Blast From the Packs: The 1st and 10th WNBA sets

You may recall that I had purchased the full base set of the 2020 Panini Prizm WNBA offering as a sort of quirky investment play a couple of months ago. Prizm is the most sought-after set for collectors in any sport it issues in (except maybe baseball, where the lack of an MLB license holds it back for a lot of choosy collectors), including UFC and NASCAR, and given that women’s sports cards are on a bit of a come-up as far as value and attention, and this is the first-ever Prizm offering for the most popular women’s sport in America, it just felt like a good purchase all-around.

As a side note, since that purchase, I’ve been a WNBA League Pass holder, and I’ve very much been enjoying this season. Seriously, if you like basketball even a little, you owe it to yourself to spend $16 (!) and get access to this entire season of WNBA games (!), including even the national broadcast ones if you don’t mind waiting a couple of hours to watch (they’re blacked out on League Pass until after the game is over). All the teams are entertaining to watch in their own ways, there are so many good storylines, so many buzzer beaters and record-breaking performances, so many great young players … it’s just a great league and a great season so far.

With my enthusiasm for the WNBA growing, I decided the Prizm set would not be my last foray into WNBA trading cards. I wanted some history. I wanted some cards of some of the retired greats: Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Chamique Holdsclaw, all these players I’d known about for years, but never really got around to watching play much at the pro level.

I started looking online, and while there are definitely some cards and sets that have appreciated out of my price range for whatever reason (usually a very desirable rookie card), I was able to locate two more sets with some history to them at very good prices to add to my collection. I’ll give them a rating as though I was opening packs of them, even though I just bought the full base sets.

2006 Rittenhouse WNBA

Rittenhouse is/was a Panini imprint that specializes in non-sports cards (mostly TV and movies, like Star Trek, James Bond, Game of Thrones, etc.) and produced several seasons of the WNBA sets as well. In an interesting wrinkle, there are a fairly limited number of sets produced during most of these seasons. For instance, the 2013 set was limited to 500 copies.

I can’t find a definite answer as to how many of the 2006 set were produced, but given the extremely low cost I paid for the 110-card base set on eBay ($24.95 plus shipping), I’m guessing it may not be THAT limited. I did choose this set for one non-cost-related reason: It’s from the 10th Anniversary of the WNBA.

For the ratings, I give a rating out of 5 in four categories, which are then evenly averaged into a final rating out of 5 for the whole set. Let’s get into it, shall we?

Design: 3 of 5 – Where’s the line between simple/clean/bold and boring/uninspired? I feel like this set’s design might literally define that line. It’s not by any means an unattractive set, and I appreciate the restraint mostly, but it is also pretty generic. Let’s take a look at a little slideshow of cards to show what I mean (the descriptions are below the slideshow).

  1. Is there anything at all wrong with this? Clean white border with a large photo, outlined crisply in black. The WNBA 10th Anniversary logo sits, noticeably but unobtrusively, in the corner of the photo. The player name and team name are both featured legibly and boldly at the bottom. Is this a perfect design or a boring one?
  2. I’ll get into it more in the photography section, but the photo selection on these cards is also pretty solid. This one is good, though her lead arm goes off the side, so it’s certainly not perfect. She does fill the frame, though. I also wanted to highlight this card since the San Antonio Silver Stars are no longer a team (they’re the Las Vegas Aces, now), so it’s a little slice of history.
  3. The posed/studio shots are also good and well-composed, if a little boring, in a microcosm of my feelings about the whole set. You might think anyone could have designed a card like this, but I do think there’s enough subtle mastery of spacing and negative space, plus the strong typography and restraint on the size of that WNBA logo that it makes me think the set design overall leans more to the “classic” category.
  4. The card backs are also clean, well-designed, and restrained. The player photo is just a face-crop of whatever is on the front, which always feels a touch lazy to me, but it’s a feature of so many sets that I think it must just be my personal problem.
  5. The No. 1 card on the checklist is this team card commemorating the 2005 WNBA champs, the now-defunct (sadly) Sacramento Monarchs. A couple of the action shots for Monarchs player cards in the set were taken during the celebration as well.
  6. Each of the other 11 teams in the league in 2006, like the Chicago Sky, were also commemorated with their own team picture card in the set. As a side note, one of the things that sucks about the WNBA is that there are only 12 teams, and only like 140 players in the league, which means there is a LOT of top-tier basketball talent floating around in the overseas leagues that doesn’t get a chance to shine in the United States. I think as the popularity of the league grows, there will be more energy and money put toward expanding the league to more cities, but for now, this suckiness also means WNBA sets are VERY manageable in size. This base set is 110 cards. That’s very small.
  7. There are four checklist cards at the end of the set, and rather than just make them the generic checklist-style, they decided to feature top team duos, such as these absolute legends for the Los Angeles Sparks.

