July 31, 2006

Six Steps to Save the Hobby

To paraphrase and then deftly segue away from Bono, there’s been a lot of talk (maybe a little too much talk) about the idea of the ‘death’ of baseball cards. Everyone has an opinion and of course I have mine (though mine is more of a diatribe on how to fix the hobby rather than eulogizing its demise), and whenever this idea comes up a few certain obvious things are addressed and others, perhaps those more telling, are left to linger in the shadows.

The most obvious point is about the monetary value of cards (with a quick mention of Mantle and the Wagner), the second is the endless (and needless) variety of sets, the third is how dealers are no longer making money and the fourth is that kids are no longer part of the core demographic of collector.

Then the article would change gears slightly to tell about imminent change at Topps and whether or not the iconic card company will be able to weather the storm, because the argument is that if Topps fails, baseball card collecting dies.

And these articles—either wistful for childhood lost or disapproving of Topps and company for royally screwing up a helluva cool product—are real bummers to read. And I’m not sure if they add anything of any use to the very real question that faces the hobby: if it’s broken, how do you fix it?

I have a solution (though I doubt that anyone who enjoys the current state of the hobby is going to agree with me). Actually I have a number of solutions, but they all hinge on one important idea: privatizing Topps.

One of my childhood dreams was to buy a share—just one—of Topps. I think it cost $14 when I was ten or eleven. It was one half of my master plan (the other half of the plan was to buy a share of Marvel Comics). I know, not much of a master plan, but give me a break. I was ten years old. I was going to slowly amass shares of each company until I owned just enough of both to have my voice heard. I outgrew that idea, but I kind of wish I hadn’t. I think my ideas could have made some great cards (that’s another post altogether), because the choices the incumbents have made haven’t really panned out.

Not to digress or anything, but I don’t think much of what’s wrong with the hobby is Topps’ fault. I would pin the blame on Upper Deck, personally. They launched autographed cards in the early Nineties and the insert card frenzy that followed. They launched specialty lines up the wahzoo and ground up priceless memorabilia to make indistinguishable jersey, bat and equipment cards that no one can afford. Upper Deck has controlled the hobby, its ebb and flow, since they started in 1989. Topps has been playing second fiddle for over a decade, so it’s unfair to blame them for the hobby’s faults.

But their position outside of the hobby, their name-brand, iconic contribution to American culture and their virtual ownership of the word ‘baseball card’ in the mind of the uninitiated sets them up as the perfect hero on the ridge, here to save the day.

Here’s how it should progress:

Step 1: Warren Buffett or someone equally tired of their money but in for a little turn-the-ship-around, feel-good crowd-pleaser project buys 99.9% of the stock in a massive day of trading that would make Jay Gould blush. I would buy the other 00.1% of stock, just for fun.

Step 2: The new owner would replace everyone on the board with either young children on summer break or perhaps responsible adults who still enjoy collecting cards and maybe one or two of them could have a background in business or maybe a law degree.

Step 3: With a new board intact, the big cheese makes a speech along the lines that ‘Topps is no longer interested in turning a profit.’ At the end of the speech, the big cheese announces that the company will only make one set that year, and possibly one traded set at the end of the year. There will be no insert cards, though there will be a thing available at supermarkets called ‘Grab Bags’ that will include three packs of cards, two packs of Wacky Packages, five pieces of Bazooka gum, a few Pixie Stix and various other nickel and dime candies.

Step 4: The big cheese does not announce the MSRP of packs, but does announce that there will be 15 cards per pack “and maybe a sticker or a piece of gum, or possibly a puzzle piece,” as well as a sweepstakes card for an un-winnable sweepstakes.

Step 5: Three months later, just in time for Spring Training, Topps unveils its new cards at a local drugstore and formally announces the new set will cost 25¢ a pack. If the big cheese actually does turn out to be Buffett, he will then treat all the reporters to Dairy Queen.

Step 6: Topps has saved baseball cards! Huzzah! (There is much rejoicing.)

So before Topps’ impending crisis and the ‘death’ of baseball cards spark congressional hearings and lengthy shoutfest debates on MSNBC, let’s just settle this now: what would be so bad about starting over? So far I haven’t heard a better solution.


