Topps loses its licensing deal for baseball cards and tears up its plan to go public.

So Farrare

Daily Business Briefing

Aug. 31, 2021, 10:08 a.m. ET

Aug. 31, 2021, 10:08 a.m. ET

Credit…Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Topps has been synonymous with trading cards, particularly baseball cards, for 70 years.

That era will soon be over. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association are ending their licensing agreement with Topps in favor of a deal with Fanatics, the up-and-coming sports collectible brand. The loss of baseball rights also led to the abrupt cancellation on Friday of a plan for Topps to go public, casting its future into question.

The company, which also owns Bazooka gum, announced a deal in April to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, run by Mudrick Capital. The $1.3 billion merger was set to go to a shareholder vote next week.

Topps and Mudrick announced Friday morning that the deal was off, a day after they were notified that the baseball contracts will not be renewed when they expire in 2022 for players’ images, which the players’ union controls, and 2025 for team logos, which Major League Baseball controls.

Andy Redman, executive chairman of Topps, said in a statement that the company had been left in the dark by its negotiating partners at the league and the players’ union.

“Not only were we unaware that Major League Baseball was negotiating with anybody other than Topps regarding our rights beyond 2025,” he said, but Topps was told on Thursday by Noah Garden, the league’s chief revenue officer, “that a deal was completed, finalized and exclusive with Fanatics.”

“Similarly, as recently as the All-Star Game on July 13 in two one-hour conversations, Evan Kaplan from M.L.B. Players Inc. never indicated to Topps that the union was negotiating with any other parties about our rights,” Mr. Redman added. Mr. Kaplan is managing director of the players’ union.

A representative for the league did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the union did not have a comment.

Topps has been owned by Tornante, the investment firm of the former Walt Disney Company chief Michael Eisner, and the private equity firm Madison Dearborn since 2007, when the two acquired it for $385 million.

Fanatics, most recently valued at $18 billion, has been drawing on its ties to major sports league teams to expand beyond hats, hoodies and other branded merchandise. In June, it started a digital collectibles firm, Candy Digital, which has teamed up with Major League Baseball to introduce a series of nonfungible tokens. Fanatics has also poached a number of executives from sports teams, gambling companies and tech firms as it considers expanding into ticketing, betting and gambling.

The baseball deal reflects Fanatics’ growth ambitions, moving into baseball cards when they have exploded in popularity, amid growing interest from homebound traders and digital investors buying NFTs.

Fanatics will create a new trading card company and give both Major League Baseball and the players’ union seats on the board, said a person familiar with the plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because those plans were not yet public. The union and the league will get a stake in the company, a shift to owning a piece of the company that makes money from its members’ images rather than simply licensing those images. Sports unions have in recent years bolstered their commercial arms to help players earn more from their likenesses.

Riding high on its new licensing deals, Fanatics could consider trying to acquire one of the three major card companies: Panini, Upper Deck or Topps, a person familiar with the company’s thinking said. That would mirror its strategy with the apparel company Majestic, which it acquired after winning the rights to make major-league uniforms that Majestic previously held.

Kevin Draper and Ephrat Livni contributed reporting.

Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The company told employees that it would give workers at least a month’s notice before being asked to return to the office.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Apple again delayed its return-to-office date, until January, because of the continuing spread of the coronavirus in the United States.

Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s head of human resources, told employees in an email late Thursday that the company’s offices and retail stores remained open, but that employees would not be required to return until January at the earliest, according to a copy of the email viewed by The New York Times. She said Apple would give employees at least one month’s notice before asking them to return to offices.

Last month, Apple was one of the first major companies to push back its mandatory return-to-office date as the Delta variant was starting to fuel a surge in U.S. coronavirus cases, changing the return date to October from September.

Since then, cases have continued to increase and companies across the country have told employees to stay home for the foreseeable future. Apple’s decision to delay its return into 2022 is further evidence that the prepandemic workplace is not returning as quickly as some executives and employees had hoped.

Still, many employees are happy with the delays. In an internal Slack group at Apple for people who support remote work, many of the more than 7,000 members cheered the decision, according to Cher Scarlett, an Apple software engineer who has pushed executives to allow employees to continue to work from home.