Card feel: 3 of 5 – These are very standard base set cards. Good quality stock, but not very thick. Not too much gloss, either, going with a more mid-gloss aqueous coating. Cards are well-cut and well-centered. Not a lot to report here.

Photography: 4 of 5 – Looking through this set, there really aren’t many clunkers in the photo department. The team picture photos are predictably not that enthralling, but the mix of action and studio/portrait-style shots is about as solid as it gets. I say “about as solid” since there are a few shots that feel like they should have been left out or cropped differently, but that’s a little nitipicky. Colors are bright, focus is crisp, composition is good.

Fun factor: 3 of 5 – Since I didn’t open packs for this set, I’m considering this rating a bit differently than I normally would, where I’d rate each pack I open out of 5 based on how excited I get about the players and cards inside, then average those ratings for the box that I’d opened. In this case, I’m rating the players featured and the variety of cards, essentially. And on those fronts, sure, there are a lot of legends in this set, but something’s missing: The rookies. Rittenhouse pulled the rookies out of the base set and gave them their own limited edition run of special inserts, numbered to 333. This, I’m sure, helps explain why the cost of this base set was so low. Otherwise, this set would have contained rookies for Seimone Augustus, Cappy Pondexter, and one of my current faves, Seattle Storm forward Candice Dupree. There are also special autograph inserts and various other cards that are not part of the base set.

The base set, then, has the team cards, the non-rookie players, and a few checklists with dynamic WNBA duos on them. Still cool, just not as much of a thrill as it would be to own some of those great rookie cards.

Overall: 3.25 of 5 – This feels about right for a solid set that’s got historical significance, good design, good photography, and a good lineup of players involved.

The other set I bought has a little bit more of all of those factors, however.

1997 Pinnacle Inside WNBA

This set is the inaugural WNBA collectible card set. It’s the very first one. There’s 81 cards, and they’re all rookies (well, one’s a checklist, technically). I found it on eBay for $34.99, plus shipping, and several of these rookie cards of legendary hoopers are going for more than that all by themselves, particularly in graded versions, which usually rise into the hundreds of dollars.

Besides it being the only card set for the inaugural season of the WNBA, it’s got a couple other points of interest: one, each of the 81 cards has two limited edition parallels — Court and Executive edition — and two, packs of these cards came inside aluminum cans that you had to pry open. How delightfully odd! On to the ratings!

Design: 4 of 5 – The design of these cards is pretty solidly 1990s. They’re glossy, they’ve got foil highlights, they’ve got a lot of color involved. But overall, I’d say the look is pretty iconic, and befitting a historic set like this. Let’s take a look at a few samples in a slideshow:

  1. Card No. 1 in the set, on the checklist, and in our hearts: Sparks legend Lisa Leslie. I love the use of team color highlights at various points around the card front design.
  2. Liberty legend Rebecca Lobo is a good example of the studio/posed photography, used a fair amount throughout the checklist, owing to this being the first season and there not being a huge backlog of great action photography to comb through.
  3. More design elements to note on this card of Vicky Bullett (great name) of the now-defunct Charlotte Sting: In addition to the Pinnacle Inside foil logo, each player card also features a somewhat ahead of its time “Official Pinnacle WNBA Rookie Card” foil insignia. You’d think marking each rookie card with a design element that says “hey collector, this is a rookie card” would be a no brainer, but it’s a relatively recent development in the industry. I think part of the reason Donruss’s Rated Rookies cards are so popular is because they were among the first to say “hey, this is a rookie card.” Even the classic Topps All-Rookie Cup logo only showed up on select second-year cards.
  4. I picked this card to show mainly for the interesting Cleveland Rockers (now defunct) uniforms. They’re from Cleveland, but they borrowed a lot of design elements from the NBA’s Detroit Pistons uniforms of that era. Also note the silver foil WNBA logo on the upper left, and the foil (with shadow!) on the player’s first name. That’s a fair amount of foil!
  5. No official stats for a league in its first year, of course, so card backs are a mix of biographical information and tidbits about the player’s college and/or international playing careers. You also get a spiffy “Inaugural Edition” WNBA stamp, some design elements repeated from the front (sans foil), a different player photo, and as much gradient shading as you could possibly want.
  6. Interestingly, the base 81-card set also includes two kind of pointless subsets. The first, Style & Grace, at least has some nice studio photography of its subjects. You’d expect the text on the backs of the cards to talk about HOW these players exhibit style and/or grace, but they really don’t, they just offer some more random tidbits about the player in general.
  7. There’s also the Scoops subset, which makes even less sense. I don’t know what “Scoops” means, and it’s mostly more action shots on the front, with nothing on the back to help me comprehend why these players were chosen. The design is different from the base cards, and would be a winner overall if it weren’t for the bad vertical type for the player’s name along the right side.

Card feel: 4 of 5 – I always liked the Pinnacle cards in other sports during the 1990s, because they tended to have a bit more of a premium feel to them than many other sets of the time. They were glossier (check), they used more foil and other shiny elements (check), and while not every set was made with thicker stock, the stock always felt well-cut and well-weighted. I’m a bit spoiled by the thicker, sturdier card stocks of many sets these days, so these feel a little on the thin side, but overall these are excellent.

Photography: 4 of 5 – Like the Rittenhouse set, the photography is about as good as it gets. Great action shots, nice studio work, well-focused, well-lit (and I even like the pop of team color that fades into the background on the base cards) and very few duds. The Sheryl Swoopes card, looking down at her smiling face through the net, is ridiculously iconic. That said, there are a few duds, and while it’s hard to hold it against them too much given it’s a brand new league, there are some photo choices that just make me wonder (like that Rebecca Lobo shot: it’s a posed studio shot, so why did they choose a frame where her right arm is blocking half her face?). I do have to look kind of hard for things to quibble with.

Fun factor: 4 of 5 – Having the very first WNBA cards to exist is pretty dang cool all around. Seeing all these immensely talented women who blazed a trail for professional players in the United States (and then continuing to kick ass overseas as well, mostly due to the fairly paltry pay rates these players STILL receive), holding their very first trading cards, that’s kind of a big deal to me. I even appreciate the effort to put a couple subsets into this very small checklist for some variety, even if those subsets are kind of headscratchers, theme-wise, and likely just a way to print a few more cards of the top players.

Overall: 4 of 5 – This is just a tight, well-crafted little set with an absolute load of historical importance. Pinnacle could have done the 90s, peak-junk-wax era thing and created a 500-card set with six or seven versions of all the players, but they held back, and it’s only 81 cards, albeit with two parallels (so 243 cards in the extended set). There were also two more 8-card insert sets available only in packs, but we’re still talking about a pretty restrained offering overall. Maybe that was a financial consideration, not knowing if anyone would buy it, but it worked out for the best.

Since I have the first and the 10th anniversary sets, I’m especially excited to get a set from this, the 25th anniversary of the league. The 20th anniversary set, unfortunately for me, coincided with a killer crop of rookies including a couple of my favorite players, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, and commands quite a salty price for this collector on a limited budget. But I’m keeping my eye out just in case someone who doesn’t know what they have puts one up for sale.

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