Creativity in Football Cards: Have We Hit Rock Bottom?

This week, we have the release of Panini Phoenix, which comes on the heels of a few months of lack luster content from Panini. Obviously sets like Impeccable (as I posted earlier) are a bit of an exception to the rule, but overall, these last few months and next few months are a terrible time of year for Football. We have seen the likes of garbage products like Certified Cuts, XR and Spectra, none of which showcase any real innovation in the market.

Adding in the dilution of further products from the NCAA license in Immaculate and National Treasures Collegiate, and all of a sudden we are in the middle of October with nothing to show for the top rookies other than a repetitive approach that feels both stale and played out. Although it hasnt been all dark clouds this year, I feel like we are entering year two of a life sentence for shitty middle of the year sets who have no purpose to exist other than just filling out a license that was negotiated extremely poorly.

I have often said that more products offer more shots at good content, but with no competition in the game, its not the case at all. There are so many products that have to be built with a team already hurting for creative success, that it creates a vicious circle of boredom that makes us all nauseous. I mean seriously. Look 25 years into the future. Do you really think someone is going to be combing boxes at the national trying to complete their set from any of these worthless sets? Probably not. If one of the rookies goes onto be the next big name in the NFL, will these products measure up to the legacy releases that everyone counts on year after year? Fuck no. There is a reason the Fleer Mystique rookie of Tom Brady is worth so much less than the sets that matter.

Im just fucking done with this same product different name cookie cutter that Panini has trotted out week after week. How many cards do we have to be tortured with that dont offer a unique take on anything? Is Phoenix really going to be any different than the 150 other relic cards with sticker autos we are forced to endure? How do we justify our continued purchase in the name of player or team collecting, if nothing new is ever brought to the table?

Panini’s answer to creativity has been to jack up the price tag or embed a precious like item into a card. This is not the answer, clearly, as so many of their new products have bombed on the secondary market. Every time they preview a new set that hasnt been released before, I literally laugh to myself wondering what the price will be in six months. Product shelf life under the new exclusive is excruciatingly short, because there is rarely any real driver for anyone to purchase this particular box over one of the legacy products released later in the year.

When the calendar in place requires 40+ football themed products a year from one company with one take, we start to see big bland paintbrush that washes over any real advancement in the calendar. Adding insult to injury, their football app depends on this content, as so far they have yet to release an original digital exclusive set in Blitz the way Topps used to do and still does every day.

The scariest part is that we are often told to speak with our wallets. That’s the way the companies hear that shit isnt going the way they expect. Unfortunately, most collectors have spoken with their wallets, showcasing on eBay how little they are willing to spend on same shit different day, but at that point its too late. In fact, its too late by almost three steps. Because Panini has no real direct business that means anything, they never feel the pain unless the distributors who really sell the product complain. In the past, Panini hadnt printed to order, so that means production rarely changed if pre-orders were soft. They are notorious for closing out major parts of print runs to places like Blowout and the like, offering major discounts to rid the warehouse of unsold product. However, because it was part of the plan, there wasnt really a huge loss.

Group Breakers also play a huge part, because the pressure of a shitty product is spread over a wider audience who has less invested in their purchase. Instead of paying for a box or case of cards from a worthless set, they buy slots which are significantly cheaper. Because the weight of return is so much less, it artificially inflates the success.

Overall, you can see that this isnt really the recipe for success and sustainability. At some point, we need to ask ourselves whether or not this is what we want to support. Panini is clearly not making the most of their opportunity to create loyalty and build great products, instead opting to shove garbage like Preferred down our throats.

Collectors deserve and need better products in their hands or the success of 2016 will be well in the rear view mirror. This is a sport that is continually under fire for injury concern and participation is down at every level of play in this country. If Panini cant find the fortitude to give us a reason to believe they know what they are doing with their sets, they will see a drop off very similar to what the sport is feeling on a nationwide level.

Similarly, it does fall on our shoulders to ensure that we do offer feedback as much as possible – especially when things are good. Good is subjective, and doesnt have to be all or nothing. You can like parts of a product and not like others – but make sure your voice is heard. Its also important to look past the patches in the card or the name on the front. Really study what looks good and what doesnt. Build your own standard for a quality approach with creative elements versus that of a shiny piece of vomit that someone cooked up in a drug induced haze. Lastly, it is essential to NOT participate in a product you dont support. I am a serial breaker of this rule, as I am addicted and cant break away. I have curbed my addiction lately because I know that buying the dumpster fire of the week wont help me or anyone in the long term.

