Packs R 4 Suckers: An Evolvingly Cynical View of Sports Card Collecting

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling the itch to open a pack of something I wouldn’t normally buy: A sport or a set I’m not in the habit of collecting, maybe. I browsed eBay and settled on soccer, but the issue with soccer is there are so many leagues and competitions that there’s no “master” set to really focus on, with the quadrennial World Cup and annual Champions League sets being the most likely competitors for that crown.

I was looking at the sought-after Panini Prizm sets on eBay and saw that the 2020 English Premier League Prizm “cello” (short for cellophane, a throwback to when jumbo packs of cards were packaged mostly in clear plastic) packs were going for about $20 for a 15-card pack. That might sound a bit steep to non-collectors, but that’s about as cheap as anything Prizm can be found, as Prizm is just a super hot set for all collectors. For whatever reason, I hit “buy it now” on a pack and waited a week to see what I got.

The way I see it, there are two main pillars to building a sports card collection. You either buy single cards (a known quantity), or you buy sealed product like packs and boxes (an unknown quantity). One is like buying art, the other is like gambling.

Most collectors, myself included, and even most investor-types do a combination of both. Some even buy sealed products and — gasp — don’t open them, holding on to see if the value of the sealed product itself rises more than the top single cards in the set do.

Looking at most listings for older sealed product online, sellers calibrate the asking prices of the packs and boxes to reflect the odds of getting the most sought-after card or cards in the set in those packs and boxes. But here’s the thing: Most sellers price their product WAYYY HIGHER than the chances to draw those cards would dictate. They’re selling the excitement of the chase. Yes, the odds of you pulling that 1-of-10 super limited edition autographed star rookie card are about as remote as winning a lottery, but WHAT IF YOU DID IT, BRO? The prices are set high enough that an interesting bit of psychological trickery is triggered in prospective buyers (even in me, sometimes): One thinks, if the odds of getting a valuable card weren’t good, the price wouldn’t be THAT high, right?!

The numbers just don’t lie, though. You buy a box of packs, you’re not guaranteed much of anything. That adage is like super-duper-quadruple-true if you’re just buying a pack or two (in which case, there’s a good chance the seller bought a box, opened packs until they found the “box hit,” and is selling you the packs that are essentially certain not to contain any particularly rare cards). It’s one thing if you’re spending $30 or $40 on a box of junk wax from the early 1990s just to scratch a pack-opening itch (and you know you won’t pull anything worth more than a few dollars anyway), but what if you’re dropping $1,000 or more on a box of premium modern cards with like five packs and 20 total cards? What if your “hit” is a 1-of-25 limited run autograph card of the third-best power forward on the worst team in the league? Somehow, based on the box opening videos I’ve watched on YouTube, that’s the case more often than not (and it’s always funny to watch the host or hosts fake a “wow!” reaction for a super shiny autograph of a no-name player).

To be clear, I’ve never spent that kind of money on a box or pack of cards. I just can’t. I’m too aware of the odds.

So it’s a struggle for a guy like me, who does still enjoy opening packs on some level, but really can’t justify the cost of buying new boxes and packs of almost anything, and is already kind of tired of opening like 36 packs of a given 1990s-era set, only to be buried in an avalanche of lame, unwanted commons.

The pack of Prizm Premier League came, and the pack opening itch I felt when I purchased it a week or so prior had already passed. Rather than save it for the next time I felt the itch, I decided to open it right then and there.

I don’t follow the Premier League anywhere near as closely as I did a few years ago, so most of the players are unknowns to me, but I still know who the big clubs are, and this pack was positively littered with players from some of the more, shall we say, average teams in the division. Lots of Crystal Palace, Southampton, Sheffield United, and even a Brighton & Hove Albion player.

There were a couple of rookies, including a green parallel of some rookie goalie who might end up being something, but all in all, it was a dud pack. It was a letdown. I regretted the purchase. I’m thankful it was only $20 and not $200 or something like that.

It’s not as though I’m basing all my future purchasing decisions on this one dud pack of soccer cards, but you could say it was the $20 straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for me. I continue to purchase, when funds and interest intersect, single cards for my collection, and have even veered again into buying a complete set or two (more on that soon), but for now, packs and other sealed product are not in the cards (heh) for me.

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