The card survey that I posted yesterday got me thinking. What went wrong? Every sport had a year when it all went wrong with cards and I am going to explore what I think happened. I have no access to profit and loss numbers of the companies, but it is clear that they are struggling in a lot of ways. I am going to make assumptions based upon my knowledge of the ebb and flow of the industry.
I know that many of you could care less about Baseketball cards, but I think the issues that arose with basketball are instructive as to the overall problem with cards.
Basketball cards have a spotty history. The 50's and 60's cards were produced in a hit and miss fashion and are some of the most difficult to find in the years they were produced. Fleer and Topps produced cards during these years. I recognize that Basketball cards are somewhat of a niche product to the true collector.
Topps produced cards regularly from 1969 to the 1981-82 set with a test set in 1968. Fleer then jumped back into the game with the now legendary 1986-87* set. Upper Deck came into the Basketball Market in 1991 and Topps came back in 1992. The 86-87, 87-88, 88-89, and even the 89-90 Fleer sets are still relatively popular with collectors today, but every Fleer set after that has been given junk status. Why is that? Two things, extreme overproduction, and collector's fatigue.
Fleer basketball cards from 86-89 were not and are not rare. They were available at most convenience stores, and of course my story from the Newberry's of the 86-87 set. Most stores would have a box at a time and if not most dealers had a box or two. The National dealers had cases and you could mail order and they weren't that expensive. Just as they weren't rare, you didn't see Kmart, toys R us and others with cases after case for months on end. Nor did 7-11 have more than one box at a time and sometimes it would take them a week or so to get a new box in when they ran out. Shoot, even Albertsons (like a Krogers) had a rack pack box of 1989 Fleer.
Even if it took a week to get a box in, the sets were small and easy to complete. Fleer sets were 132 cards, one printing sheet if you have ever wondered why, and at 12 cards per pack in 86 and I believe 15 per pack after that, a box would yield 3-4 sets and 3 sticker sets. Yes, that's right, three to four Jordan's, Ewing's, Magic's, Bird's, etc. Thus at $.40 a pack, you could reasonably complete a set with 15 packs or less, and trade your doubles for the ones you needed. Yup a mere $6.00.
So then what happened, since this is the overproduction section, you know my theory. Duh! Everyone and their dog knows that overproduction killed cards. In 1990, fleer was still alone, but they upped their production substantially. As I said, I have no numbers just observations. Here is what I saw at the time. 7-11's always had 1990 Basketball three and four boxes at a time. Grocery stores started getting display cases, when they had not sold basketball in the past. Thus, not only did the number of retailers selling basketball increase substantially, the stock that traditional retailers had increased by 3. To be honest, I bought every box I could.
Don't get me wrong, these cards were selling because basketball cards were booming. I would call 7-11 on Monday or Tuesday morning to see if they got any in and if they did, my dad would go with me to buy them. The party, however, came to an end. I realized after the fourth or so box, that 10 David Robinsons (I would have had more given the number of boxes, but the set got larger this year if I recall) were probably not going to make me rich, so I stopped buying. But I washed rinsed and repeated for the 91-92 year and stopped after that. Retailers had cello packs by the gross. There was no appeal whatsoever because I had 10 sets and so did everyone else and there were still truckloads of cases to be had. Why is this a problem?
This is a problem because there is no value, no perceived value, and scarcity will never occurr. If the collector doesn't think there will be any scarcity, then they may not buy at all, they will wait and pick up that box that cost $20 at the time of production for $10. See my 1992 Bowman post. Check out the bay and you will see 5 box lots of 1990 Basketball for $27, Awesome. Contrast this with the previous years. No display cases, only a few retailers carrying them with a box or two at a time.
These cards were not "high quality". They are simple white stock, non-glossy, simple design and that didn;t change from 86-92, just the production numbers and set size. Pack price was similar. Draw your own conclusions.
This is an easy one. Fleer was the sole producer up until 89 when hoops came into the game. I realize there was Star, but they weren't the same market. Then Upper Deck in 91, then Topps in 92. Same thing that happened to baseball and football but Basketball was a smaller market. Collector Fatigue does not end with the sheer number of sets in the game, its the type. Collector Fatigue includes: Overproduction, number of sets, price of packs, types of cards. All of those are self explanatory except types of cards.
