Bunting for a Hit: Are Digital Cards the New Frontier of Collecting?

If you arent familiar with Topps Bunt, the digital trading card app on iPhone and Android, its time to familiarize yourself with it. Its a game that combines elements of Fantasy Sports with card collecting, and it is taking off this year with new content designed to create value in cards that arent actually tangible. Although this concept is foreign to most collectors, this might be something that has potential to expand the hobby more than any other medium.

As you can see, the digital autograph cards sell for a ton, more than actual autograph cards:

2014 Topps Bunt Mike Trout Signature Card

2014 Topps Bunt – Lot of 21 signature cards

2014 Topps Bunt Derek Jeter Signature Card

2014 Topps Bunt Miguel Cabrera Throwback Signature Card

Here are the less rare cards, which still sell for insane money:

2014 Topps Bunt Troy Tulowitzki Signature Card

2014 Topps Bunt Jose Bautista Signature Card

When you consider that I can buy a real Johnny Cueto autograph for 50 percent of what I can buy a Bunt autograph card, it should perk your ears up. Most collectors would scoff at paying good money for cards they cant ever hold in their hand, but that is the beauty of what is going on with Bunt. As an avid player, and fan of the game, I can tell you that most of the users ARE NOT card collectors.

Think about that for a second. Value in intangible items, to people that have no interest in collecting real cards. Bunt has an active user base of tens of thousands of people, and Topps is making a play to target more of these individuals than you could imagine. The question is whether or not its a fruitful venture in the long run.

It should be made clear that the amount of money Bunt and its sister apps generate is not without extreme cost to produce. Apps of this complexity require constant maintenance, community upkeep, and most importantly a huge amount of capital to build. There is a staff of around 10 people that service the apps, and with salary plus benefits, you can see that the EBIT may not be all that high. Digital licensing also plays in, but its clear how popular these games can be.

Everyone is currently searching for the next big thing, and it is still not obvious that this is it. However, when a card company can engage this many users without issuing packs of tangible cards, why not blow this up to the highest possible element? Its attractive for them, right? No headaches of tracking down players for autographs, or paying exorbitant prices for vintage game used materials. For collectors, there are no redemptions and every card you own can be carried around in your pocket as long as you have your mobile device.

It should be no surprise that the best cards in the game mirror the best cards in real life, but often have exponentially more monetary value (here is the real card), regardless of how the current collector views the medium. Bottom line, it almost doesnt matter what collectors of real cards think, as they are a tiny group, and not the target market.

The true target market is the casual sports fan who enjoys fantasy sports, and that encompasses a group of people that would outnumber card collectors by the millions. I have taken root in the ability to open packs at any time of the day in any venue, and never have to worry about where to store my collection. That’s quite the concept – especially for all the people who have entire rooms dedicated to storing cards.

It also should be noted that cards can be produced on demand, and do not require any lag between event and production. For poignant moments in the season, Bunt can produce cards as needed with huge results. That is powerful to have that type of ability to market to new users. All the wheeling and dealing at the deadline has already been captured in Bunt, where it may not be captured in real cards for a year.

I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts, but again, this type of thing breeds new collectors like you wouldnt imagine. Every day, I get emails from Bunters who have made the transition to real cards, and need guidance. Lets be clear – this is a powerful recruiting tool, yet that may not be the point. Im beginning to think that the more Topps can invest in these apps, the more they will see the rewards outside of their normal target market. Something that hasnt been done since the early 1990s.

Here is some additional reading if you are interested:

Prospecting Johnny Manziel – Hold or Sell the Hottest Rookie in the NFL?

There is no doubt that Johnny Manziel has an effect on both fans and collectors. I have never made it a point to watch a pre-season game that doesnt have my favorite team playing in it. Last night, that all changed when I actually DVRed the Cleveland vs Detroit game just to see how Johnny Manziel did. I am going to guess and say it was the highest rated game of this type in NFL Network history. Manziel is just that type of guy, very similar to when Tim Tebow came to the league. The difference is that Manziel can actually play QB, where Tebow was a running back who just happened to throw passes every once in a while.

