Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Match Attax

Ben Taylor discusses the cultural and economic significance of football trading cards among children.

On 12 March, Match Attax Extras were released in the UK. These are Premier League football trading cards which are currently among the most sought after collectibles for children of primary school age. They are produced by Topps, an American company which has a long history of producing baseball trading cards in the US.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about football cards. Cigarette manufacturers first issued collectible cigarette cards featuring football players over 100 years ago. By the 1960s, Panini had launched collectible football stickers, still widely available today. Match Attax, launched in 2007 to replace Shoot Out cards, consist of over 400 cards featuring Premiership footballers released early in the football season. Each player receives a star rating, and the collection includes a number of limited edition cards. Match Attax Extras are an additional crop of over 100 cards reflecting mid-season transfers, players who have scored hat-tricks and fans’ favourites. The brand in part is marketed as a game: collectors can put together their own team and pitch themselves against another team in a match played out in relation to respective players’ star ratings. A world championship is due to be held in Hong Kong later this year. However, it is as a trading card game that Match Attax has really caught on, with cards being exchanged in playgrounds, toy shops and on websites such as eBay.

From a cultural studies perspective, there are three points I would raise here. The first is that the popularity of Match Attax is a reminder that we need to retain an interest in what goes on beyond electronic media forms. All too often, the discipline of cultural studies has become too media-centred, assuming that media experience is definitive of our experience per se. This media-centredness is often shared by broader debates about children and leisure, where anxieties are frequently expressed about the long hours spent in front of a screen, watching television or playing video games. Beyond the media attributes of Match Attax cards themselves, then, we need to undertake a rather different form of analysis of the practices of collecting and trading which surround them.

My second point concerns how we might interpret these practices. In one of the few pieces of academic work which explores trading cards, Daniel Cook argues that the practice of trading them represents a ‘form of training […] for competitive capitalism’ (Cook, 2001: 95). While in one sense there is clearly some legitimacy to this interpretation, in another sense the process of swapping cards is an example of commodities being reused without any exchange of money taking place. In this respect, it is a practice which represents a departure from the dominant forms of consumption found within capitalist society.

My third point relates to the commodification of sport. I am currently reading Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport, and in one of the essays in the book Garry Whannel explores the manner in which the commodification of sport enjoys both an economic and a cultural dimension (Whannel, 2009). This is clearly the case with Match Attax. Their success can be subjected to a fairly obvious form of economic analysis. They are, for example, manufactured under licence from the Premier League. A target for young children’s pocket-money expenditure, the release of the Extras series in the latter stages of the football season can be seen as particularly exploitative. But this economic analysis needs to be triangulated with an analysis of the cultural coordinates of Match Attax. As Whannel notes, the increasing commodification of football ‘has generated new cultural practices and rituals of consumption’ (2009: 84). Match Attax are one such practice and ritual. While they might seem peripheral to the core activities of Premiership football, they are quite central to the leisure practices of many schoolchildren, a vehicle for friendship and social contacts. In many cases, they generate a capacious knowledge of football and go hand in hand with a more general passion for the beautiful game, which in turn might lead to other forms of consumption of football-related commodities (replica kits, match tickets, satellite television and so on). Whannel is therefore correct to argue that we need to pay ‘close attention to the multiple levels in which’ commodification occurs (2009: 84), and I hope it is clear how the case of Match Attax illustrates this.

Cook, D. T. (2001) ‘Exchange Value as Pedagogy in Children’s Leisure: Moral Panics in Children’s Culture at Century’s End’, Leisure Sciences, 23:81–98.
Whannel, G. (2009) ‘Between culture and economy: understanding the politics of media sport’ in B. Carrington and I. McDonald (eds) Marxism, Cultural Studies and Sport, London: Routledge.
(Photo credit: robdebsgreen. Permissions.)


  1. I think the point about being wary of (electronic) media-centredness in cultural studies is well made. It's certainly interesting that a pretty traditional type of trading card is still capable of becoming a 'craze' in this way. Some accounts of 'kids today' give the impression that only electronic media are capable of capturing the imagination of children, which is clearly not the case.

  2. Ben, you might remember that I am deliberately indifferent to football, yet card trading is neither football-specific nor a new ritual by any means. I remember the practice having to do with stickers of race drivers' photos, animals etc.--it's pretty standard, when a number of cards has to be completed, to get into negotiations with people who have what you (think you) want. As the previous poster noted, this is clearly an example of survival of older (non-electronic media-generated) modes of leisure; albeit, I would add based on your observations, in tandem with the promotion of media-centred consumption. I don't really see what, in the ensuing situation, is particularly "new" here--putting aside the massive evolution of technology, hence of the electronic media and the adjacent scale and patterns of consumption. That the use of the said evolution in consumer culture is still accompanied by literally pedestrian (that is, "natural", directly interpersonal, not technology-dependent) activities (including, I should think, football itself) is to do with the survival of an older ritual, rather than the development of the new one. Whether it is an education for capitalism or not is a moot point, deliberately ambivalent: of course there is exchange of money originally; on the other hand, there is no such real exchange, say, in Monopoly, apart from the money spent foor buying the game obviously. But in both cases there is a proto-capitalist project of completion-cum-competition, whereby social relations and collaborations are dependent on personal interest. These, in any case, are old games of communication-cum-socialization, with all the ambiguities these inevitably entail. That is, I don't quite see the specific "new-ness" in it all.
    Nice to talk to you after all these years, by the way!

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