It seems almost impossible to fathom now, but back in the 1970s collecting sports cards meant piecing together one main set. Topps did football, baseball, basketball and hockey. You bought packs (boxes or complete sets if you were an adult) and that was was pretty much it. If you lived in the right area, you could buy something like the 1970 or ’71 Supers,’72 Posters or ’77 Cloth Stickers. For the most part, though, collecting wasn’t complicated.
The ‘extra sets’ came from other products. In 1970, Kellogg’s had jumped into the game. From 1975-1979, you could load up your cart with Hostess cakes and collect 150-card (or 50 panel) sets, which provided a little extra summer fun.
The famous court ruling that ended Topps’ monopoly after 1980 opened the door on the bubble gum side and after the baseball card boom hit in the mid-to-late 1980s, the floodgates burst. Competition made everyone better but soon came autographs inside trading card packs, then jerseys and tire pieces from race cars in the 90s. The cards got fancier as technology got better, too, and for better or worse, the hobby was never the same. For many, it eventually became all about the “hits”.
They’re often the focus of the marketing and gathering them is a monumental task that never ends. Feeding the beast never is.
Cost of CrummyAutographs
While surfing eBay last week, I came across a few autographed cards that were signed for sports card products issued over the last few months. The “signatures” were little more than ink marks. If there were one or two recognizable letters, you felt like the player at least made an effort but if you looked at only the signature, there was no way anyone would be able to guess who held the pen. It wasn’t anything new, but the ratio of decent to awful autographs was now dominated by the latter.
I tweeted out a few of those images and the response from our followers was a knowing disgust. Collectors have simply come to expect that the quality of the autographs inside packs are mostly going to stink.
Let’s face it: Nine out of ten autograph cards on the market today would be more attractive without the autograph. Signatures of young adults now are generally bad and when they’re signing two or three thousand at a time, the primary goal is simply to get it over with. Thus, we get this…on a sticker:
Aces of Base
That—and the continuing popularity of certain lower cost products designed not for the case breaker or eBay flipper—has me wondering if we’ve finally come to the point where maybe it’s best to find out once and for all whether the mass quantities of autograph and relic cards are really necessary.
Impossible you say? Topps baseball (Series 1 and 2) and Heritage contain autographs but they aren’t built on it. They are sets for collectors who just like baseball cards.
Upper Deck’s flagship hockey cards got a boost from a great rookie crop this year but people buy the cards because they’re the Topps Series 1 and 2 of the NHL. The cards are nice. The Young Guns inserts have a tradition behind them and have a chase element that’s fun but not impossible. Panini has had success with some of its lower end brands, too.
Yet we still have dozens of licensed products each year that are $80 and up per box and while that means there’s “something for everyone”, the vibe still seems to be that it’s only those higher end products that are worthwhile.
Less is More
Much of the aggravation on the part of card companies and collectors centers around the cost—and hassle—of getting players to sign their cards and return them on time and accumulating the memorabilia to match up with the players’ pictures on the cards. All things considered, would cutting back on those elements better serve the hobby? Could the focus shift to making more of the best, most unique trading card sets—and making them affordable to everyone? Or is the customer base so hooked on the chase that there’s no going back—even a little?
Look, I know no one’s going to buy 20 different sets of plain Jane cards every year. There would need to be some creativity and I’m not going to pretend to have all of the answers on that end. Whether it’s prizes instead of hits (complete game-worn jerseys, baseball tickets, vintage sets, autographed photos) or more game-playing elements, there has to be something that would stimulate sales, eliminate redemption cards once and for all and maybe even generate some periphery craze among kids and/or adults.
The value in cards has really always been about scarcity. Whether we’re talking Honus Wagner, high-grade Mantles, error cards or Mike Trout parallels, demand/supply drives sales more than autographs or relics ever will. That’s an element that could still exist, even without them. Manufactured rarities, yes, but collectors warm to those more than redemption cards or mystery swatches.
It just seems like the main reason parents struggle to get behind collecting is that so many products are simply too expensive—especially for what often comes out of them. A couple of illegible autographs and a single color, generic “relic” card or two is a turn off. And by the way, they shouldn’t really be called “relics” unless they were part of a uniform or piece of equipment used in a real game.
True Collectors Gotta Collect
The hit chasers may leave if the number of multi-auto and relic products is cut. Some are already leaving because of diminishing returns. My guess is that with creative marketing and solid lower price products, there would be new blood to take their place. Many of those folks aren’t “collectors” anyway. Kids who grew up with the simpler times–even the late 1980s and early 90s–are getting back into collecting as adults but my observation is that they’d be more excited if it all wasn’t so damn hard to figure out what’s what. The most loyal base of collector is the guy who shops the dime and quarter boxes at your local show.
Do we really need a dot and a dash from a player’s Sharpie for a card to be special? Who in their right mind thinks it’s better than a beautifully designed card with a great photo that’s part of a set that you simply have to own because it’s too great not to? And who the heck is buying this stuff on eBay or other online outlets?
I’m not suggesting we go back to 1974. It just seems like limiting the inclusion of autographs and relic cards might make them all that more special again while putting the emphasis back on making great basic trading cards that are more accessible to the masses.