About 25 years ago – an era of Bash Brothers baseball, Dream Team basketball, and a Russian exodus to the NHL – I walked away from an industry I loved. Gregg Jefferies, Shawn Kemp and Eric Lindros cards looked at me in disappointing fashion, forgotten friends left at a bus stop of wax pack memories. This exit was a dramatic decision. I was privileged to informally apprentice in a sports cards/comic book store as a teenager, run by a kind shop owner-slash-boss who would regularly bestow upon me dirt cheap boxes of favorite product.
Thus, I recall vividly the day I walked away from a childhood pastime of stocking up on favorite players, poorly reliving their exploits on Brooklyn fields and playgrounds. We parted in the worst of ways: my throwing out literally millions of common cards in non-descript garbage bags. It was a terrible lesson for a teenager, a far too early tale about supply and demand economics for what should’ve been a longer term hobby celebrating beloved pastimes.
Over the years, I occasionally felt the collecting itch emerge from its supposed ends. I would once again open a pack, pore over statistics on the back of a card, marvel at the triumphant and bold italic indicating league leader in a particular category. Fancy stock and/or photography was always loved most, likewise expansion teams with a formal presence established if and only when they appeared through cardboard means. My wife – a diehard Red Sox fan who walked and talked the role well – encouraged my channeling of inner childhood passions.
Three years ago, we found ourselves in Australia, wandering into a collectibles store on a whim. I was curious how the American trading card market would translate to foreign audiences, if they too felt the urge of Rated Rookies of yore. Perhaps not surprisingly, basketball is the North American trading card of preference Down Under, and – like everything on the Continent – wasn’t cheap. I found myself purchasing Panini Baskteball, and – being out of the loop for over a decade – wondered what happened to familiar friends in Hoops and Upper Deck. I openly questioned why something resembling a pastry by name adorned Kobe Bryant cards. (Needless to say, I learned shortly thereafter about this trading card monster organization around for nearly a decade at this stage.) Admittedly unimpressed by the purchased packs (card stock and imagery were below expectation), I left the industry again for two more years.
Returning to the U.S. brought me into another collectibles store, to again discover today’s cards. I was near-immediately enamored by the tobacco card inspired products of Topps, ones with roots in my Brooklyn hometown. I had no idea what Allen and Ginter was, but the allure of mini cards dedicated to men and women in classic hats, ‘Champions’ of all sports, and the terrific sketches resembling these anomalies made them an instant hit. I spent months – and four box purchases later – assembling a near-complete set of this 2012 issue. Every rip a re-discovery of days before trading card companies flooded the marketplace, en masse.
I was again hooked. With a downturned economy came an ability to buy rookie cards I always wanted, but now on the cheap via eBay. Graded cards were new but sensible ways around fraud. I quickly assembled the original Dream Team, sans Jordan. Gathered up O-Pee-Chee hockey cards of beloved N.Y. Rangers of yesteryear. I likewise – in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – found three wonderful sports cards stores and communities within two miles of each other, welcome homes for people like me simply wanting to both embrace sport and rip packs together. Usually in simultaneous fashion on College Football afternoons.
I couldn’t help but expand horizons to other product. Topps, Bowman, Goodwin Champions, Panini, SP, became new friends. I purchased hundreds of packs in hopes of the next great rip! Scouted rookies through online broadcast sports subscriptions, where future stars were but a ‘buy it now’ click away. Vintage cards rolled in almost daily to my mailbox, featuring players of the $5 and $10 variety. The mailman must have wondered why I ordered so many ‘fragile, do not bend!’ items in padded envelopes.
A year later, however, the roof caved in. I discovered hot packs – the good and the bad – also having to again throw out thousands of cards due to over-production of seeming rookies for players yet to clear AAA…but with first cards released cards two years back. The trading card companies, I realized, were back to their old ways. Price guides ballooned with pages of current generation cards, a pattern that eerily resembled the swollen markets of the late 80’s to early 90’s. Relic cards proclaiming a jersey never worn in an actual contest horrified me. My closet slowly and sadly filled with commons and semi-stars I was unsure what to do with.
My wife’s words rang far too true, insisting I collect current cards only “for fun,” their value – despite Beckett’s proclamations – likely useless. We visited a local collectibles store in Tampa, Florida (our new home), only to discover a case filled with relics, autos and refractor seeming gems. Beautiful looking but over-valued cards, in an era where 1/1 meant more than actual player performance. The store owner – sporting a half century of industry and sports knowledge – confessed to selling packs not by choice, only customer demand alone.
Last week, I purchased my last packs of new cards, approximately $150 of self selected hobby products through a top online retailer. This smorgasbord of new offerings was eye opening in its ability to proclaim an industry once again without a compass. Cheesy retro products and relics, also signatures of nobodies filled $10 packs. Green, blue, pink cards of commons – machine numbered in the thousands – simply made no sense. I left this experience declaring a $30+ Panini hockey pack “a deal,” containing two versus one promised autograph. The second a beloved but prized, retired journeyman. Shame on me.
Maybe, however, I should revisit this shame. In an industry of 1/1 refractor pulls selling for thousands on eBay, perhaps higher priced product of comprehensive value, regardless of pull, is where the industry needs to go. Offset this higher bracket with entry level goods (e.g. Topps Mini/Opening Day, O-Pee-Chee Hockey base, Panini Base Basketball, Topps Football) for enthusiasts looking to celebrate their sport. On this very web site, I read of collectors auctioning of Yasiel Puig cards given out at the National Sports Collectors Convention within minutes of acquisition. Only last month, my wife and I too stood in a line of rabid customers at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, all clamoring for a rare Sidney Crosby jersey card upon paid admission.
With this being said, I don’t begrudge manufacturers for current sales strategies. They’re simply – as was the case 25 years ago – meeting consumer demand, finding ways to generate revenue via new products. Still, collectors are not without obligation. We need to rethink our habits if we don’t want to again collapse this industry Proactively avoid products than prey on case purchases and near-impossible pulls. Encourage offerings that don’t duplicate, with clear demarcation lines between valuations. Most of all, educate sellers and children that the hobby needs to reflect their licensed sports versus a legalized form of cardboard based gambling.
This week I again threw out thousands of cards via trash bags. No ‘rookie’ should have thirty cards a year, for three years, before playing a single game. Our industry needs some help.
You can reach Dr. Paul Lieber at [email protected]