I hate/love the trading card industry: A two-sided essay

A little bit of eBay hunting goes a long way.

When I started this little experiment in purchasing sports cards from my past off eBay as a way to spur my writing muscles awake from a much-too-long slumber, I said to myself, “this isn’t going to be a big new hobby, it’s more of a writing exercise. Besides, I can’t even afford to buy cards nowadays, look at these prices!”

Indeed, look at these prices. A “blaster box” of Donruss Optic baseball, which is 27 cards (or the equivalent of about two packs of cards in ye olden days, which would have been $5 or $6, maybe) going for about a dollar a card at $25. Or how about a “hanger pack” of 15 Panini Mosaic football cards going for roughly the same price? Boxes of Panini Prizm basketball cards, 6 packs of 4 cards (yes, 24 cards total), are going for more than $300. And those are all essentially “base” products. Don’t even bother looking at the prices of premium stuff such as Panini Flawless or Topps Transcendent, unless you’re willing to spend hundreds of dollars per pack and thousands per box.

Sports cards are big business again, and even during the relatively quiet times that preceded this pandemic-driven boom, the industry had been moving inexorably toward the big fish collectors for years, adding more and more rare autographs and scraps of game-used equipment (jerseys, hats, bats, even shoes) to the chase, resulting in cards that command five or six figures at auction right out of the pack. Until recently, the only way a card would command that kind of money was if it was sufficiently old and rare enough. Now people are paying more than a million dollars for cards made in the last 10 to 20 years.

Where does that leave people like me, who don’t have a budget of thousands of dollars to buy up boxes of new product?

Hate: The lowbie has been priced out of the hobby

If you want to buy sealed packs or boxes of new sports cards, but you’re a kid on an allowance or you are an adult without a rather large amount of disposable income, you’re just about completely out of luck these days. And it’s by design: In response to the overproduced junk wax era of my youth, the sports card manufacturers of today decided less is more. They slashed production runs, but added a million variants to all their “base” cards to keep the big dogs in the hobby chasing. There’s a new term that’s come into being sometime in the last few years called “rainbow chasing,” where you pick a card and get all the variants of it in a set. In many sets, it’s literally a rainbow of alternates: base, black, blue, red, purple, orange, pink, and so on. There may be 7 to 10 cards in a given rainbow.

And beyond the rainbow, there may be autographed versions of some (or all) of those colors. There may only be 99 of a certain card in the world, or 25, or 1. Completists take note: You’ll never “complete” a set of these cards in the truest sense without Bill Gates money. Even if you just want a rainbow for a certain player, you’re likely going to sink at least several hundred dollars into hunting down the more rare versions of it, and that’s even for players who aren’t in that top tier of demand, which usually includes LeBron James, Mike Trout, Patrick Mahomes, etc.

So even straight from the manufacturer, you’re paying hundreds of dollars even for boxes that only contain 10 or 12 packs of 4 to 8 cards (36 packs of 12 to 15 cards was the norm in my day), but most of the time, you’re looking at the secondary market for this stuff, and because there’s demand, the scalpers in the secondary market have no problem taking their cut. Big players in the game will scoop up all the base blaster boxes at $20 or $30 retail, pluck the individual packs out, and sell each of the packs themselves for about the retail price of the full box. And people buy them! That’s how hot things are right now: people can triple or quadruple their money just by being the first person to camp out in the sports card aisle at Target or Walmart and buy everything out each week.

Hate: The ‘breaking’ trend

And then there’s this trend right now called “breaking,” which: wow. I’ve done a little diving recently into this phenomenon, in which people buy a box of product (or even just a pack), and then sell “slots” or “seats” to people online for a live streaming event where the breaker opens the product, and divvies up what’s inside to the people who bought slots. In some cases, they’ll sell what’s called a PYT (pick your team) slot for an expensive box of cards, where you pay a certain amount and pick what team you want (for instance, you might say you want all the Los Angeles Lakers cards from a box). In others you essentially buy the rights to a certain pack from the box, and then whatever is in that pack goes to you. I’ve even seen breaks for individual packs of cards from the more distant past where you pay $3 to $5 and you get a single card from inside that pack.

Cool, right? Except when you start doing the math, you realize these people are making quite a bit of money off those old packs, considering you can still find some of them online for maybe $20 or so (and ALL the cards go to you, not just one). And even at $3 to $5 for a slot, I’ve been opening enough old product to know MOST cards in MOST packs are literally worthless. Like, no value at all. So it’s basically a $3 to $5 lottery ticket, to an even greater extent than most pack purchasing is, because whatever low chances you have for pulling a specific rare card from an entire pack, how much lower are those chances for a single card to be that rare one?