Mad Jack said...

As an individual who is now 60 and has colected cards since he was around 10 your analysis is right on target. Greed is slowly killing a hobby that people from kids to senior citizens loved. The hobby can only be saved by the return of cards kids can afford to buy and by ending the endless array of silly inserts. Cards produced since the early 90's are over priced and over produced. Many of those in the hobby are not collectors but are investors; I have seen men in their 40's and 50's buy cards and throw or give away any that were not valuable. I personally quit buying packs new cards about ten years ago. I now only buy the occassional card that I like. Cards today look like they should have rock stars or models on them. Many of the older sets though not as flashy have more appeal. When I look at a rack of cards today and see them priced at $3 or higher for 4 or 5 cards of players who are mostly average at best I don't blame the kids for leaving. It is now the bottom of the ninth and the home team is down by a runs; there are two outs. Topps is at bat with UD in the on deck circle. The game is on the line>

Anonymous said...

I bought a pack the other day of some crazy Topps brand and got Three cards in the pack! This pack was like 3 bucks also!! But THREE frickin cards, thats it! no stale gum sprinkled in baby powder! What a Jip!

Randypants said...

It is sad to me that the simplicity of your plan is what I've been thinking for some time. I stopped collecting long ago, but then when I wanted to buy a pack of cards to stash away from my daughter's birth I was stunned by the price. I used to be able to buy multiple packs of cards in the 80's for the price of one pack today. And that is why I won't collect now.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be nice to say the hobby has just been dying lately? The old saying goes "We've been dying since the day we were born".
Outside of Topps first 7-8 or years their card quality and ideas for design have gone into the toilet. Basically 1961 forward, outside of a few years sets, 1968, 1971,1972 and 1975. Even topps realizes this now, with endless heritage sets.
Couldn't agree anymore with you on card prices, the costs are unbelievable. Maybe $.25 is pushing it but $.75 a dollar?
Lastly Beckett, yes I said Beckett. Beckett has done more to hurt the hobby over the last 25 years then anyone. Not that I beleive they wanted to hurt the hobby. They have filled the adults, investors and kids heads with pie in the sky ideas of how much their cards are worth. Such a bitter pill to take when late 70's, 80's and 90's collectors find out their overly produced card board memories are worth more in cardboard value then real value. This never effected my collecting though, as I watched kids and adults alike wasting their money on these lottery tickets dressed up as baseball card packs. Don't beleive me, check out the gamblers at 7-11 then visit your local card shop, your won't find much difference in behavior and reaction. As I plugged away on my 56' set they kept shelling out bucks hoping for a diamond in the haystack.
Thus the fix, dump all the phony boloney sets. Make one great set a year, actually make a autograph etc. atainable, cut down the production runs and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

I'd even settle for cards going back to half a buck.

Anonymous said...

There is no way your plan would work.
Everybody now wants the inserts/autographs/jerseys.

Who wants a sticker of a piece of gum, after being able to pull out the above listed?

People now-a-days won't want to stop with just one set. They can be too easy to complete. Trading would be awful with just one set.

This hobby is dead, and I cannot see it coming back.

Macomberk said...

I don't think the hobby can be blamed so simply on the printing company and market prices, but should be pointed at what investors have done to the sport as a whole, the shift to online selling and the variety of options kids have today verses thirty years ago. To overcome these, I have worked with my 10 year old son to 'learn' the sport and hobby, focus on a specific team (Red Sox) and certain types of cards. This in itself has given him an appreciation of all cards, to include the 80s and 90s, and has driven his further exploration of the hobby. If we want to save the hobby, it must be done through education. Using this as the metric of success, all involved in the hobby have probably failed. It also points us to the right direction.

Anonymous said...

The Problem is that kids are fat and lazy these days. They dont play sports and the only cards they are interested in is Yugio and Pokemon cards. I do not beleive that cards are to over priced even though I would like to see them come down but those fantasy cards cost like twice as much as any baseball or football cards. Kids have the money but are interested in the wrong thing.

Anonymous said...