Manziel is easily the hottest rookie we have seen in a long time:

2014 Panini VIP Party Johnny Manziel Superfractor Auto

2014 Inception Johnny Manziel Laundry Tag Booklet Auto /5

2014 Elite Johnny Manziel Red Ink Inscription Auto BGS 9.5

2014 Inception Johnny Manziel Jumbo Patch Auto /25

The Browns have already announced that come the next pre-season game, Manziel will be starting, and I am going to go out on a limb and say that he will likely also start week 1. He is a captivating personality and polarizing figure, which means that it is stupid not to play him whenever possible. Fans have already made his jersey the top seller in the league, and collectors are tripping over each other to pick up his cards.

For a lot of us who arent Manziel fans, it becomes a game of when to sell. For the fans out there, its a question of whether or not to buy without much frame of reference for his play. Here are my thoughts on both:

Selling Manziel

I am always someone who will advise to sell a brand new product as soon as it comes out. Football is weird in that cards can drop almost 50% in value over the course of one week. Once the team and player collectors get their licks, the bottom drops out. Manziel’s rarer cards have been able to hold value in Bowman, but in every Panini product, his cards rarely hold their top flight value. The jury is still out on inception, but its likely that it will follow suit.

Outside of selling new product cards quickly, you will have two options to sell in the future and I would take advantage of at least one. The first is when he is named the starter, sometime around pre-season week 3. At that point, everyone will want to gear up for the start of the season, and you will want to capitalize.

The second point is when the season starts and he has his first good game. The initial Browns’ schedule is pretty brutal, so Manziel may struggle at first. On the other hand, he may play well along the way, which could be a great time to sell. Ideally, you have your cards up and get some bandwagon fans to buy in as soon as he throws or scores his first TD.

Keeping Manziel

There are a large contingent of collectors who think Manziel is the next big thing. Although I disagree, anything is possible in the NFL. I was definitely not sold on Cam Newton, and he has turned into a surprise QB that can actually play. Collectors seem to think he is going to help Carolina get to the big game, which helps the value already brought from being a heisman winner and #1 pick. I personally think Manziel will be a starter in Cleveland for the duration of his rookie contract. I dont think he is going to be a guy who will eventually get a 100 million re-up unless he blows the roof off the joint, but I do think he has potential to play into a second deal, something that Tebow was never able to do.

That being said, do you want to spend hundreds or thousands on a guy who may just keep going long enough to make it to a second contract? Im not sure. The personality and polarization of the collector base on Manziel’s prospects may keep his value higher until he solidifies whether or not he is going to be good, but many non-Browns fans may not be willing to wait that long.

I have pulled two big Manziel autos this year already and have opted to sell immediately due to hot product bumps in value. At this point I have no reservations about doing so, even after last night’s game.

Football is BACK: NFL Preseason Hobby Points of Interest

I am so happy that I cant even contain myself. We are about four weeks away from the kickoff to the 2014 NFL season, and I dont have to continue living in a sports wasteland without Football. Starting tonight, there are a few things to keep an eye on for the preseason, and I want to discuss some of my thoughts.

Will Johnny Manziel be Johnny Football or Johnny Rookie?

Everyone seems to thing that 21 teams messed up by not taking the man, the myth, and the legend, Johnny Manziel. Although I predict he wont play well or translate accurately to the NFL style, I want him to succeed. This year's card calendar NEEDS him to succeed. He is the catalyst for turning a great draft class into a historic draft class, which is desperately desired after a dismal 2013.

