What did you SAGE? Hit High Series 2020 Football blaster box

As the 2020 NFL season draws to a close, I thought back to one of the only current-year football products I opened recently, something I had never even heard of: SAGE Hit football.

As part of one of those eBay wax pack grab bags I purchased in the fall, I received this nondescript white cardboard box of football cards as a kind of bonus.

“Huh, what kind of generic crum-bum stuff is this?” I thought to myself, my hands already gliding across my laptop’s keyboard to Google what SAGE is.

As it turns out, SAGE is a trading card and memorabilia company founded by Robert Sadlak and Tom Geideman (SAdlak and GEideman make SAGE, not unlike the way Donruss got its name), who were two of the founding fathers of Upper Deck back in the late 1980s. Their approach, according to SAGE’s website, is founded in the same DIY and small-batch ethos as microbreweries. They claim to be the trading card industry’s first “Micro-printer,” which they say allows them to produce high-quality products quickly and cheaply, and pass the cost savings on to the collector.

So here’s the scoop and I’m gonna tell ya: This is a very cool approach to trading cards in this overblown, super-premium era. When I complained a while back that nobody seemed to be producing cards for “average” collectors anymore, I was unknowingly endorsing the SAGE business model. Without any major licensing deals, they’re producing cards at a decent retail price point that still includes a lot of modern-day extras like autographs.

I opened this innocuous little box to find a stack of 60 SAGE Hit cards depicting 2020 rookies, including several from a subset dedicated to top draft pick Joe Burrow.

The “base” card is in the top-right, the other four are from the Five-Star subset.

These cards feel a lot more like the cards I grew up with in the 1990s than most of the other cards coming out these days. They’re not nearly as glossy, they’re not nearly as thick. They just feel like “normal” cards to me, which I must admit was a tiny bit of a let-down. I know that’s kind of hypocritical, coming from a guy who thinks there ought to be more cards like this, but I can’t help it: I’ve gotten used to the nicer, more premium newer cards.

That said, though, as I looked at them more and thought about them more, they’ve grown on me. I don’t fully endorse the dizzying white-black stripe effect on the base cards, but I do give them points for boldness, and the design works on some level that I can’t quite explain.

  1. A closer look at the base design, with its black and white stripes and airbrushed/logo-avoidant photography.
  2. The Next Level subset seems to focus on the higher-prestige rookies, such as Tua Tagovailoa. The design is also decent, though I would have made the subset logo just a tad less … huge.
  3. And even though this was only one pack, I still somehow ended up with a couple of duplicates. Not the end of the world, but since SAGE is a “micro-printer,” I would expect this kind of thing to get caught by quality assurance.

I’ll go ahead and do my ATR box rating on this little sample of SAGE football, just to see where we stand:

Design: 3 of 5 – It’s not a classic design, but it’s also not bad. The funky base design is a grower.

Card feel: 3 of 5 – This is a tough one, because 3 is what I gave the inaugural Skybox NBA product that had so many production issues, but this product is much better done: No offcenters, no bad cuts, no misprints or smears or speckles. That said, I was grading the Skybox on a bit of a curve as it was a first offering, and it was clear they were trying for a higher-quality product 30 years ago in the dawn of glossy trading cards. This 3 rating is based on the basicness of the card stock and the “cheapness” of the feel in the hand, combined with the excellent overall presentation and production. If there were ANY offcenters or bad cuts here, I’d give it a 2.

Photography: 3 of 5 – This is a strong 3. If I did half-point ratings on these categories, I’d give it a 3.5. The lack of NCAA licensing lends a sort of amateurish, “knock-off” look to the images in many cases, but honestly, the photo editors did a fine job choosing images that captured action and motion while minimizing the amount of logo airbrushing that was needed. A lot of the images are from scrimmages where players are already wearing blank jerseys and shorts, and sometimes even unstickered helmets. Technically, pretty well-done.

Fun factor: 2 of 5 – At the time I opened this pack, I didn’t know a lot of the NFL rookies beyond Burrow and Tua. When I revisited the lineup of players after having done some research, I was fairly pleased with what I had. No Chase Daniels and no Justin Jefferson, but beyond that, I had an OK spread of high-profile rookies and some sleepers as well. The more I read about SAGE, though, the more I learned that this is a company that’s known for its plentiful autograph inserts, and I felt a little underwhelmed that I didn’t get any real “hits” from the little box.

Overall: 2.75 of 5 – We end up with a rating just a tiny bit north of the exact middle point of my rating scale, which feels right. None of these cards are going for more than a couple of bucks online, and I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise given that this is a company without licensing, going for a decidedly less-premium overall presentation than many of its peers. A lot of collectors turn their nose up at stuff without licensing (I still see a lot of people online slagging off current-day Donruss baseball, for instance, for not having logos and team names on its product), and a lot of others refuse to buy anything that isn’t super short run or guaranteed to have “hits,” so to have a foot in both camps means a lot of people aren’t going to give this stuff a second look.

And that’s kind of too bad, because if this was more readily available and had a better marketing and distribution system, I think they could do OK with the more casual market. As I’ve said before, there’s a big void to be filled for would-be collectors who don’t have hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for the latest Panini product, a void that the big boys aren’t likely to plow a lot of money into filling, given the money they make chasing the big spender collectors out there.

I assumed when I saw this product and the company’s pretty rudimentary web presence that SAGE was a relatively new company, but as it turns out, it’s been around for 22 years now. I know there’s probably a lot of headwinds for those in the lower tiers of sports card brands, but it does feel like if anyone should know how to break through and find a successful niche, it’d be two guys from the glory days of Upper Deck, which dominated a very competitive trading card collecting industry for most of the 1990s.

I’ll be rooting for SAGE, and keeping an eye out for their offerings, but I do suspect they may be as close to oblivion as they are to success.

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