We have all been there, and we have all muttered the two words that no one ever wants to mutter:
Over the majority of the last 50-75 years of the sports card industry, opening packs and breaking boxes has become an integral part of being a collector. We all want to be the one to walk away with that white whale that has eluded us. Hell, that’s why many of us use the phrase “white whale” as it is that type of scenario. Pulling a nice card happens so infrequently that we created a coloquialism.
With rising costs of wax, and content becoming more and more monotonous, questions continue to be raised surrounding the practice and its sustainability. Over the last 10 years, collectors have seen prices increase to insane levels, and investment opportunities dwindle, and yet, here we are.
Investment and sports cards has always run hand in hand, even though I rarely equate Sports Cards with a worthwhile use of money these days. For the most part, card values and desire to collect has dropped, especially as the industry seems to repeatedly use the same formula over and over again. Even when a concept becomes stale, card companies run it into the ground instead of trying to bring innovation and creativity to the table. Sure, there are some novel ideas that have taken hold, but those are literally one in a million. Most ideas are horrible by the time they hit shelves.
As the trend has shown over 2013 and 2014 especially, more and more people have become disenfranchised with the way things are going, leaving the hobby and not looking back. Because the fault lies in many different areas of the business side of the hobby, its tough to lock down even a short list of reasons. I want lack of good looking cards to be a reason, but we all know collectors will buy anything that has perceived value regardless of look.
Despite this situation, wax prices continue to go up without delivering truly unique content, and collectors (for now) keep buying. With this being such a buyers market, the question of why people rip wax instead of just buying the cards they want continues to baffle me.
I am a collector that still breaks boxes. This is all despite the fact that my PC theme is so specific, which only makes me question my own motivations further. I have started to wonder if this desire to open is more akin to a gambling type addiction than anything, because the two seemingly run hand in hand. With 90% of boxes (if not more) ending in a large value loss, we basically pay the dealers for the thrill of opening packs. If we hit a good card, it goes straight to eBay without a thought in many cases. Some collectors keep things for an ever growing collection that borders on hoarding, and that’s not something to scoff at either.
Think about it like this. Gambling (as a whole) actually provides more of an opportunity to make more money when you consider house odds on many games. From what I understand, many Casinos have perfected the art of getting consumers to dump their winnings back into the pot even when they hit a big score. The only main difference between gambling in a casino and cards is that there is never a TOTAL loss of investment when opening packs. You are always left with something, even if you lose. However, with cards, its beginning to seem like people lose far more often.
The scariest part is that I am not advocating a return to the ways of old, which some older collectors say is the solution to the issue – its not. We are too far past the point of no return on that model to think that any business would be able to survive with the way things were done. Licensing costs and regulations almost make the previous model as unsustainable as the current model. Neither will work.
What I am advocating is that Sports Cards as an industry is unsustainable, and it will land us in a very tough spot as collectors for years to come. I digress, as this article is more about us than the manufacturers. If collectors continue to understand that opening boxes is a losing venture more often than not, are we as responsible as them for the decline that is going on?
With the advent of group breaks being a preferred format for more collectors to avoid large losses on breaking wax, it should be more accessible for people to buy in. Instead of that being the situation, we see that even group breaker participation seems to be dropping quickly too. It might be a combination of the people who run them and the product quality they seem to pimp, but that is an entirely different discussion.
Is the thrill of opening packs more an addiction than anything? It might be, as its clear that many people have an unabated need to keep going, despite warning signs telling them there are better ways to participate in the hobby. They want to gamble on the big hit. It goes without saying that breaking boxes is no longer needed to complete sets, which was one of the many reasons people used to do it prior to eBay.
If I am a card company, the solution might not be as evident as people think. In fact it might be located OUTSIDE the proverbial box of cards itself, more in the distribution models and formats of the products. That being said, as a collector myself, I know how hard it is to stay away. You almost have to go cold turkey, and for most of us, that is just as miserable as losing your ass on a box of cards.
For the manufacturers, the exploitation of wax breaker’s addiction is likely not at the forefront of product planning, either. They should be moving more towards the way casinos function rather than just pumping content into or away from boxes. The only win win is for them to give us just enough to get us to buy another box, while still holding enough value inside and outside the box for us to want to keep coming back.
That is the reason why casinos have giant buildings on the strip in Vegas despite a recession kicking disposable income to the curb. If Americans are continuing to save money over spending it at the highest rate since World War 2, what enticing situation can be provided to keep them coming back? Im not sure that exists in the same way for cards, and it is why I am becoming alarmingly concerned.
Bringing exclusive licenses into the mix is a prime reason why things will likely get worse rather than better. Instead of inciting competition among licensed brands, exclusive licenses use the guise of “making investments into product lines” as an excuse to be complacent and lazy. This is what we have seen with just about every exclusive that has ever been granted. History is not a good teacher there, and collectors have been left footing the bill
SO. What to do?
Right now, we are almost powerless to make any impact, and I know that it will be tough to hear. The industry IS a sinking ship, even though the hobby will never die. Do not confuse Panini’s blank check from Italy with a license to do what ever they want. Panini Group is a business, and if they are smart they would see that spending money with no prospect of return is a horrible plan. When (not if) that happens, then what?
We see that collectors long for the nostalgia of their youth, which is why vintage cards will always have a market, even after they all die out. They will die out, as it is an inevitability. However, because value can be derived from seeing how much something is worth to SOMEONE ELSE, Vintage will remain at the top of the heap.
From our perspective, we need to figure out where the fun lies. Someone with a ton of money can break wax indiscriminately, regardless of the losses they may take. On the other hand, those whales rarely come along. Most of the people that break wax have to put their face in their palms each month their credit card bill comes due. The addiction is there, and they will keep breaking, but the point where they stop is coming near. Numbers have shown that.
We see that companies rarely hire new blood in any way shape and form. They trade horses among themselves, hoping that the person who was afraid to go out on a limb before, all of a sudden can deliver a shot in the arm. Spoiler alert – it never happens. The leadership remains the same, and they rarely allow for people to go off on their own. Panini is a perfect example of this, as many members of their team come from either Beckett (an outdated and disconnected magazine dwindling on despair), and Fleer (a company that has already gone bankrupt once). With Topps and Upper Deck already following the same path, the talent there will likely migrate as well. That spells bad news all around.
Bottom line, I realize that the last 1400 words were a basic “off the cuff” type of discussion around a common theme, but hopefully it becomes a starting point for your own internal battle with our addiction. I use the word “our” because I am right there with you. We can continually dream of a utopian card society that figures these issues out, but that is never going to happen. The only remaining point of order is how you personally will deal with it. I am challenged daily, and I would guess you are too.