Ms. Scarlett said the decision to delay was welcome news but she and many other colleagues don’t ever want to be forced to return to the office. “I do hope that they see that some of our other concerns are valid as well,” she said. “A lot of people, whether they have children or at-risk people at home, just feel safer working at home.”

In the email on Thursday, Ms. O’Brien encouraged employees to get vaccinated, noting that government data show that 99.6 percent of people hospitalized for the coronavirus since January have been unvaccinated.

Last month, Apple returned to mask requirements inside its U.S. stores and offices, regardless of vaccination status.

Stocks climbed on Friday, recovering somewhat after several days of rocky trading, but not enough to reverse losses for the week as investors worried about the possibility of tapering government stimulus when coronavirus cases are rising and the economic recovery is still uncertain.

The S&P 500, the benchmark U.S. index, rose 0.8 percent, building on a slight gain from Thursday, but it still finished down 0.6 percent for the week. The tech-heavy Nasdaq ended the week 0.7 percent lower.

The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasury notes rose to 1.26 percent from 1.24 percent.

Investors have been pulling back amid signs that the fragile economic revival is in danger of losing its footing. The tumult began on Tuesday after the Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell in July, and it continued on Wednesday when minutes of the latest Federal Reserve meeting showed that officials were preparing to slow large purchases of government-backed bonds.

“All these factors are bearish for equities,” said John Canavan, lead analyst at Oxford Economics. “There’s a good argument for U.S. equities and stocks to lose even more ground in the week ahead because of Covid concerns and weaker Asian equity markets.”

Economists will focus on next week’s annual Fed gathering in Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, is expected to reveal details about how and when the central bank plans to begin winding down its bond-buying program.

Also next week, the Commerce Department is set to publish the personal consumption expenditures price index, the Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge. The data will provide insight into how much and how quickly rising prices might fade. The Fed continues to say it believes the recent pop in inflation is transitory.

A series of Chinese regulatory crackdowns on some of the country’s largest tech companies is creating concern. China is also facing shipping disruptions, with one of the country’s largest ports partly closed because of a coronavirus outbreak, raising concerns over global trade.

Adding to pressure on the recovery, several factors are still discouraging people from returning to work, including child care issues and concerns about the coronavirus itself. Those issues had receded somewhat over the summer, but they could worsen again this fall if virus cases continue to rise.

Economists expect the labor supply to remain under pressure because of the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.

“This can remain a dampening factor on economic growth,” analysts at Bank of America wrote in a note on Friday. “The challenges on the supply chain can keep inventory levels low, holding back what could otherwise be significant boost to growth from restocking. It will also leave prices elevated for big-ticket items, continuing to discourage spending on these items.”

Oil prices were lower for their seventh consecutive day on Friday. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. crude benchmark, fell 1.8 percent on Friday to $62.32 a barrel. Pandemic concerns on energy demand continue to linger, but lower oil prices could relieve inflationary pressure, which in turn would give the Federal Reserve more room to continue with its bond-buying programs.

Tech stocks, including Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, were up on Friday, signaling investors flocking toward shares that were bolstered early on in the pandemic.

But Apple said on Friday that it would delay its return-to-office date to January, another sign that workplaces would not be returning to its prepandemic levels as quickly as some companies had hoped.

“In the U.S., we’re seeing a delayed return to offices that can impact the retail and service sectors as people remain in their houses,” Mr. Canavan said.

Taking photos near surveillance cameras in Beijing. A new Chinese law requires that facial recognition equipment installed in public places be clearly labeled.
Credit…Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

China on Friday approved a law that will limit the collection and use of personal data, a step that reflects public unease about the power of big tech companies but is unlikely to curb the Chinese government’s extensive ability to surveil its citizens.

According to the official Xinhua news agency, the Personal Information Protection Law — which some legal experts have called China’s version of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or G.D.P.R. — bans the collection “to excess” of people’s data. It calls for better mechanisms for individuals to file complaints about how their data is used.

The new law forbids businesses to use their information on customers to charge them “unreasonably” higher prices. And it requires that facial recognition equipment installed in public places be clearly labeled.

Companies that break these rules face fines, as do their employees. The full text of the law, which takes effect on Nov. 1, has yet to be made public.