I had not collected any cards since around 1993-1994. My son got a pack from Target (his first) and it sparked an interest in me, and I resumed my collecting. Here are my thoughts as to what I see:

1) These inserts are baffling Who wants them all. Not me. I can afford to buy as many cards as I realistically want, but rest assured Topps, UD, etc, you won't be getting nearly as much of my money as you hope to. After sifting my way through all of the crap, I have decided to focus on one set each year going forward. And that set is Topps, mostly for nostalgia reasons. Also, I will be buying all of my cards from one source. This year that source is Target, as I like the Williams insert set. Although hw hard would it have been to put a different picture of the Splinter on each card. Makes you wonder about the effort. As for the Mickey Mantle HR History, the Josh Gibson (see comments below) and all of the other inserts/subsets - forget about it. I will stick all of the cards I get into a sleeve and put them on the back of the shelf in the 'open up in 20 years and give to the grandchildren pile.' If you ask me, they are a waste.

2) Regarding the Josh Gibson subset - where is the effort. The back of each card is the same, as is the front. The only thing different is the number of the card and the HR number. Wow - what an amazing tribute (tongue in cheek) to a great player.

3) Another poster mentioned this, and I will repeat his comments - why are there player cards mixed in with the team sets, etc. I have the entire (almost) 2007 Topps set in a three ring binder, and it looks kind of dumb having a random player mixed in with the team sets. Again - lack of effort.

4) Do you really expect me to believe that Topps did not know that W and Mickey Mantle were on t e Jeter card? It is good for sales, so I have a hard time believing it was a rogue employee.

5) I did not realize that Charles deGalle was a baseball player. he must be, as I got one of his cards in a baseball card pack. You learn something every day.

6) Another poster commented that Beckett's inadvertently ruined card collecting. I agree. I made the mistake of buying a Becketts to look at with my son as we opened cards. He now wants to know the value of cards he opens. I will wean him off it, so there is hope for him, but I sent he poster's comments in a clear light. Who cares (to some extent) what the card is worth - collect for fun.

7) Reading the becketts opened my eyes to the number of special issue type of cards - Turkey Red, heritage, Allen and Ginter, etc. What is all of this crap. A Rod did play turn of the century baseball, but that was only a few years ago. I don't need a card that makes him look like a contemporary of Honus Wagner. Do you think anyone will ever make a 'heritage card' celebrating the 2007 Topps release. Maybe a bit more effort should go into their standard card line.

8) The cards don't need to be extra glossy and sell for $19.99 for 126 cards. They should be cardboard and sell for $9.99 for 126 cards. If Topps wanted to do a cheaper standard set and a more expensive premium set, I could live with that. At least kids would have an option.

9) Beckett's also informed me that Topps previously had a Declaration of Independence series and a Constitution series. Knowing this, I have decided to keep my kid home from school as he can learn everything he needs about American history from baseball cards. Thank you, Topps.

Well, that is about all the rant I have in me. Bottom line: I enjoy getting back into the hobby. As said above, I will collect a base set, and maybe one subset (ala the Williams Target set) per year. I would really enjoy it if all of the crap was taken out of this and kids had a chance to have fun with baseball and baseball cards again. I loved it as a child and in my early adult years. I'd like it if my son had the same opportunity.

Backinthegame said...

