Everyone has a different opinion as to the most important card set relating to a specific sport in a certain era. In baseball we can debate the most important 1980’s set, which does not necessarily mean the most valuable set. In the world of 1990’s basketball, many will throw out the 1996-97 Topps Chrome set as the most important set issued during that decade because the impact it had on the hobby continues to resonate to this day.
In the early 1990’s, the card collecting hobby was at all-time high as verified by Action Packed which would run a yearly survey to see how big of an industry sports cards were.
Now remember this was just counting new cards and not referring to any memorabilia or older cards sold via stores, shows or in the fledgling auction market. In the peak years of the 1990’s, the dollars spent on cards were actually surpassing that of the dentifrice industry. In other words, America was spending more money on sports cards then on brushing its teeth. With that type of expansion, card companies kept looking for ways to increase not only their market share but also their reach and one great way to get into the market was to supply all the big box stores with product to sell.
Of course, the big box stores wanted to have something special in the packs sold to their customers so beginning in 1992 with Pinnacle Slugfest there were, in many cases, special cards inserted into retail packs. I remember the hobby discussions about whether these cards should even be listed in a price guide since they weren’t available in hobby shops.
My personal opinion while at Beckett Publications then, and I still believe that today, is if you can make money off those cards when they walk into your store—regardless of where they were sold–then of course they should be priced in any guide. This started a long “war” between hobby and retail outlets which in some way continues today. Shops don’t like it when a potentially sellable product winds up being either a company online exclusive or one that’s sold only at Target or Walmart.
Of course, this is a roundabout way of talking about 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball issue. When that set was originally offered to dealers, the chrome concept had not taken hold on the hobby and many dealers wanted no part of ordering cards in a style they did not fully understand. Due to the lack of dealer interest, 1996-97 Topps Chrome became a “retail-only” issue and with shorter supply of all the rookies than other products, Chrome exploded in the marketplace. The key rookie player in that class was Kobe Bryant and as his on court ability became apparent, the Bryant Chrome and Refractors shot up in value and is now considered his key rookie card.
Of course, the dealers complained mightily after the fact but the retail-only release came about because they opted not to place orders. There were some fairly public dust-ups between dealers and Topps’ management about this specific set but they also had the option of going to the retail stores and buying Chrome once it began heating up. I know when I stop in Triple Cards. the owner keeps telling me he is tempted to start ordering some of the $20 blaster boxes because one of his suppliers can do that for him now. I think he should if he can because for many collectors, the $20 bill is a lot easier to spend then the $70 for an average box.
By the way… those 1996-97 Topps Chrome Basketball boxes? You can find them on eBay–but they cost a lot more now than they would have cost shop owners when they were issued.With Kobe coming back from his season-ending injury to add to his already mind-boggling career numbers and his Hall of Fame status firmly established, those rookie cards will be back in collector’s sights this season.