Grand Cards: Blog Bat Around #3: If you don't care, I don't care

Monday, January 19, 2009

Blog Bat Around #3: If you don't care, I don't care

The topic for this Blog Bat Around, organized by Dave at Fielder’s Choice:

2008 is over and 2009 has just begun. We’ve seen the previews for the first card releases of the new year. We also know that Upper Deck is planning to eliminate a few brands in 2009, and with the economy in a recession, Topps and other card companies may follow suit. As collectors, we want to see the card companies make cards that we want to collect, but how do they know what we want? This is your chance to tell them…

What type of sets would you like to see produced in 2009 and beyond? What sets from 2008 and past years do you want to see return, and which brands would you like to see killed off? How could existing brands be improved and what new types of card sets would you like to see created? Should new sets be geared more toward set collectors, or should the number of hits (autographs and game-used relics) be increased? What about short prints? Parallels? Inserts? Gimmicks? What do you love about current cards, what do you hate, and where should the card companies go from here?

My response:

As many of you know, I am a newcomer to this blogging community. My history and relationship with card collecting features a big black hole between about 1994 and 2006. As such, I don’t feel experienced enough to be able to provide deep insight on the state of the hobby or its future. Still, I am happy to offer an opinion. Perhaps it is an opinion that many of the people who have been out of collecting—or have never collected—hold and maybe it isn’t.

For me, collecting is a complement to my true love—baseball. I view it as a way to track the history of the game and, more importantly, for me to recall various milestones and memories from different points of my life. Collecting was a way to connect with my favorite players growing up as well as a way to take pride and ownership over something that I had built from scratch. I believe, at its core, that all collectors share this feeling in some way. Amidst the “hits” and the 1 of 1s and all of the things that didn’t exist when I was younger there need to be cards that people can identify with and enjoy for what they are.
The way I see it, the entire hobby can be simplified into four groups: Full Set Collectors, Team Collectors, Player Collectors and those who just enjoy interesting cards and/or cards of good players. While no two collectors are the same, I think that grouping into these categories is appropriate. Manufacturers need to recognize these divisions and not try to make a “one-size-fits-all” product. Lets take Topps or Upper Deck’s main sets for example. In general, those who build full or team sets start with these releases. They should feature base cards with a good checklist, nice photography and should be challenging, but achievable to collect. The worst thing that a company can do is make a set-collectors product too difficult or too expensive to collect. Higher end products that heavily feature game used, autographs and parallels are fine, as long as they are recognized for what they are—sets for player collectors and those who just want high quality and unique cards.

The problem is that even the high-end market has been dumbed down to a degree, and has been cannibalized by the massive inclusion of GU/Autos, Short Prints and Parallels in lower end sets. Set collectors don’t care about those things, but some collectors do. By relegating the “expensive” cards to “expensive” packs you are able to keep the market for those cards fresh and keep the set collectors happy.

Still, I don’t buy high-end packs because they’re too expensive so I’ll end my talk about them there before I end up with my foot in my mouth.

Whether there are too many releases in the market or not enough, I’m not one to say—that’s for market research to determine (although there sure seem to be a lot out there). However, there is one thing that I am confident in. The success of a set comes down to its design. According to most of the blogs out there, Topps Allen & Ginter is almost universally beloved. How can this be? It includes non-baseball cards in a baseball set, it has short prints, a bunch of parallels and more. If A&G were designed to look like UDX people would piss and moan about the short prints, and the flags and buildings and parallels etc. I guarantee that would happen—look at the “uproar” surrounding the fossils that Upper Deck has in hand for a new release! People are calling for a dinosaur-only set! Is that really different than getting Leo Tolstoy or whoever in an A&G pack? No. But the design is amazing and the set is well done.

I guess what I’m saying is that the sets that buyers don’t think twice about are the same sets that the manufacturers didn’t think twice about during the design process. People like the concept, but not the execution of UD Documentary, for example. It's not that the product is bad, it’s just that it was done poorly—if done correctly it could have had a neat niche. Look at UDX, CoSigners and Moments & Milestones, for example. They’re kind of lame. There fine for a single here and there, but in all, they just don’t look that nice, or get repetitive etc.

