Recently I was having an email conversation with a long-time hobby friend in which he stated he was wondering just how difficult of a time this currently is for the card companies and my mind started drifting back to the days of the 1990s baseball strike and just after to see what the similarities and differences are.
There are several positives in today’s hobby which include a return of some of the 1980s and 90s youngsters who grew up with Beckett magazine and the local card shop. Many have kids of their own now and are picking up where they left off. In addition, the hobby boards I frequent are, for the most part, very active and growing. There are some exceptions, of course. In addition, the growth in the memorabilia market has also spread out where the money is going in 2014. The hobby’s overall footprint is stronger now than it was back then because of that.
But there are also some parallels between today and 20 years ago and some of them are very scary on a long-term basis. After the 1994 baseball strike and hockey lockout ended, the price point for packs started to increase. While those prices are nothing like the prices of certain products today, many collectors who were used to paying 50 cents to a $1 for a pack started to feel shut out when a potential purchase required more disposable income and the higher-end products that were far less prevalent 20 years ago became the norm.
That era was about the time that the really short-printed parallel cards got going. In 1996 came the Select Certified Mirror Gold with their print runs of 30 cards and by 1997 we had our first one of one cards. By the time 1998 rolled around, many single player collectors were gone or leaving because those who liked complete and comprehensive runs just gave up at that point. Today, when every single card in Panini Flawless is usually printed to a stated run of 25 or fewer, a lot of player collectors who may have still been around without that ‘innovation’ simply aren’t going to be in the game.
Anytime you reduce the amount of people who want to collect your cards on a long-term basis you have hurt the collectors market. Now to be fair, Panini’s only job is to sell their product and they have sold out all their Flawless releases, which are really more high-end collectible than trading card. They weren’t the first to the ultra-high end market, either. That ship sailed a decade ago. But while Flawless may be a success for Panini the question can be asked whether it’s a long-term success for building and maintaining collector interest. True, those high-end brands aren’t meant for everyone but their ‘exclusive’ nature sometimes has a backlash affect on those who are being left out.
The collectors who moved away from the hobby in 1994-97 were replaced by those who came in thanks to the home run record chase that re-energized the market for some rookie cards and other material. Of course, the whole record-setting period turned out to be tainted and prices tumbled back down a few years later but it marked a growth spurt for the hobby. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a major new scandal and the focus has been on the field over the last few years.
Another issue is the lack of shows and stores that is different than the way things were 20 years ago. There is no doubt in the Internet age that far fewer collectors truly believe in the interpersonal relationships of going to shows and stores and that along with the retail elements of having collectors begin by purchasing packs at a place such as Wal-Mart or Target and then moving to their local card store or show. I just searched the Beckett show calendar and there were only 11 shows listed in Texas for November and December. Texas is a large state but back in the day there used to be 11 shows a month in the DFW area.
Is the current card industry dying? I don’t think so. As we’ve written before, it’s always been in a state of evolution, dating back to the 1980s when everyone thought the world was ending after Fleer and Donruss joined the card party. We are living through some of the latest evolution right now. The hobby has survived strikes, new manufacturers and rising prices, steroid scandals and even fraud—just in the last 35 years. Collectors still love chasing prospects. Just as Derek Jeter had the market hopping in the early and mid-1990s (and throughout his career), Mike Trout looks poised to do the same. His 2011 Topps Update card value is proof that even ‘base’ type cards can still create a buzz.
However, the fact that so many products quickly move below cost is a serious concern for shop owners who can’t match the big online retailers and for collectors who hope what they buy has some semblance of staying power. The hobby has become far too dependent on relics and autograph cards that are expensive to produce for a variety of reasons and create giant headaches when they can’t be put into packs.
Kids have incredible video games and computer access competing for their attention. The card manufacturers have to be innovative, have to reach that young demographic, have to prove they care about everyone who buys their product, improve their public relations and marketing skills across the board and be smart enough to create products collectors can enjoy without going broke.
What does the future hold? It’s hard to say long-term but I think the next couple of years will be very interesting.