Im going to ask a pretty simple question, and I seriously want you to consider how you answer to yourself.
Are you bored with cards?
All things considered, its very easy to answer with a quick thought, but the actual answer you may eventually arrive at could be different. For a long time, things have been awfully repetitive when you consider how the configurations of products and release points over the last few years.
I can lay out the content for a bunch of different sets, and other than the design and the checklist, everything is pretty much repeated ad nauseum through the whole year. I have quickly come to realize that many of my favorite products are only my favorite products because they bank on a consistent format and concept. That security blanket of brand loyalty is something that can drive sales in a lot of ways. I would even go so far as saying that collectors dont like change, and when it is presented, they discard it. However, we are still plagued by a hole of repetitive mediocrity that cant be satisfied without these types of changes.
When you start to really dive deep into what makes up a product, its usually functions around some very specific tried and true methods.
- Base set
- Autograph no relic
- Autograph relic
These four elements are about all cards has to build on right now, and as you can see its not much. There are some nice variations on a theme, but even those are far from THAT different:
Some creativity happens in small bursts, but nothing overwhelming. Things like production in over-sized formats, inscriptions and exceptional relic content only go so far before people start to get bored. Other examples, like the Sneaker shoe relics from Panini, are definitely interesting. Yet, at what point do we start the tired refrain of more and more relics from different elements of the four sports? At some defined future date, the normal configuration is one that will not be sustainable.
One could argue that it is already unsustainable, with many products hitting closeout before the first month of release is even over. Sure, checklist quality also has something to do with it, but eventually it comes down to one product looking like all the others.
When Panini takes over the NFL exclusive in 2016, they will likely be forced to build a slew of products to satisfy the agreement that they have made with the NFL to produce cards. Although many products already exist for all the companies that currently make NFL cards, there are two staffs, with two different visions, that produce different content. Though the same format regularly persists, the cards do look different. With only one company at the helm, this pool that already has a lack of diversification of product lines, becomes even less diversified.
I posted yesterday about Flawless, and how it is completely bonkers to me that a product that costs that much money can offer so little in terms of special content. Sure the patches are nicer and the autographs are hard signed, but it offers absolutely nothing that isnt offered in at least 5 other sets released during the year. I want to say that collectors will demand something in the realm of creativity, but I would guess that more and more people will just stop buying new stuff. Instead, they will return to buying the cards of their youth, where it was simple and just as boring. The difference in the vintage is the common sense of Nostalgia, which is a powerful force to be reckoned with. So powerful that the companies often try to capitalize.
The worst part about this situation is that the design is really the only thing that changes along with the players on the front of the card. Whenever someone takes a risk, its likely too late, and is rarely accepted by the collecting base. I would hope that eventually we do find whatever the next big thing really is, but I dont know if that even exists.
Maybe at some point, technology advances will make alternate printing methods cheap enough that new types of cards can be built. The advent of 3D printing on an open sourced inexpensive method could lead to cheaper mass production, but that is probably at least a decade away.
The go to method for creating value in a product is pretty simple, as the companies have consistently chosen contrived scarcity, or making cards rare on purpose, to drive the secondary market for their card. Because every important current player signs a ton of autographs, the signature card itself has become commonplace. Unique autograph content such as inscriptions remain valuable, but that will change with market saturation. Rather than try new things, the companies opt to make their nice stuff more rare, so that the demand will exceed supply. Sometimes even that is a lost cause.
Im not feigning any sense of enlightenment on a fix here, im just musing on the state of things. I am both scared and disgusted that there are so few people willing to try to break from the old ways, while being worried that it will lead to the destruction of the industry. It should be reinforced that the destruction of the industry in no way means the death of the hobby, but it will lead to smaller contingencies of active collectors.
I will also say that cheaper and fewer products are not the answer either. Its not in the best interest of anyone to try to reclaim the simplicity of the 80s and 90s. This isnt a situation where that will work. It may make some people happy, but those people dont usually represent the segment of the market that will lead to more money to fund a company.
In the end this may be heading the wrong direction in a permanent state. Because Panini is the only company that is stable enough to take MASSIVE risks without losing their ass, there may never be progress. Panini is like the Grilled Cheese of innovation. Sure, it tastes good and its been the same for ages, but its never going win you a five star review. Panini has basically built their calendar around the same product packaged 15 different ways, and that isnt going to lend itself well towards building something dramatically different.
Topps isnt much better, but they also dont have the luxury to take as many risks. They might in football with a guaranteed departure after 2015, but financially they need make as much as they can as fast as possible. You cant do that by making products that arent the safest possible route.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not collectors’ battle to fight, but it is our battle to lose. We will lose. Its inevitable that we are not going to get the quality that is deserved, and that will lead to further boredom. Quality isnt just on card autos and nice looking cards, quality is innovation and creativity as well.
I have called for the next big thing to come for five years plus now. Nothing is shaping up to be that thing. 1996 and the creation of the jersey card may never happen again. If that is the case, there needs to be a shift. Im not sure what that will look like, but I dont think the future of the industry is putting together a state that will foster it, either.
I hope I am wrong.