Isn’t that the whole point? Why are we card collectors instead of coin collectors or stamp collectors or hoarders of old newspapers or bottle caps or coasters, beer glasses etc. (I realize that some of us are—not the point). We collect baseball cards because baseball cards have feeling. They are portraits of our time, capturing a moment of a player’s career or a team’s ascendancy to greatness. It needs to return to that. The cards themselves need to be held to a higher standard. If the design lacks feeling or quality design the set will fail. I dare you to provide me with a counterexample.

So those are my overall feelings for the future. A few bullets on specific grievances:

  • Stop using the same picture on multiple cards in a set. I’m talking to you Generation Now, UD Documentary and Moments & Milestones. These are not different cards and they are not parallels. Stop it.)
  • Topps Gold is good. It is a nice variation on the base set that is seeded in such a way that doesn’t hamper normal set collecting.
  • Topps Gold Foil is bad. It is indistinguishable, unnecessary and makes it more difficult and frustrating to build a set.
  • I like inserts, especially when they can be built into their own subsets (Topps World Baseball Classic, e.g.). I DO NOT LIKE continuity inserts that commemorate an extraordinarily long list of achievements, such as career home runs. Those cards become unremarkable after a few packs. If you continue with them, at least use a picture specific to the “moment” on the card.
  • Parallels and Short Prints are a player/team collectors challenge. Keep them within reason (ahem, Co-signers and Heroes) and you’re fine. Go crazy (e.g. SPs in UD Masterpieces) and you frustrate the set collectors and depress sales.
  • The market is saturated with Autographs and Game Used cards. They need to be harder to pull (turn Hobby packs into Retail-seeded packs for some sets) and pack prices on some products should go down. If people want Autos and Game Used they can go to the higher end.
  • The 55-card team-specific gift set from Topps was wonderful. Those should rotate so that each team has one every three or four years.

As a penultimate point, I have a suggestion that may or may not gain any traction. Many people point to the success of card games that offer Starter Packs and Booster sets, and relatively high price points. As someone who played Magic “The Gathering” in Middle School, that provides a very interesting model. How about this: Starter Pack of 60 cards for a $10 (this is the $10 blaster, 5 packs or 12 card each, SRP $1.99 per pack). Starter Packs are seeded in such a way that they are primarily base cards,with lower than normal insertion rates for inserts and parallels. Booster Packs of 10 cards can be sold for $4. While some base cards will be there, they may be drawn from a higher caliber of player. More importantly, parallels and inserts can more easily be had via booster pack. I’m not exactly sure of the implications, but I feel like that would cut the fat for set collectors, restore the “special” feeling of inserts and parallels and keep people buying more packs (especially the higher priced booster packs) to get the rare cards or marquee players, instead of buying regular packs only to pull 5 cards of Dan Haren (right Thorzul?)

Finally and most importantly, the market needs transparency. Checklists need to be readily available for all products online and in boxes. They need to be accurate and complete. The Retail-only releases from recent years are fine, but need to be recognized and accounted for. “Secret” short prints (Gimmicks) need to be stopped altogether. The frustrating part of this hobby is seeing cards sold on eBay that are outrageously priced because there is not adequate information out there. The sad part of this hobby is seeing somebody pay a high price, only to see the price fall over time. The companies need to make it easier for collectors to collect. That is all we ask. Let us know what cards are out there, tell us what we should expect to get out of a pack (odds) and we will be on our way.

If you made it through this, congratulations.


  1. Great post! I agree with all of your points and I really like this line: "the sets that buyers don’t think twice about are the same sets that the manufacturers didn’t think twice about during the design process."

    I'll be stopping by to read more of your posts!

  2. "Finally and most importantly, the market needs transparency."

    I hadn't even considered that point, but I think you're absolutely right. That would help a lot!