Every Christmas, my mind wanders back to 1971. A day or two before the holiday, my older sister’s boyfriend arrived at our door with a couple of gifts including what turned out to be a complete, unopened box of 1971-72 Topps basketball cards. As a kid who never had enough money to buy more than a couple of packs at a time, my little brain was on sensory overload.
Eventually they all got opened but that little jaunt down memory lane every year is sweet (until I think what that unopened box would be worth today). It also serves as a reminder that 1) More than half of the people left on this earth aren’t old enough to remember 1971 which is kind of depressing, and 2) how different the entire hobby/industry is now.
Winter time then was spent collecting whatever Topps product was in season. There were no “off season” baseball products because, we assume, Topps figured no kids wanted baseball cards when there were no games going on. Football cards were disappearing from the shelf since the season was about to end, not to be seen again until late summer.
Compare that to what happened in December 2014 when there were more than two dozen sports card products released, nearly a third of which were baseball-related. While it did give holiday shoppers some choices, the overall effect wasn’t good. The unprecedented glut of products in a four-week period hurt hobby shops, who weren’t sure what to order and wound up getting stuck with a backlog of expensive boxes they couldn’t get out from under because online prices fell quickly and steeply. Even if you think stores are relics from a past era, when products are selling below cost through large online dealers, that doesn’t reflect well on the industry as a whole, nor does the head-scratching flood that no one could keep up with or even understand.
As we look forward to the next 12 months and while most are still in holiday mode, it’s a good time to take stock of a few things that need fixing—and a few others that make you feel better.
Not only are there still way too many trading card boxes on the market (even taking the December avalanche out of the equation), there are major questions about whether the formula might be getting a little stale. The issues Panini had with some of its Flawless Football patches revived the discussion over the worthiness of any type of ‘memorabilia card’. Does a tiny swatch of jersey embedded in a card really make it great? Insert cards that have some uniqueness, creativity and staying power seem to do just fine without it. Either way, quality control has to be first and foremost in the minds of card company executives in 2015. Collectors are too smart not to see through some of the silliness and sloppiness. The 24-hour connectivity we’re all a part of makes it virtually impossible to get away with anything less than excellence.
Redemption cards and sticker autographs remain a sticking point, although the manufacturers seem to be trying to address both. The demand for autographed cards remains so strong that the logistical nightmare that is signature acquisition continues. I’m guessing we may see still more higher priced products with on card autographs while other sets fall by the wayside or are revamped.
The quality of the autographs that do wind up in all products these days is stunningly bad. Players clearly are multi-tasking when “signing” the cards and stickers with many resorting to a writing their initials or forming one letter for their first and last names with a line for the rest.
There’s plenty of blame to go around there. The card companies are putting up with it so the athletes continue to be sloppy but after signing 1,000 cards and stickers, it probably shouldn’t come as a shock—not when few people are actually using a pen for anything in this electronic age. Still, we have to wonder how much demand there will continue to be as poor penmanship becomes the standard. It’s almost at the point where the “autograph” is sullying the look of an otherwise nice looking card.
On the memorabilia side of the hobby, there are still too many items being offered for sale with questionable provenance and little or no due diligence. If an item is described as “game used”, there has to be evidence beyond simple wear and a design that matches an era. “Game issued” items should come with a team or player letter or strong anecdotal evidence and chain of ownership. Too many item descriptions play loosely with facts, clearly in hopes a collector with money won’t stop and think before bidding or buying.
There are still way too many bogus autographs being funneled through local auction houses who offer ‘certificates of authenticity’ from individuals or groups known to have passed many fakes. Fans and collectors who don’t know any better are spending hard-earned money on some of the same type of material that Operation Bullpen confiscated.
In spite of all of that, I’m not one to paint a negative picture of collecting as a whole, even though big money has made our 1970s experiences seem quaint. One of the best things about the hobby is as true today as it was 25 or 30 years ago is that you can be involved whether your budget is $5 a week or $5,000.
The quantity of newer material has put many singles, sets and boxes within range of just about anyone. If you collect players from a certain team, you don’t have to buy the 1/1s or low-numbered parallels and inserts. Build team sets of cheaper products. Start building a mid-grade vintage set where most of the cards can be had for under $1. Pick a sport. Pick a city. Pick a team. The possibilities are still limitless and not every hobby can say that. The same holds true for vintage cards, with many available for a song.
On the other end of the spectrum, high-grade cards and memorabilia associated with iconic players are continuing to gain respect as an investment or at least retaining a certain coolness factor. I saw more auction house officials on TV and in mainstream media this year and those appearances can do nothing but help the perception of sports collecting. Former collectors are rediscovering the hobby through social media, too, and while some are confused by the changes that have occurred since the 1980s or 90s, most are enthusiastic about getting back in—especially those who have grown from kids to adults during their hiatus and can now afford some of the cards they couldn’t as a youngster. It’s a huge demographic that will be extremely important to the hobby going forward.
I’m even seeing a slight renaissance in local sports card shows. Promoters are using social media, Craigslist, online forums and email newsletters to grow their small shows. Advertising is still a necessity in most cases, but much of the marketing these days is free. You just have to be willing to work at it and make sure the experience is a good one for dealers and the collectors who come. The hobby show isn’t dead unless your skills as a promoter haven’t evolved or you haven’t established there are enough collectors in your area to support one. Generally, if you build it—and market it—they will come.
I’m also seeing more and more online outlets open for the buying, selling and trading of cards and that’s a huge positive.
I do think the aging populace that makes up most of the industry is an issue. There are young people who are avid collectors, but it would be naïve to say the number is what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Society as a whole will determine whether collecting continues to thrive or whether physical objects that aren’t necessary to live day-to-day being falling by the wayside, but it’s incumbent on everyone in the industry to do something to share what we’ve always loved about collecting. Because if a simple wax pack with cardboard pictures and a stick of gum once hooked you for life, imagine what today’s hobby looks like to a young fan looking for a tangible connection to the games.