China has come down hard this year on its once high-flying internet industry. Giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Meituan, Ant and Didi were able to grow and acquire influence over huge segments of the economy in large part because Beijing barely regulated their business practices. Now, the government is racing to catch up.

A draft of the privacy law said its provisions applied to the Chinese government as well. It forbade official agencies to process personal data beyond what is “necessary” for their legally prescribed duties.

But the government and the police in China have claimed expansive authority to monitor people, often in the name of public security. And it is unclear how much the new law will change that. The G.D.P.R. in Europe specifically restricts the legal justification that government bodies can claim for processing personal data.

Binance hired the former acting comptroller of the currency Brian Brooks, as chief executive, but he later resigned.
Credit…Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

As cryptocurrency businesses seek to join the finance mainstream, many are following the same playbook: They hire former government officials. Bringing them onboard is one thing, but keeping them around is another, the DealBook newsletter reports.

The world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, Binance, has made hiring former regulators central to its efforts to burnish its reputation. In April, its American subsidiary, Binance.US, hired the former acting comptroller of the currency, Brian Brooks, as chief executive. At the time, he said that “managing reputation” among regulators was a priority. But Mr. Brooks resigned abruptly this month, citing “strategic differences.”

Diversifying Binance.US’s ownership structure was crucial to Mr. Brooks’s plans to create a more transparent business and address regulators’ concerns. But Binance’s founder, Changpeng Zhao, demanded to retain control, making some potential investors uneasy. Mr. Brooks and Mr. Zhao both recognized reputational liabilities, but they apparently could not agree on how to address them.

Coinbase, the largest U.S. crypto exchange — where Mr. Brooks was chief counsel before going into government — in April hired Brett Redfearn, who previously led a division of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He resigned in July because of a shift in strategic focus at the company, Coinbase said.

And there’s more where that came from. Jay Clayton, a former S.E.C. chair, on Thursday joined the advisory board of the crypto custody provider Fireblocks. Greg Monahan, a former criminal investigator at the Treasury Department, joined Binance this week in an anti-money laundering role. The former Commodity Futures Trading Commission chair, Chris Giancarlo, in April joined the board of BlockFi, which is in the cross hairs of securities regulators in several states. And the world’s biggest crypto venture capital fund, at Andreessen Horowitz, is run by a former federal prosecutor, Katie Haun.

William A. Ackman is trying to save his $4 billion special purpose acquisition company.
Credit…Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

William A. Ackman, the billionaire hedge fund manager, is pivoting again to try to save Pershing Square Tontine Holdings, his $4 billion special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, which has faced a series of setbacks since it was introduced a year ago. In a letter to investors posted late Thursday, he proposed an overhaul that could lead to the SPAC shutting down, returning its cash to investors and being reborn in a new guise, the DealBook newsletter reports.

To recap, Mr. Ackman’s SPAC, the largest of its kind, promoted many investor-friendly features, like tying the sponsor’s pay more closely to post-merger performance. But when he announced he had identified a deal, a complex transaction that involved buying a minority stake in Universal Music while spinning out two other blank-check vehicles, regulators balked, and the plan was scrapped last month. This week, the SPAC was hit with a lawsuit that challenged the fundamental structure of the SPAC, prompting Ackman’s change in approach.

“The mere existence of the litigation may deter potential merger partners” from engaging with the SPAC, Mr. Ackman wrote. The appeals process could drag on, and the SPAC has only 11 months left to announce a deal.

Mr. Ackman suggested that his SPAC was a stand-in for a broader campaign by academics and lawyers against all blank-check firms, which have boomed over the past year. “The two law professors who concocted the legal theory behind the complaint conceded to the press that their motivation in bringing the lawsuit was ‘to reform’ the entire SPAC industry,” he wrote.

“All is not lost, however,” Mr. Ackman said. He proposed replacing his SPAC with a new blank-check vehicle called a SPARC, which he first proposed as part of the aborted Universal Music deal. If the SPARC structure is approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York Stock Exchange, which Mr. Ackman said he was in talks with, investors in the SPAC will get their money back at the $20-per-share initial public offering price and also receive warrants to buy into the SPARC.

In a SPAC, investors buy shares in a public shell company formed to make an acquisition within a two-year time frame. In a SPARC, investors don’t put in money up front, and instead receive a right (the “R” in SPARC) to buy in once the vehicle announces a merger target, which isn’t subject to any time limits.