About 92 with the "high end" fleer ultra, my buddy and I came up with a phrase: glossy, UV coated, foil stamped, holographically enhanced madness. The simple card had gone away. Now pack prices increased substantially because instead of just pressing some cardboard material into a sheet and putting colors on it, companies were foil stamping everything and then crowing about it. They were UV coating cards. They were making them super glossy. It wowed the crowd for a bit, but not your core collector. Take for example the 93 Topps basketball set. I hated these and still do. Topps had, in my opinion, sold out in 92 with white card stock and then really jumped the shark with glossy cards as their base set.
At this point a lot of people quit collecting, or had at least come down with the disease. It took a couple more years of CF to kill their collecting self.
*Note on this set. It isn't rare. Cards are readily available at any time. Wax is very expensive because of the Jordan, which agan, isn't rare. I anticipate that many finds of unopened wax will be made in the next decade or so. Why do I think this? This was an inaugural set. Just like with comics and number 1 issues, people save this stuff blindly because it is the inaugural set. Remember, this stuff came out 22 years ago. Many people that were in their 30's, 40's, and 50's at the time are still alive. Further, cases were not that expensive. They were around $300 a case.
Fleer was not the major player in the 80's with Football as they were with Basketball. Topps ruled the roost and Fleer put out sticker sets and In Action* sets. Topps was producing glorious brown grey cardboard stock 396 card sets (3 sheets) $.25 - $.40 cents a pack cards. Again, they weren't rare**, but only a few stores had them. Everything was fine until 1988. In 1988, Topps hit the overdrive button on their printer and these cards were everywhere, and still are, this continued into the next year and the year after that. The overproduction era was in full swing in the Football arena.
Collector Fatigue: CF was in came into being for Football Collectors about the same time as it did for Basketball. Score in 1989, much like Hoops in 1989, these sets still have a bit of appeal. Pro Set in 1989. Fleer in 1990. Upper Deck came in the game in 1991 as well. 1989 Score wasn't as overproduced and had a compelling rookie class that still commands good prices. By 1990 all of those sets plus overproduction, and increasing pack prices did the collector in. The sets in 89 Topps, Score, and Pro Set were still somewhat viable because production numbers weren't nearly as massive as they were in 1990, but they were produced enough where the hobby was suffering. Then by 1992 and 93 we had glossy, UV coated, foil stamped, holographically enhanced madness.
*Boy was I stupid. In 1983 or so, I really don't remember what year, I do remember where however, I went into a store with my grandma and bought some packs of cards. All I remember is that the packs said football on them. I do remember the 81 and 82 topps design in this bin, and I didn't know the difference. Turns out I picked up the Fleer, Son of a Bitch!
**Again, you can find all the unopened wax from these years that you want, cards are plentiful, but not everyone has 10 of each card.
By 1981 Fleer, Topps, and Donruss were all producing cards. The 81 and 82 Fleer and Donruss sets were bad quality, with 1981 being particulary awful for Donruss. The Fleer set was just comically bad. Topps was still cranking out cardboard whil Fleer and Donruss were putting ou white board. Topps sets were 792 card (6 sheets), Donruss and Fleer were 660 cards (5 sheets). Three sets were able to find a market because the Baseball Card market was just bigger than the Basketball and Football market.
In retrospect, the problems for baseball started much earlier. There was no illusion that BB cards were scarce in the 80's. In fact Topps was selling uncut sheets on a large scale by 1984, I still think this is cool. Again, the market was large and they were to be found in stores a few boxes at a time. There were times when the stores were just out. This seemed to change in 1986. In very early 1986 or really late 1985, I went into a Toys r us and there were Rack packs just hanging there. They were 1986 Topps. Part of my confusion that I talked about in my survey was that, now that I think about it, these cards had no business being out. It was WINTER. I have no idea how early cards came out before that, but this was early for me. Then, that spring, K-mart had an entire endcap of wax boxes. They had cases of the stuff. It was selling well and they restocked it over and over and over again. The Kmart was only 3 or so blocks from my house, so I was there regularly.
I hadn't seen a pack of Donruss since that one box that I bought two packs out of in 1984. I had also bought 1 pack of 1984 fleer from a generic store. I saw none in 1985. In 1986, the Payless Drug Store would get a box of Fleer every once in a while and i would buy a few packs here and there. I finally saw packs of Donruss at a card shop after Conseco cards went crazy. The rack packs were $12-$14, dude, that was a lot of money in 86.
