Editors Note: Ryan Womeldorf is very interested in sports cards and will be writing about them in addition to his usual type of articles for the foreseeable future. If this is something you also enjoy, fantastic. We’re happy to bring this new topic of writing to The Farm Club. Make sure to let him know about your own story in the comments below.
One obvious thing anyone who’s ever come to this site and read me will know is that I love sports. Duh. I write for a sports website fergodssake. What you might not know is that I’ve been collecting sports cards (mostly hockey but I got my start in football) for 17 years.
I got my start as a 10 year old, sorting the base cards (the regular set; the most common cards in a product) for my dad and his buddy after they would rip open boxes. I also got my start as a player collector that year. I was a big fan of Colorado’s Peter Forsberg. My dad would buy me singles here and there, stashing cool finds in things like my Easter basket and my Christmas stocking. And I do have one distinct memory. We were at Dave and Adam’s in Buffalo (where I grew up) where my dad opened a few packs of then-hot Black Diamond. He’d pulled a nice Paul Kariya card, a good get at the time, and asked if he could flip it for the Forsberg of the same card in the display case. I remember being thrilled just holding it and am happy to say I still have that card in the same case I got it. And it’ll stay there until I have kids of my own to pass down to or until I die. Ditto with the other cards my dad has gotten me.
Back then, things were pretty simple: sets contained base cards as well as insert cards and/or parallels which varied in terms of rarity. The insert sets were of a different design than the base and easy to tell apart; the parallels were usually pretty simplistic in that they had a color change or some other distinction to tell apart from the base (silver to gold, etc). Beginning in 1993/94, certain insert sets started using serial numbering. This let the collector know exactly how many cards were in that specific print run. Which is nice because then you don’t get idiotic sellers going “OMG MIGHT ONLY BE LIKE 10 OF THESE” when you’re holding 48 in your hand. Granted, the serial numbering started with 10,000 or so and eventually led to one of the first truly RARE sets when Flair released their Blue Ice Collection numbered to 250 in 1996/97. Those remain hard to find to this day. That same year also saw Upper Deck produce the rare (just 100 copies of each) and popular Lord Stanley’s Heroes Finals and Hart Hopefuls Gold.
Then, in 1996/97, the Upper Deck Company changed the way we look at cards. They introduced the game-used jersey card across all sports. They would take a (theoretically, as UD would have questions about the authenticity of their swatches) game-used jersey, cut it up, and insert pieces into cards. The initial set for hockey was a huge hit. They were nearly impossible to pull from packs (I think they were something like 1:2,000 packs. Maybe more than that) and commanded a ton on the secondary market. Upper Deck continued with the set from that year forward.
Things again changed during the 2000/01 season. Products like Upper Deck’s SP Game Used and Pacific’s Private Stock introduced the one-game-used-card-per-pack era. To meet the demand, companies had to expand the player selection. Companies went from only including the game’s elite to producing cards of just about anyone. Scrub after scrub would pop out of these packs much to the chagrin of paying collectors. And it only escalated from there. Serial numbering would be lower and lower, multi-player swatches expanding to 12 swatches per card. Unsurprisingly, prices on the secondary market for these cards dropped from where they once were.
In the last few years, collectors have begun to gripe about the lack of value when one opens a product. Secondary market values are down because not only does everyone have a game-used card (or a thousand) but the stars of the game, the ones who drive the product sales, see their images plasters over more cards than the market can handle. When the supply is greater than the demand, the values drop. And that’s where we are.
Collectors are complainers. Always have been. When game used cards were starting out, they demanded more. When more hit the market, they wanted more star players and less scrubs. When more cards of the stars hit the market, they complained they weren’t worth as much as they used to be. And they blamed the companies the whole way. But guess what, collectors of the world? IT’S OUR FAULT. The companies will do what they need to in order to see product move out the door. They listen to the consumer and try to give them what they want. And we wanted this.
The same correlation is true for autographed cards. Once a rarity, they too hit the one-per-pack days that became littered with journeymen and no-names. Like game-used cards, collectors demanded more and watched them lose value.
Not only that but with the rare exception, the game-used/autograph market has all but killed the secondary market for inserts. Most collectors don’t see what’s so great about a card unless it has a game-used swatch and an autograph anymore.
Frankly, I think the only way the market is corrected is to go backwards. Make those game-used and autographed cards rarer, harder to pull from packs. Drive the importance of inserts which are cheaper for companies to make and can be collected by anyone. Make pulling a jersey card or autograph something SPECIAL again.
But collectors will just keep demanding and wondering where the value is. And they’ll still want more.