And that’s just the extreme low-end of breaking. Looking at the high end, people are paying $1,000 or more for team breaks on some of these boxes, and when a breaker sells 12 or 15 seats, well, you can do the math yourself on that one. Good on those folks for recognizing trends (people are loving cards right now, and they’re really loving live online streaming content a la Twitch and YouTube) and capitalizing on them, but there are SO many breakers, buying SO much product, and because the manufacturers are making less of it to begin with, the scarcity just goes up and up as more of these big breakers and individual collectors buy cases upon cases of the stuff as soon as it hits the market. There’s a whole “First off the Line” special thing manufacturers do now to cater to those people who treat new releases like they’re getting tickets to a Prince show in heaven.

Hate: The exclusivity deals

And let’s talk about those manufacturers, because we’re down to essentially two that run almost everything: Topps and Panini. They both deserve their own articles at some point (and I plan on it), because their stories are kind of amazing, but what has happened in the industry in the last 11 years or so has completely changed the landscape of the hobby.

Back when I was collecting, there was no exclusivity deals between leagues or players and manufacturers. This was a big deal in the 1970s and 1980s, because there was a long-standing legal dispute between Fleer and Topps, who had the exclusive rights to produce Major League Baseball trading cards with candy (in their case, gum) for years. It wasn’t until 1980, when a court essentially ruled permanently against Topps’s methods of signing exclusive contracts with players to keep other companies from producing cards with their likeness, that other companies including Fleer and Donruss were able to produce their own sets of baseball cards.

This was the state of things when I was collecting in the late 1980s and 1990s. I could choose from many sets in any given sport, manufactured by many different companies. Presumably, competition helped keep prices relatively low (not to mention that whole overproduction thing) and kept card collecting accessible to everyone from kids to hobbyist adults.

The 1980 ruling wasn’t the end of trading card litigation, of course. There are still a truly crazy number of lawsuits happening at any given time, usually over trademarks and copyrights. For most of the last 30 years, it seems to have been prevailing wisdom, at least from the perspective of the sports leagues, that it was more lucrative to have licensing deals with several card manufacturers instead of just one. And of course, the players associations followed suit, and not just because the 1980 order seems to have specifically called out exclusivity deals with players associations, though not the leagues themselves.

But when the industry started to wobble off those tremendous highs of the 1990s, the licensing fee money started to dry up. Companies started to falter and were either purchased by rivals or vanished off the face of the earth (or both, as seems to have been the case with Fleer, which was purchased by Upper Deck in 2005). This period of consolidation opened up room for an audacious bid by Italian-based trading card and sticker manufacturer Panini to make a serious investment in the American market. In 2009 (and extending in 2012), Panini signed an exclusivity deal with the NBA (but not the NBAPA) along with an autograph exclusivity deal with Kobe Bryant (who had previously had an autograph exclusivity deal with Upper Deck), which apparently did not run afoul of the law because other makers could still make Kobe cards, he just wouldn’t sign them for makers other than Panini. About this same time, Panini purchased American card manufacturer Donruss and established their American HQ in Texas, installing Donruss top brass to run the new concern. They also had acquired the rights to the Score, NBA Hoops, and Triple Play trademarks, and started to produce cards under those marks as well.

On the other side of things, Topps once again locked down an exclusivity deal with MLB (but not the MLBPA) and the NFL (but not the players’ association … you get the pattern by now). A few years later, the NFL switched to Panini/Donruss as well, and the NHL is with Upper Deck/O-Pee-Chee. Panini/Donruss still makes baseball and hockey cards that feature players but no team logos, but Topps/Bowman apparently no longer makes basketball or football cards in the same way.

All this to say there is a relatively small number of corporations controlling the vast majority of the market. There may be more sets than ever before, but they’re all coming from the same two or three companies. They have less and less incentive to produce entry-level trading card products for lower profit margins just to help keep kids and those with less income interested (and there’s nothing stopping the breakers and streamers from scooping it all up and jacking up the prices even if they did make them), and because they control all the licenses, there won’t likely be any other manufacturers stepping up to fill that void any time soon.