I long for the days when we could count on three companies to deliver three different takes from three different perspectives. It forced better quality and competition, and some of the hobby’s most iconic cards were the result. That’s all gone now. We are left with neon paint pens signed on stickers and cut signatures of living and active signers as the standard bearer. That fucking blows. It just does.

On Shelves Now: 2017 Panini Impeccable Football

It gets to be a holiday when I fall in love with a Panini product that is native to their shop. As a whole, there may not be another company that has had less success in building new product lines, and Impeccable is that one set that is the exception to the rule. Bottom line, this set looks gorgeous, hits all the right notes I would want in a super premium release, and is starting to grab a foot hold with the collectors who are starting to see that it is worth their attention.

Check out these cards:

2017 Panini Impeccable Peyton Manning Auto 7/14

2017 Panini Impeccable Leonard Fournette Dual Patch Auto

2017 Panini Impeccable Deshaun Watson Dual Patch Auto

2017 Panini Impeccable Joe Montana Patch Auto /10

Prior to the last few years, on card autographs with relics were difficult to achieve. Not impossible, but many of the manufacturers probably wanted to avoid headaches this early on in the card year. Instead they saved the headaches for later on, when players were more available to do signings, and design teams had more availability to put the work in.

Impeccable takes what I would expect from a late year product and makes it available at a time where we are starved for worthwhile sets to collect. In 25 years, no one is going to give a flying fuck about XR or Certified Cuts. Hopefully, great looking cards like Impeccable can stand the test of time.

The key is a reduced focus on rookie content (though still present) and an increased focus on established stars and retired players. Because of the notions I outlined over the last few posts, football needs to move away from banking on rookies that have a 99% chance of not being relevant in a longer term perspective.

Everything about this year’s set has been improved, down to the Silver and Gold relic cards that are now much more attractively presented in a horizontal orientation.

Panini’s team just did a great job with this set, and I hope they find a way to bring more new products to the fold that feature work of a similar quality. Im not going to hold my breath, but this set gives me hope that its possible.

The Downward Spiral of Football Cards – Can It Be Avoided?

Im upset. I have been thinking about the state of football cards over the last few weeks, and I feel like things are trending in as bad a direction as ever. I commented quite a few times in the past that I feel like cards are an unsustainable industry the way the market is set up right now, and that is going to take a complete U turn to change.

More importantly, I have thought about the prospects of any of the players we collect having enough longevity to be worth buying anything of, and its not a light at the end of the tunnel. The craziest thing is that you used to have to go back years before hitting a rookie class that had lost its collectability outside the marquee few. Now, because of the rookie wage scale, classes that are less than 3 years old can be decimated in the hobby.

Teams are giving rookies less time to develop, mainly because they have no reason to keep them on the roster if they dont perform. The millions in guaranteed money is a thing of the past, and that hurts collecting football cards more than anything. Over the last decade, the shift towards QBs being the only collection worthy position is as frustrating as ever, and that’s mostly because they are the only non-disposable position left on the field.

Great running backs and wide receivers can be found in any round of the draft, but its rare that a late round QB has any real success like Dak Prescott did last year. In fact, the first round RBs and WRs are declining in value out of the gate, as many of them will only have an 8 year long career, and that’s if every last little thing goes right. When you consider that, is it really worth spending 200 dollars on a top rookie card for those guys, if QBs are the only one who enjoy 10 years plus?

Dont get me wrong, there are exceptions to every rule, but the guys who have made it to their 10th year in the hobby spotlight can be counted on one set of fingers and toes. Other guys like Darren Sproles have lasted a long time, sure, but he was never a guy people chased. The horror is that in the last 10 years, there have maybe been 25 players that were worth collecting, and that’s being generous. Keep in mind 40 guys a year are invited to the rookie premiere.

