Singles No Longer Moving the Market

by Eamonn Donlyn

There are many ‘lost arts’, but from a sports card dealer perspective the simplest one has become the toughest challenge:  Selling the single.

Once upon a time, single cards were the holy grail.  Generally, a rookie single, but not always limited to such.  From Ty Cobb to Mickey Mantle to Nolan Ryan all the way to Ken Griffey Jr., the single dominated the diamond of card collecting.

2011 Bowman Baseball Bowmans Best HeywardThis is true for all sports, from Walter Payton to Wayne Gretzky to Michael Jordan the single superstar would sell.  And not JUST the rookie, but all singles of a hot player would be moveable.

Nowadays, it seems like the only ‘singles’ that sell in a card shop or super short prints, or autographs or both.  A single rookie card that does not fit one of those definitions, is often tough to move.  Forget about the single of a regular issue, regardless of how hot that player may be.

So while Colin Kaepernik, Mike Trout or Kyrie Irving might be an easy sell at the end high end, even those players are challenging to move with regular issue, or even more common RC’s.  Some will blame the billions of cards printed over the last 10-20 years, and blame is a word prevalent in every die-hard collector’s vocabulary it seems.

But really it comes down to the kids.  The rising costs of cards have priced the ‘hobby’ side at a level too exorbitant for kids to get into without a base in the tradition.  The hobby is settling for middle-aged men, and in order to rejuvenate single card collecting, kids need to help carry the torch.Arian Foster 2011 Topps Precision base

The leagues and their methods for providing licensing seem to basically end at the contract stage.  Once the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB have granted rights, their participation is quite limited moving forward.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a focus on the collecting industry from any of the leagues, and without some grassroots groundswell of support, it will remain a challenge to compete with technology for the generations to come.

It remains to be seen where the next level of collecting will go, and whether single cards will ever make a true rebound.  Topps has spent the last year refocusing energy on the digital frontier, and their 2012 mobile phone apps received some acclaim.  Last year, the company gave up on its eTopps brand, which was a hybrid between virtual cards and physical cards, with the collector able to decide which to request.

But ultimately, engagement and interaction seem to rule the roost for kids today.  Topps is looking to capitalize on this area, clearly.  There are multiple companies popping up with ‘virtual cards’, to rival Topps BUNT  and Topps Huddle offerings.  Virtual Fan Network (VFN) is one of these and focuses more on interaction with fans as well.

Most people in the hobby will argue that these type of companies won’t have much of an impact on card collecting, as they are so drastically different than the cardboard versions.  But as we’ve seen with so many things over the last 20 years, technology seems to usher in change quite rapidly.  It wasn’t so long ago that a phone was simply used in your home or office to call and speak to another person.  How quickly that has changed.

So it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine people collecting virtual cards that encourage interaction, instead of physical cardboard versions. Of course, if this trend were to continue, maybe single cards would become more rare again, and maybe, just maybe, the art of single card collecting could return in a roundabout way.  History does tend to repeat itself.


  1. […] somewhere in the middle.  We touched on this subject a couple months back, when discussing the decline of the singles card market, as Topps and other manufacturers are testing the best way to serve the sports collectible fans of […]