Here are some of the better cards I would chase:

2014 Topps Inception Johnny Manziel Inscription Auto /10

2014 Panini Elite Johnny Manziel Auto On Card

2014 Bowman Johnny Manziel Orange Refractor Auto /50

On Saturday night, the Browns will play the Lions and Manziel will see his first action. Expect that he will not have the full playbook in his head or at his disposal even if he did, but hopefully he will be able to make some plays. If you have been sitting on his cards, have them up with a bigger BIN just in case. Collectors are starving for football action and will take pre-season performance as a indicator to buy. Ive never understood that stupidity, but it has happened every year. Right David Clowney, pre-season MVP of all time?

Other QB Battles in Progress

Outside of Manziel, guys like Derek Carr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Tom Savage are definitely in contention for a starting role alongside potential week one starters in Blake Bortles and Manziel. Teddy is already slated to get some snaps with the starters tonight, and it should be very clear that Matt Cassel is anything but the answer. Schaub had his days in Houston, but Carr will eventually take over, as will Bortles over Henne. Its just a matter of time, as the NFL is QB carousel every year.

Compared to last year, there are many more people willing to buy in on the QBs:

2014 Topps Inception Blake Bortles Gold Signing Auto /25

2014 Topps Inception Derek Carr Jumbo Patch Auto

2014 Prestige Tom Savage On Card Auto

If you are looking to pick up Bridgewater or Bortles, they arent running cheap, as collectors have already latched onto their opportunities in horrible QB situations. Minnesota has Patterson and Jennings alongside AT LEAST one more year of Peterson, which means that I would not hesitate to watch what Bridgewater can do (homer pick alert!).

Vikings fans dont mess around on these Bridgewater prices, I should know first hand:

2014 Topps Inception Teddy Bridgewater Auto

2014 Topps Inception Teddy Bridgewater Jumbo Patch Auto

Michael Sam Takes the Field

I am a huge fan of Michael Sam and what he represents to the world. We need this to happen, even if it SHOULDNT be a big deal. He will take some snaps tonight as the Rams take on the Saints, and thanks to Topps and Panini, he will have autographs and jersey cards to pick up if he eventually secures a roster spot. I have a feeling he will, but anything can happen. His cards are selling well to match his jersey sales in the top 5 for all rookies, and that is a very good thing. Lets hope he gets a shot to play.

2014 Topps Inception Micahel Sam Glove Patch Auto /10

2014 Panini Elite Michael Sam Die Cut Auto /49

Will Jadeveon Clowney Play?

Due to a sports hernia operation, it may be unlikely for Clowney to play in the first few games of the preseason. Regardless, I am definitely curious to see how he can play. After stories of his unwillingness to cooperate at the rookie premiere became evident, his autographs may eventually end up as redemptions throughout the year. Products like Inception and Elite may end up being some of his only live cards at the time of release. Combine that with questions surrounding his drive to play, and there could be a larger chance he will be a hobby bust.

2014 Bowman Jadeveon Clowney Auto Superfractor 1/1

2014 Prestige Jadeveon Clowney Draft Pick Rights Auto

Can Sammy Watkins Live Up to the Billing?

Although he may not have the tangible speed or power displayed over the draft selection process, there has been nothing but praise heaped on Watkins through the last few months. Even though I believe he doesnt have a great QB to get him the ball, collectors dont really seem to agree there is a concern there. His cards have been selling like hotcakes, and we all are curious to see how he does during the first few games.

Here are his first few big autos:

2014 SPX Sammy Watkins 1/1 Jumbo Tag Auto

2014 UD Premier Sammy Watkins Quad Patch Auto

He was a ghost during the first game, not playing much or catching anything, but that will change. Remember, I doubt teams will show their good plays this early in the season, but rookies still need to be able to show their skills early on. Buffalo paid a hefty price to get him, and he will need to do well for collectors to embrace his potential to the fullest.

Happy football watching everyone, dont get too caught up in these games, but have fun too.

SCU Go-Live Report: 2014 Inception Comes Back Strong

Capture

This is a tough time of year to be producing football card products, as training camps are ramping up and its still too early to have production done on patch autos for hard signed autographs. That leaves a lot of stickers, unless you do what Topps has done with Inception and get creative.