By 87 Topps was being sold on the streets and door to door, maybe not, but there was a ton out there. The stores would get a box of Donruss every once in a while. The Kmart was selling these monster blister packs of Donruss by now. They had 96 cards, 74 cards, something to that effect. Fleer on the other hand was harder to get. I was actively looking for them and found them rarely but did have not one but two Kevin Seitzer rookies that booked for $12 don't you know.
Nineteen eighty eight, oh god, 1988. By 1988, the levies were broken. Donruss had a display cello case in every store. Fleer was still a bit tougher to come by in my area, but not like 87. Topps wasn't really any different in 88 as they were in 87, but CF had caused hangover like effects, plus there wasn't anything compelling about the set. Glavine and that was about it. Score also entered the fray. Before we had hanging chads on the UD X die cuts, we had score with their tabs on the their corners. They did a terrible job cutting these. I liked score, the multi color cards. The red ones, the yellow, the blue. But the market was still chugging along. When Upper Deck entered the market in 89 people went nuts. These were hard to get, they were $1 a pack, they were like nothing we had ever seen.
Upper Deck was still perceived as being in short supply. They were and are not. We have foil packs as far as the eye can see today. People put case of them away because they were the inaugural set. Remind you of 86 fleer basketball. The difference being that the 89 set was produced in much larger numbers, and the Jordan rookie went to astronomical prices after a few years and hasn't come down. whereas the Upper Deck set has ebbed and flowed for many years, but the supply of wax has been constant.
In 1989 we had five sets, we had rising pack prices, overproduction and we had holographically enhanced madness. By 1992 and 1993 we had glossy, UV coated, foil stamped, holographically enhanced madness. By 1993, we had countless numbers of sets both wax based and factory set based. See Classic, etc.
So what's my point? My point is that the lowely cardboard based simple Topps card was not the problem. It didn't have to be high end. It didn't have to be glossy, not foil stamped, it just had to be what it had been for years: A Baseball Card, a Football Card.
I might be stating the obvious, but it doesn't seem to be obvious to some. Gross overproduction too many sets and rising pack prices harmed and maybe killed the hobby. The glossy, foil stamped, $1.50 a pack cards of the 90's were the worst, absolute worse thing ever. Then Topps and other companies started producing low, medium, high, parallel, whatever to try to diversify or whatever. Then everyone and their dog produced cards. The joke about pinnacle was the you had pinnacle, pinnacle certified, pinnacle totally certified, pinnacle really really certifiedm and Pinnacle certified and we really mean it this time.
MLBPA has done some things to reign this in, but but they can fix this still. First, 3-4 companies max. It doesn't make a difference if you only have 2 companies, if they have 17 products each. You still have 34 products and they are extremely watered down. I would beat on X more, but it has suffered enough.
So you have 3 manufacturers, with 3 or four products each. Not enough you say? I say it is because then they will stop putting out such crap products. They can make 3-4 really good products. Topps: Topps base, Chrome, Finest, and Really High end. In fact, Chrome could be a parallel in their bas for that matter, but I am willing to concede Chrome. Base could be cardboard, non glossy 10 cards per pack .75 -$1.00 a pack, no autos, no jerseys, or few if any. Basically the card companies are trying too hard.
Is there anyone that likes having 34 sets per year?
One thing I did not talk about above, that is slightly relevant. Down years. Down years are the 81 Topps, 86 Topps, and 88 Topps of baseball. Under production couldn't have helped these sets. One or two middle or compelling rookies. In 1988 you had Glavine, in 86 the base set was devoid of rookies, yet the traded set rules. I don't care if it is a $10 set, as a collector it is a worthwhile set. I bought one for $13 with my own money.
Up years, regardless 84 Topps football was going to be a hit, just like 89 Score football, 83 topps baseball. Extreme overproduction could have caused these to fail, but none of the above sets are rare at all. All of the cards are easy to find, and with the bay, you can buy one in your jockeys at 3 am and have it in two days. Even though 92 Upper Deck Basketball is what it is, you still have Shaq. So you will always have a success in the over production era, but I wouldn't say any of the sets now fall under that catagory with the exception of 03-04 basketball, LeBron, and 96-97 basketball. In fact, now days you can, year after year, find products from the last few years at about 25% less then when they were released.
So the misconception is that, it wasn't whether the card was high end or not, it was severe overproduction, pack price, and glossy, UV coated, foil stamped, holographically enhanced madness.