Last week’s revelation that some cards in Panini’s Flawless Football set may not carry game-worn player swatches created quite a buzz among those have an interest in the new release market. While I’m guessing the firestorm may not have been quite as big if it had happened in a product that didn’t cost so much, it was a little puzzling because it’s far from the first time that ‘relic’ or ‘memorabilia’ cards have been called into question. And their continuing use as a staple in the sports trading card industry is completely lost on a lot of collectors. Why? Let us count the ways.
Trading card companies opened a Pandora’s box the size of which they couldn’t possibly have imagined when they were introduced in the 1990s. While some have been unquestionably popular, especially with player collectors, jersey cards also helped spawn the type of ‘collector’ who opens packs in search of ‘hits’ and dismisses the rest of the cards in the pack or box as ‘garbage’. Ironic that those base cards, in some cases, have turned out to be less trashy than what some believe are the big scores.
The cards went from being a rare prize (1997 Upper Deck Game Jersey) to something that’s expected in nearly every product. The general feeling seems to be that in order for an issue to have any chance at success, it still has to have them in some form. Relic cards have gotten bigger, bolder and more expensive as one company tries to outdo the other.
Not long after they were introduced, the concept expanded to where card companies tried to make a splash by purchasing vintage items attributed to iconic Hall of Famers and along came the debate about the ethics of cutting up what were believed to be memorabilia worthy of being in a museum. Of course, once they’re cut up, determining authenticity becomes virtually impossible—unless the jersey has been previously publicized to where everyone can track its whereabouts. And rest assured, there has been plenty of questionable material used and promoted as ‘historic’ that really isn’t. Worse yet, we’ll probably never know the number of actual, historic relics that have been destroyed in the name of trading cards.
The demand for fresh ‘game used’ or ‘game worn’ memorabilia cards went up more than a dozen years ago and that’s when things began spiraling out of control.
As already documented in court proceedings, some unscrupulous dealers (who later went to jail) sold thousands of jerseys to card companies that were supposed to be game-worn but were not. Sports Collectors Daily has obtained paperwork that shows some of those jerseys in Donruss’ inventory in the early 2000s with pieces of them attributed to use products issued in 2002. But it would be naïve to think they were not utilized continually until the FBI began investigating those sellers. The card companies involved in the purchase of those suspect jerseys have never released information (if they have it) regarding which specific sets may contain jersey pieces touted as game-used that actually aren’t.
In the meantime, as memorabilia cards increased in value, you had a new generation of card doctors willing to tear them apart, make better looking fakes and sell them.
Pack searching became a profitable venture for those who were able to determine which ones weighed more because of the relics, pull them off store shelves (or, in some cases, card shop shelves) and hang unsuspecting shoppers out to dry. It’s still going on today.
Frankly, I’ve never quite gotten the allure. While not wanting to sound like the cranky old guy in the room, I just don’t understand why owning a ¼” piece of a destroyed bat or cut up jersey is worth the trouble. Some of the cards created with team logo patches look very nice. They’re nothing like what trading cards once were—plain pieces of cardboard with pictures on the front, stats, a bio and a cartoon the back. Printing and graphic design has come a long way since 1988. To each his own, I suppose. Yet, is it really necessary to have so many memorabilia cards that we can’t really keep track of them anymore or do enough due diligence to be sure they’re what they’re purported to be?
Whether you believe Panini made an honest error or not, the process is far more complicated than simply printing cards. Where Topps once only had to worry about print smudges and poor cutting of sheets, a lot more can go wrong today. There’s no doubt that mistakes are made. I once opened a pack of Fleer Tradition that had a Dmitri Young game-worn jersey card that had everything—except the piece of jersey.
While card companies may have been looking for something different when those game-worn jersey cards first appeared back in the 1990s, the idea has gone from something designed to be special to something that’s often silly. Do we need to have players go to a photo shoot, put a jersey on for a few seconds, take it off and try to sell it to collectors as ‘player worn’ or ‘event worn’ when the next product is released? Is that really a vital part of the success or failure of a card company? If so, they’ve got to reinvent themselves and collectors, as a whole, need to use some common sense about what is really, truly, worth collecting. Spending hundreds of dollars for cards with a jersey’s ‘laundry tags’? Really? Would they be more valuable with a few granules of team-purchased Tide? So many of these cards carry simple, one-color patches that are so generic they could have come from any jersey or related item.
Many collectors don’t care whether the swatch was part of a game jersey; they just like the look. So why do we bother with cutting up game jerseys? It’s because there’s a perceived ‘value’ in that tiny swatch or bat chip that was once part of something worn or used by a player. And to be sure, when good memorabilia is used, production costs increase and the card companies need to recoup that cost. That’s one reason why pack prices are what they are and why, when we have a situation like Panini is experiencing now, the expectations are higher.
Really, though, with some exceptions, card collectors aren’t as demanding as other consumers. They want value. They want nice looking cards. They want honesty and they want card companies to be responsive. Dealers want products they can feel good about selling, not just the day of release but two months later.
Let’s give them more sets that don’t stand on a relic card foundation, have some desirable but accessible chase cards that collectors want (Upper Deck Young Guns, anyone?) and legible autographs that have actually been witnessed by a company representative.
I suspect memorabilia cards are here to stay and I think the card companies will be more diligent about making sure they are what they should be. It’s pretty clear at this point they’ll be under a bigger microscope. I just don’t understand the mentality of collectors who demand them.