Decades from now, the sport collecting world won’t be what it is today, much like how today’s version of the hobby is miles different from the landscape of the 1980s.
You remember that time, don’t you? It was the other BCE — the Before Cash Era.
Yes, as innocent and naïve as it may sound, there was a period where cards weren’t kept in plastic sleeves or glass cases. Kids actually used to play with cards: flipping them, writing on them or worse — putting tape on them, pinning them to walls or placing them in bicycle spokes.
Then the boom hit and all of a sudden (or not so all of a sudden when you consider how long pricing guides have been around) cards were no longer pretty pictures and statistics — they were as tangible as stocks that could be bought, sold and traded on floors across the country. The New York Stock Exchange was in homes and school gyms across North America and beyond.
Like on the stock exchange, companies started popping up almost overnight. What was once a stronghold dominated almost solely by Topps (and its Canadian cousin O-Pee-Chee) suddenly was a boom market. Donruss, Fleer and Score were already mature when Upper Deck, Pro Set, Classic Games and countless others began to appear on store shelves. Adding to the now loaded market were a bevy of new food premiums like McDonald’s, Denny’s and Kraft, and unlicensed cards like the infamous Broders.
Many of the newcomers to the hobby weren’t collecting for the pure enjoyment of reading a card-back bio or saving their favorite players in a special case — they were investors who believed that a fresh rookie card (RC) of a hot prospect was like an IPO, destined to take off in value and become a college fund feeder for their kids.
But, as we all know, the market was just too big. The collectors began realizing that they could no longer have one of everything and either specialized or moved on as prices for packs and boxes increased, while the investors decided that there was another “next big thing” market or simply lost interest and soon began leaving the hobby, looking elsewhere for their investments.
Soon the boom was over. Over the next few years, many companies either closed down (Pro Set and many fly-by-night companies aimed at the draft market such as Signature Rookies) or were bought out (Leaf/Donruss, which had been a hobby institution for years, was purchased by Pinnacle Brands, formerly known as Score).
But as with every boom and bust, there was an echo effect. Though it hasn’t and likely will never reach its peak level of popularity again, the hobby continues to be a multi-million dollar industry. Companies realized they needed to change their strategy since the days of a collector putting together the entire assortment of cards from one product were done, and the highdollar pursuit cards were here to stay.
Soon, the valued rookie cards were more short-printed than ever before. Chase cards had longer odds and more prominently had serial numbering blatantly advertising their limited availability. Perhaps most importantly, there was more player involvement than ever.
Back when the hobby took off, companies began issuing authenticated autographs in packs. Several series would feature a signature from a star player — the Reggie Jacksons and Patrick Roys of the card world — but by the mid-1990s, the autograph appearances would skyrocket. Some sets, such as hockey’s Be A Player, would include one autograph per pack. This would quickly become the norm, and each company seemingly had a set like this.
The autograph, however, soon had a new friend — gameused memorabilia cards. They started in auto racing sets and moved quickly over to the “big four” sports as companies acquired game-used equipment from pro athletes and teams and would embed swatches in their cards. Soon, every collector could potentially have a piece of Ken Griffey Jr. ’s jersey. Companies would also look to the past, cutting up Babe Ruth bats and Magic Johnson sweaters. Ever wanted a piece of turf from an NFL field or a ticket stub from the Super Bowl? Yup, you could get those from packs as well, or at least a portion thereof.
The highlight soon became some unique swatches coming out of packs. Thanks to the use not only of jerseys but their crests, or patches as they’re commonly called, some truly attractive pieces started appearing. This would translate well to bat barrels or league emblems, which became the Cadillacs of cards.
Soon, it seemed as though anything imaginable could be plucked from a card pack. A signature of a long-deceased icon like Knute Rockne was available, or the very printing plates used to create cards were soon found inside foil wrappers.
As these cards became more popular, pricing for packs began to, shall we say, vary. The highest grade of product soon would demand $50 or more for a single package and steadily increased to suggested retail prices well into the three-digit figures. Names like Exquisite, Sterling and Ultimate would become recognized as the upper echelon of collectablility.
All was not good for the hobby in this brave new world though. Pinnacle Brands closed up shop in 1998 and would become part of the Playoff franchise. Later, Pacific, which rose to prominence in the 1990s despite being in existence since the ’70s, would be taken over by the new Donruss/Playoff Inc. , which would end up being purchased by sticker magnate Panini. Upper Deck (UD) would purchase longtime rival Fleer, gain control of the O-Pee-Chee brand name and even make a bid to take over its biggest competitor — Topps.
Meanwhile, UD would gain exclusivity with the NHL and its players’ association, which in part led to Pacific’s aforementioned demise and nearly forced Dr. Brian Price and his company, In The Game Inc. , out of the hockey market. Price and other companies would still produce cards of hockey’s past, present and future stars, albeit without logos. This would begin a new era, leading eventually to the NBA going exclusively with Panini, Major League Baseball only licensing Topps, and other such contracts, essentially looping back to the ’60s and ’70s.
All the while, the industry continued to shrink as dealers continued to close up shop. What was almost a card store on every corner in the boom era would shrink to a dozen or fewer stores in some cities, and long-running trade shows would either close up or measurably shrink in size. Additionally, magazines and price guides dedicated to trading cards would also soon fold or reformat, lessening the public presence of the hobby.