Investors who bought when Mr. Ackman’s SPAC was trading above its I.P.O. price would have a loss crystallized by being forced to take cash at the offer price. Some are taking to social media to vent their frustrations, with plenty of colorful language. Time will tell if the accompanying right to buy into the SPARC is worth it, if it ever comes to that.


CreditCredit…Walt Disney Imagineering

Some of the animatronics at Disney’s parks have been doing their herky-jerky thing since the Nixon administration. The company knows that nostalgia won’t cut it with today’s children. In early June, Disney’s animatronic technology took a sonic leap forward with a “stuntronic” robot, and that’s just the start. READ THE ARTICLE →

Selling phones and SIM cards at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2016.
Credit…Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Facebook says it has added several security features to help people in Afghanistan control their accounts as fears rise of reprisals from the Taliban.

In a series of tweets late Thursday, Facebook’s head of security said the company had temporarily disabled the ability to view and search the friends lists of Facebook accounts inside Afghanistan. He also said the platform, which is seeing a proliferation of new Taliban accounts despite a ban on the group, had provided a tool to help Afghans quickly lock their accounts if they feared being targeted.

The unprecedented measures target one of the most fundamental Facebook features: the friends list. They represent a frank acknowledgment from the company, which has long touted its ability to connect the world, of the risks of having personal information available on social networks.

Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan this week, their promises of amnesty and reconciliation have been undermined by reports that their soldiers are engaging in reprisal attacks and forcibly cracking down on protests.

In the days since the militants took over cities including Kabul, the capital, many Afghans have shuttered their social media accounts and deleted messages out of fear that their digital footprints could make them targets of the former insurgents. In the past, the Taliban have meted out brutal retribution against Afghans with ties to the country’s former government or Western countries such as the United States.

The Taliban have nevertheless become sophisticated users of social media. During the summer offensive that catapulted them to power, they used social media platforms to spread their messages.

Facebook’s head of security, Nathaniel Gleicher, also urged people with friends in Afghanistan to consider tightening their own privacy settings.

The social network’s strict bans on the Taliban have pushed many of its most influential voices and officials to Twitter. Still, the platform has struggled to keep out all accounts. Dozens of new ones have appeared on the site in recent days, presenting the company with the difficult question of how to regulate a group that now controls Afghanistan.

Brandon Mena took pictures of himself in Caracas, Venezuela, last year to share with subscribers to his OnlyFans profile.
Credit…Cristian Hernandez/AFP — Getty Images
  • OnlyFans said on Thursday that it would ban sexually explicit imagery starting in October.

    The company, a social media platform where users can sell subscription access to content, said in a statement that it would block users from posting explicit photos and videos at the request of its “banking partners and payout providers.” OnlyFans said it would still allow people to post imagery containing nudity that complied with its guidelines.

    A spokeswoman for the company did not respond to questions about who had made the request or what had prompted the shift. OnlyFans has become a source of income for two million creators, including sex workers, during the pandemic.

  • For the first time, a major awards show is going where the eyeballs are.

    The Academy of Country Music Awards will be streamed live on Amazon Prime Video starting next year, Amazon said on Thursday in an announcement with the company that produces the show, Dick Clark Productions.

    The ACMs, as they are known, will become the first significant awards telecast to move entirely online. The chief executive of the Academy of Country Music said in a statement that moving the ceremony to Amazon “will deliver the broadest possible audience and, simultaneously, deliver massive value to our artists whose music lives inside this ecosystem, enabling fans to discover and stream music as they watch.”

  • Charles Schwab, one of the country’s biggest brokerage firms, said on Thursday that it was delaying its return to the office until at least January. The company, which has about 20,000 employees, is the latest firm to push back plans to recall employees. Amazon has also delayed its return until January, and Lyft has pushed its return to February. Other companies, including Google, BlackRock and Wells Fargo, have postponed their returns until October.

    Schwab also said it would give “the vast majority” of its employees a “special” 5 percent raise, starting in late September. Walt Bettinger, the chief executive, said the raises were a thank-you for “outstanding results for our clients and growth for the company.” Employees that receive incentive-based compensation and senior executives will not be eligible for the raises.

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