in a recent match. The data on the card would alter electronically to reflect this, providing the collector with accurate, up-to-date information without the need to purchase a new card.

For the collector, they will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a real-time, externally influenced collection, thanks to mobile and tablet portability, which will allow them to trade with anyone at any time, all over the world.

This is the main USP of digital trading technology, because it not only enriches the trading experience for the collector, but it also provides exciting, custom opportunities for each intellectual property rights owner, whether in sports, music or general entertainment. The possibilities for creativity are really quite endless. We are grateful that Mercia has also glimpsed this opportunity.

For the trading card industry itself, digital platforms present an ideal opportunity to monetise current and archive content in a hugely engaging way to a new, younger generation, particularly six to 26 year-olds, all of whom are native to the digital world in which we now live.

All of this is even more exciting when you consider the almost guaranteed growth of the trading card market, as entertainment industries continue to rely on a proven formula to extend the reach of their franchises.

Major sports leagues will, of course, remain an annual fixture, and with good reason - in 2014, the worldwide licensing industry was worth approximately $156bn (source: The Licensing Letter) at retail, with the USA generating approximately $94bn ($4.95bn in royalties) and the rest of the world generating $62bn. (Sources: EPM Communications for retail and LIMA for royalty information).

With the continued global proliferation of smartphone and tablet availability in households increasing annually, the opportunity for digital trading platforms to leverage prestigious sports and entertainment IP is threefold:

  1. Bridging the classical and established physical trading card business with a current day appetite for videogame-style dynamics;
  2. Enabling brand owners to converge their physical empires with growing digital output by sitting central to their ecosystem and leveraging consumer touch point;
  3. Continuing to develop cutting edge technology that sits between these two sectors and carving a newly emerging, substantial "niche".

Of course, there will always be a place for traditional card collections, but with digital trading technology, trading cards are able to take on an exciting new form online and without geographical boundaries for today's digital natives. We look forward to working with Mercia to move this great opportunity forward.

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