What does that mean for all of us? To put it simply, 99% of the rookie autographs you pull in any box wont stand the test of time. Obviously, that hasnt stopped anyone from paying 140 bucks to break a box of Certified Cuts, which might be the worst product I have seen in that same time span. You want to buy XR or Gala, or even Black Gold? The chance that your collection will grow to a point where spending that money is worth it, is insanely slim.

Panini has built almost 100% of its calendar around products that offer little outside one hit in the box. Even more disturbing is how many products are built specifically for group breakers. When you combine that, with the ridiculous focus on rookie content, its a recipe to wear people out faster than they would have if the league and the manufacturers both put more money behind existing stars than rookies.

Its not all rainbows and lollipops for the veterans either. Panini has started to resort to “player worn” material for a greater portion of their relic content than in any other year, period. This means, instead of game used material that used to populate 100% of non-rookie content, its a much smaller proportion in 2017 than it was in the previous 5-10 years combined. That’s a scary thought in its own right.

So, lets lay this out – all rookie content is event used or player worn 100%. That hasnt changed for 20 years. Now, a growing percentage of other game used content is also falling prey to Panini’s infamous desire to cut as many corners as possible. Couple that with how many players are now experiencing shorter careers, and Im not sure football cards is in a spot that makes anyone happy. The cherry on top is that no position outside of QB is worth betting on, and even that bet can be a lost cause almost 75% of the time.

What is the fix when we have all of this in tow?

I think a clear fix has to come in the way the NFL approaches their licensing. Panini literally gave up everything to get the exclusive. To kick Topps out, the superior brand that it was, they negotiated a deal that everyone I have spoken with has said was shit. No more, no less. Complete shit. Huge minimum guarantees, more products than any real team could handle with a full staff, and a lack of available content to stock the products they need to build. When you take on 31 products a year, you need relics and autographs to make those products alongside time and resources to build and design. Panini literally had 50% of that in 2016, and maybe a slightly higher percentage in 2017. Staff, content, and time are all being stretched past the point of breakage, and that’s why Certified Cuts is on the calendar, and just left off completely.

With more competition, and less need to drive products that arent worth driving, we solve a small portion of the issue.

The next piece is a higher focus on driving better content in products without increasing cost. Sets like Topps Chrome did a MASTERFUL job of this, something that Panini has yet to figure out at all. I would argue they fucking suck at it. Because they have no product history and a brand name that 99.999% of america relates to grilled sandwiches, it brings me back to the first point. Panini is not a good company to further the hobby in any way shape or form. Their product content is built for the wrong part of the hobby, and that is a huge problem – mostly because they just dont know how to do it any differently.

Content needs to focus more on delivering established players and stars over rookies. Tom Brady coming out of the 6th round and Dak Prescott coming out of the 4th dont happen enough to justify putting scrub rookies as filler in every product. They just dont.

Lastly, there needs to be an adjustment in the way products reach consumers. Distributors and online retailers have driven things in completely the opposite way they need to go. The conflict of interest is real, and the manufacturers are forced to play into it because the vicious cycle of all the issues I discussed above has made product value have a shelf life of less than a week. Manufacturers are not warehouse capable yet, and not being able to move product quickly enough is a direct result of having too much product to move in the first place. Because there is a new set every week, and most of the sets are shit, the sales teams cant turn over inventory quickly.

Considering there is no value for the average consumer to buy in at any reasonable level, it relies on group breakers to spread out the burden in ways that never should have been necessary. Customers should be able to order wax from any number of places at competitive prices, whether that is Amazon, eBay, directly online or their hobby shop. The fact that Blowout has the power it does is a bit unheard of in any industry I can think of.

You can all see this isnt an easy fix, and it definitely wont be cheap. However, if anyone really expects any of this to survive, I dont see any other way. Accessibility, content, value, and loyalty do not come without expense, and the collector cant be expected to foot that bill. If companies arent willing to stand up to the leagues, and start where the rubber meets the road, we are all fucked. That is not a prediction, that is a fact. It all trickles down from there.

2017 Contenders Design Revealed in Playoff Product Preview

This is a big deal now that Panini has football all to themselves, and I cant even begin to explain how sad that is. Contenders has always been a collector favorite, and despite my arguments that it really doesnt deserve the rep it gets, here we are. Think about it for a second, there are really only a few good years of Contenders outside of the last two, and it just so happens those years have HOF players that happened to be included. Outside of that, the designs are fucking horrendous, with 2009 and 2011 Contenders being among the worst designs in the modern era.