I've recently posted my entire collection outside of my personal favorites on eBay. I can't say I'm leaving the hobby, as I'm 23 and just got back into it after the last 10 years, but I fear its not the same, but to me more lucrative. Many of you folks aren't totally clued in just yet either. For one thing, Beckett the magazine has to go, with the phoney baloney prices, because with eBay right there, cards with sell only what they will sell for. But honestly, though most purests hate grading, they are the best and pull great weight and great selling margins for cards with a tink of a .5 (check price differences on BGS 9.5 vs. BGS PRISTINE 10)! They do hold merit in this area and I believe should continue to encase and grade cards. Secondly, I think most people who go to the Walmart and buy a small back of cards for 3 bucks are not the ones going to hobby shops. The average price of a new hobby box of cards is around $70, with so many high end products like UD BLACK WITH 1 CARD PER PACK AT $140!! That's right my friends. Go check out 03-04 UD EXQUISITE BASKETBALL, 1 pack runs you $3400. The hobby has changed so evolve with it... I believe collecting is a beautiful thing but collecting cardboard like we do, investing is something that has to be tied in. Many of the new cards don't have the resale potential because of the wide range of choices, but at anytime we could just buy what we want, and with eBay its so cheap, the market is falling flat. Also though, you can buy them now (like that stock you wanted), I'm speaking only of patch and auto cards, at near dirt value, and they may go up, but at the prices eBay offers, its hard to turn it down.
Also I love the fact that Donruss Celebrity Cuts and Americana came out, with actors and musicians as opposed to sports, for 2 reasons: We could gear the card market back into mainstream, bringing more 20 somethings in, because face it, there are almost none. And when we pull the focus off of sports autos and jerseys, they will make entertainment cards very available, and sports cards may get pushed to the background, thus helping out the die hards who want fewer inserts and parallel sets. P.S. SPORTS CARD HOBBY PACKS AND BOXES ARE THE MOST OVERPRICED ITEMS IN THE WORLD: AVERAGE SHOPPING TRIPS TO GET 2 BOXES OF ANY CARDS WILL RUN YOU $100 OR MORE. The hobby may be close to dying, but I'm buying up all the cool stuff when I can, because if it picks back up you will have your "COLLECTOR'S VALUE", and I will have my fair market value. I still understand how great a good collection of cards are to look through, like a great story, maybe a little strange but you know... Thanks for reading a kids rant, have a good one folks and buy responsibly! :>)

Anonymous said...

I started collectin in the late 80s with my first set being built was the 1988 Topps set. I stopped colecting in 1991 as lost interest then went into the military. When I got out of the military I started going through my old cards and how cheap they were but the thrill of getting my favorite players like andre dawson or ryne sandberg as a cubs fan.

I have since collected every complete Topps set from 1980 to 2010. I was amazed at how sets had changed, but it wasn't until 2005 my collecting strategy changed from just buying one Topps complete set per year. I really enjoy the inserts, Short prints,autos,chrome, and memorabilia cards. Today I still focus on building sets (base sets). I no longer try to get all SP cards as it was just too costly and treat them like normal inserts. Today I separate my sets from these cards and am pricing them with Beckett.

I have an enormous disgust of current Beckett pricing. The pricing is so inconsistent that many people in the hobby coud easiy blow holes in it. I really think pricing can be better managed and put together

Many notables include lack of value of cards especially the 90s, but tell me does Beckett really think some of todays rookies that are not even Stars are worth more than a 90s RC of players of the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark Mcgwire, Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Ryne Sandberg, Randy Johnson, Kirby Puckett, Roger Clemens, Tony Gwynn, Chipper Jones....you get the point. My point is many of these cards are extremely under valued due to falling in a era of card over production. My favorite is seeing a 1991 Donruss complete set valued ony at $8.00m

Here is another observation is has anyone noticed how blind beckett is to complete sets from about 2000. The value seems to be the same regardless of the makeup of the players in the set or appeal of the set. Hey let's value every Topps set at 80.00 for high end or update at 40.00.

Another obvious observatio is seeing some update sets valued at $40.00 but four players in the set alone is higher than $sd and that doesn't include another 5-7 noteworth cards in the set.

Hope I'm not boring anyone bet let me mention my favorite observation. You pull a short print card where odds are 1 in every 4 packs, but when you check the Beckett price it is .4 or 1 times the high. What? You mean to tell me that card is only going to sell at the same mediocre price as the high base card...it doesn,t make sense. Or my Arod 2004 black and White card multiplier once computed is worth less than the regular Arod baseball card even though it's odds are harder to pull in a pack.

What about Heritage cards stamped from the 60s. No pricing due to scarcity but if you look at the value of the card it values at $3. Somehow I don't think a stamp on that card warrants no pricing due to scarcity. Beckett makes it sound like could bring more cash which I find hard to believe.

Regardless of my frustrations with Beckett pricing I love collecting and in the end my cards wi be sold for what I think they are worth or won't sell. Which gets me back to another point. I love collecting and it is a hobby for me. To this day have never sold a card athough may some day if I get a hot lotto like valued pull but other than that it is more likely to get passed on to someone in my family who loves the hobby like me. Who knows maybe after I'm passed away my 1991 Donruss complete set might be vaued at $20.00