Of course, you can still buy sports stickers from Panini for a very low cost, but stickers are stickers, and cards are cards, you know? I gave some thought to collecting stickers, and I might purchase a little box of some soccer stickers just to write about the experience, but they’re smaller than cards, and they just don’t have the same allure as cards for me. If you like them, though, they’re definitely out there, even at stores where the card shelves have been otherwise wiped bare.

Love: Despite it all, there’s still a little room for the lowbie

With all this in mind, I didn’t think there was room for someone like me in current collecting. The trends just keep pushing prices up, particularly in my favorite sport, basketball, which has been boosted these last couple of years by strong rookie classes and international interest (nobody in Beijing is ripping packs of NFL product). And even when you get past all the box break gimmicks and everything else happening, most of the individual cards on the market seem to be the eye-wateringly expensive holographic autograph variants and multi-patch jersey short-run cards.

But look a little deeper, as I have, and you can find things that are still affordable. The days of buying cheap current-set hobby boxes and ripping to your heart’s content may be gone, but if you have an interest in specific players and teams, you can hunt cards down on eBay and other sports auction sites that will help you flesh out your collection, and if you pay attention to pricing trends, you can nab some modest investment-grade pieces, such as this Luka Doncic rookie card I recently purchased on the low end of its price range.

I’m planning to get it professionally graded and I’ll hang onto it as a minor investment piece. I don’t expect it to be worth thousands, but it could very easily return a profit of a few hundred dollars if the market continues to grow even at a more modest rate (it helps that Luka is seen as a generational talent on the level of LeBron, so his cards will be sought-after throughout his entire career).

And that’s the space I’m choosing to occupy right now: I chase lesser cards of my favorite players, for as little as a couple of dollars, to build my collection. With the price of packs and boxes as they are, even if I could afford them, I can say with high certainty that I would be pretty disappointed in their contents, having looked at the checklists. If I paid $30 for a pack of four cards and one of those four cards was Danuel House or Quinndary Weatherspoon or Nemanja Bjelica, I’d friggin’ scream. As I said: I open enough packs of 12 and 15 cards to know most cards are junk. These new sets are smaller and thus have FEWER of the players I don’t care to collect, but we’re still talking 300-card base sets. There aren’t 300 players in any league worth collecting, even counting legends. And can you imagine getting a “hit” in a pack and it’s one of those players? Who would give even a tiny shit about pulling a Dylan Windler autograph? Besides his mom or the world’s biggest Cavs fan, I mean? No specific offense to Dylan Windler, I’m just saying it’s kind of nuts that your lucky pull in a very expensive pack of cards could be one of 99 in the entire world … signed by a bench-warmer.

With my method, I can continue to buy grab bags of old packs to satisfy my “open packs” itch and continue writing about the strange stuff I find, while surfing eBay to get cool NEW Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. cards for as little as a couple bucks a piece. One of the nice side effects of all these big-game hunters buying up tons of the sealed product is they’re willing to part with the less desirable stuff for reasonable prices, particularly if you’re willing to wait and set saved searches for the things you’re into. I’ve even had sellers send out “private offers” of 20 or 30 percent off their listed price for a card because I had it on my watchlist and it hadn’t sold for a few days.

And although I don’t think I can recommend the Beckett sports pricing subscriptions for low-level collectors like myself (way too pricey if you collect more than one sport, and even with just one sport, you’d have to sell a fair number of cards a year at a profit to justify the cost), I think occasionally, when I’m having a hard time reading the auction tea leaves, tossing 50 cents at them to get the current price trends for a given card isn’t the worst expenditure I can think of.

I’m not going to be buying any houses or cars with the money I could potentially make this way, but I’m finding it very enjoyable focusing solely on the players I’m personally a fan of, and seeking out the affordable, yet still very attractive cards out there. For example, check out this really neat tobacco-style rookie card of White Sox phenom Luis Robert I got for a few bucks on eBay (and am already seeing listed for more than double the price I paid):

Yes, it’s supposed to look kinda brown and worn like that.

I’ll write more in the future about the system I’ve set up for myself on eBay to keep tabs on cards I might want to purchase. It’s not complicated, but I have already learned some things about how eBay works that I didn’t know in my first 15 years of using it.

If you have the money and the interest to participate in big-league box breaks or purchase cases of shiny product to open yourself, more power to you. I wish the industry wasn’t so focused on people like you, but I understand why it is the way it is. For now, though, I’ll leave it at this: Although there is a lot to hate about the direction the trading card industry has gone, there are still ways for collectors to carve out their own niche and enjoy collecting on their own terms and within their own budgets, as I plan to continue doing for the foreseeable future.

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