Recently, it hasnt been all that bad, but the dilution of the Contenders brand hasnt helped. College themed products are an unmitigated train wreck, and rarely hold any significant value when real NFL stuff hits. This college invasion has cheapened and confused in some cases, and taken away from success in a lot of ways. Similarly, sets like 2015 and 2016 were actually pretty good looking, but its so easy to point back to 2014 and 2008 to show that this whole discussion has so much evidence pointing to how poorly the quality / consistency was managed.

Here are some good looking Contenders tickets from last year and 2015:

2016 Contenders Dak Prescott Auto Ticket RC

2015 Contenders Jameis Winston Auto Ticket RC BGS 9.5

Then gaze upon the rotting carcass of 2014, 2011, and 2009:

2014 Contenders Derek Carr Auto Ticket BGS 9.5

2011 Contenders Andy Dalton Auto Ticket RC

2009 Contenders Matthew Stafford Auto Ticket RC

With the release of the preview for 2017 Playoff, we get our first look at the Contenders design for 2017, and im not really jumping up and down after seeing it. Its not as bad as previous years, but it isnt all that fucking great either. Its like the equivalent of another middle of the year set that Panini blurs together over the middle part of the hobby year, and that is a god damned shame. There are few sets left that have a history, mainly because Panini has been so horrible at delivering consistently well executed products. Contenders is a set that will drive high value, despite my objections. If it looks great, im fully on board. If it looks like someone hopped on their squatty potty and shit out a turd, then its a really bad situation with no competition to go to.

This year’s card has so much wasted space, im disgusted that there was no one at Panini that had pause enough to say it wasnt worth making improvements. The player is trapped in the upper right, and the white dominated sidebar does not accomplish beauty like the negative space can do in some designs out there.

That being said, I really, REALLY like that Panini is doing preview tickets again for the second year in a row. It adds allure to ripping boxes of a product that doesnt have a lot of reason to rip, and that’s always good. If only we could ditch the NCAA license usage on Contenders, things would be much better all around.

Until then, we are stuck with what we have, and that is never going to get me excited.

On the Radar: 2017 Panini Certified Cuts

I dont even know what to fucking say about this shit show. This whole product is so bad, I equivocate it to watching someone take your favorite card and purposefully ding all the corners. I have no idea why Panini wanted to make this product, based on similar cards from cards in the early 2000s, as it was a disaster then and its a disaster now.

Here are some of the previous cut sigs instead of sticker cards from Panini’s awful past:

2006 National Treasures Reggie Bush Cut Auto RC

2004 Leaf Certified Cuts Ozzie Smith Auto

2008 National Treasures Roger Staubach Cut Auto

2017 Immaculate Yoan Moncada Black Paper Cut Auto

Think about it. Some idiot is sitting at a conference table and actually has the balls to say out loud that using cut autographs from active players is a good concept to bring back over using stickers again. This is clearly the result of the product pool being extra shallow due to the horrible licensing guarantees that Panini “negotiated” with the league, and we are left to suffer through it at a whopping 150 bucks a box.

Seriously, look at the garbage Panini has brought to fill the gaps in the insane amount of sets they have to produce to hit quotas this year. Trash like XR, which is basically Absolute with more foil, and other stuff pales in comparison to actual winners like Impeccable and other sets they ripped off from former competitors.

Listen people, stickers suck, and I agree all card companies need to work on eliminating them at every turn. That doesnt mean replacing them with signed scraps of acetate or manupatches or black construction paper is the answer. Just work on disguising the use of stickers better, or release fewer sets that depend on them. One could argue licensing demands prevent fewer sets, but obviously this is not a better way of doing business.

Panini’s creative team has a lot to answer for, and this one just takes the goddamned cake. I literally cannot fathom how we got to this point, where a card company is willfully resurrecting concepts that were never successful to begin with. Its the hobby equivalent of trying to make another Howard the Duck movie. Im not kidding either, Panini is dead fucking serious here, and that should scare the shit out of people. They actually put this festering boil of a product on their calendar, and had no qualms whatsoever. I dont know how any company that puts the approved stamp on ideas like this still has a license.