For those of you that have not found The Sports Card File, I think you should check it out.
Steve has experience that, to my knowledge, none of the rest of us has. He has worked at 3 card makers and been on the development side of cards for quite a few years. The topic that he has written about is the past present and future of cards. One aspect that I wanted to comment on is the direct model.
What I mean by the direct model is Topps for example makes a 4 color patch of Arod and you can purchase that card directly from Topps. I have no confidence that model would be successful. Here's why.
One interesting thing about cards is that value depends on supply, demand, and the chase. Supply and demand are often thought of as the most important aspect of a cards value, but I believe the chase is a surprisingly important aspect as well.
Take for example the 52 Topps Mantle. There are thousands upon thousands of viable copies of that card, yet it remains the most valuable post war card. There are 20 PSA copies available on eBay right now. That to me does not equal scarce. I think the main factor in the value of the Mantle is the chase. Everyone knows the card, everyone looks for the card. In other words, I don't think the fundamentals of supply and demand support the value of this card without the component without the chase. The chase is a component of demand, but deserves to stand on its own.
Contrast the value of the Mantle to the 52 Topps Mays. Mays was a better player than Mantle, any racial differences that may affect demand have, in my opinion disappeared. Frankly, I want both cards equally. I don't think anyone would say that the 52 Mays isn't in demand. How does this relate to the direct model of Patch cards? There's no chase.
Much like Willy Wonka and his golden tickets, if you can just buy one there is no feeling of being special for having found one. How many of us rip open pack after pack looking for cards that we can just buy on eBay for less than the cost of the box? I think it’s because we don't know if we are going to get what we are after and we love the chase.
Any idiot could go to the Topps website and buy that patch card, but you have to be "special" or lucky to pull it out of a pack. One other example is the factory set conundrum. A factory set of Topps can be had for a few dollars, but many thousands of collectors buy pack after pack, trade and buy singles just to complete the set. Often times spending 2-3 times the amount to hand collate a set. Even if the collector buys singles, he or she must still go through the effort to find the ones he or she needs. It’s the chase. Much like those team sets that Topps sells in blister packs, they just don't have the same demand. In fact, whenever I see one of those cards I turn up my nose at it. Those cards have no value to me. The cards have a notation on the numbering that lets you know the card is from one of those sets. A scarlet letter if you will.
I'm sure Topps would sell tons of those patch cards direct, but I think the secondary market would be incredibly soft. The market is already soft for cards that are 1 per case and cost a fortune to pull. I think these direct cards would not get much respect and would always be seen as such. They would become the equivalent of Thomas Kinkade prints. It’s possible they would sell well, the prints do, but this market would wither quickly.
Personally I buy cards that I know are tough to pull out of packs in an effort to build a set because of how hard they are to put together. Example, I am trying to put together a set of framed parallels from masterpieces and the blue refractor set from 08 Finest Football. It takes a ton of boxes to put together a set of those. I know how many I have opened and how close I am to a set. Yet if I could just buy the blue refractor set or framed parallel set from Topps and Upper Deck respectively, the set wouldn't hold the same meaning for me. The fact that I have had to bust quite a few boxes and buy singles from many people on eBay shows me that completing a set is quite an accomplishment. For me it is simply the chase that makes it worthwhile. Maybe SP's aren't such a bad idea after all??