Here are some of the nicer hits so far:

2014 Inception Johnny Manziel Gold Ink Auto /25

2014 Inception Teddy Bridgewater Auto Red /50

2014 Inception Sammy Watkins Auto Red /50

2014 Inception Blake Bortles Auto Silver Ink /50

Inception has become one of my favorite products of the year, as it has a low cost per box and can deliver some monster hits very early on in the card calendar. It takes a lot of ingenuity to make that happen, and Topps has accomplished that in spades with Inception over the last 4 years.

My favorite cards over the last two years in inception have been the Inscription cards, which are back again this year with a few surprises. Considering how cool this unique type of autograph content can be, its a great idea to get them done when possible at the Rookie Premiere.

Although there are issues with 00 jerseys as we have seen in many of the products completed at the rookie premiere, Topps makes the most of it. The added content of Patch Autographs blows away ugly content from Panini products produced during the same timespan, especially through the design of the cards.

Adding in the booklet cards, which hold enormous value through the whole year (very difficult to do), and Inception has some major firepower that is not usually seen this early on. They have added NFL Shield and other booklets this year for the first time, so this is going to get nuts.

The main drawback to this product is the box configuration, which can be very hit and miss. Because of the obvious elevated costs of certain players’ autos, it should be of no surprise that there is a list of players that are going to be VERY hard to pull. Manziel, Watkins, Clowney and Bridgewater look to be SP to an extent.

I am a fan of this set, and I will be picking up some cards over the next few weeks for sure. Even when Topps Flagship comes out on the 20th, Inception will be a target for me.

Exclusive Licenses on the Horizon: SCU Interviews Leaf Trading Cards’ CEO Brian Gray

If you arent familiar with Brian Gray, he is a no-nonsense type of guy, who is never afraid to speak his mind or give his opinion. As the CEO of Leaf Trading Cards, he has seemingly accomplished the impossible of existing and succeeding in a competitive market against the largest of competitors. He has made successful products in all four sports without the benefit of a league license, and is definitely one of the more passionate individuals in the trading card game. I have been a fan of his products for a while, and admire his tenacity, even with the detractors that come with it.

He has been outspoken in the past about how collectors experience cards, from everything in regards to redemptions all the way up to the way league licenses are handled. Many collectors identify with his personal mission to build products worth collecting, and I think its a huge reason why he has been so successful.

He was gracious enough to answer some questions negarding the recent NFLPA exclusive granted to Panini, a sport where he has done very well in pre-draft rookie products over the last 4 years. I was very interested to read his thoughts, and I believe he makes a lot of great points.

A big thank you to Brian for taking the time, I know he has been very busy with the national show – where he had another prominent position on the hobby’s biggest stage.

Sports Cards Uncensored: What made the NFL a sport you wanted to be so involved with in terms of releasing Leaf Trading Cards?

Brian Gray: The NFL is a premier brand. Unfortunately, they too have taken $ over what is best for the hobby and collector. I strongly believe the category will shrink due to this, the question is how much? Hopefully, Panini and more importantly the licensors will allow fair competition in the marketplace and steer clear of potential violations of Antitrust and Unfair competition laws which harm not only their competitors but the very consumer they exist to serve. I am hopeful all parties will allow fair competition in this category.

SCU: Lets start off by talking exclusives in general maybe for a little educational value – is there any point to them for a league? What about a manufacturer? What about the collector?

BG: Exclusives benefit the league in that recent deals have been larger than 2-3 licensees put together would have paid! It would benefit the manufacturer if the price were swallowable, however that just isn’t the case. The deals are so large no company can make money. It is abundantly clear the reason why these deals are being done and it is not about making money. Collectors do not appear to have been ever an afterthought. It is all about money!

SCU: How do you expect this exclusive to affect companies like Leaf who operate without an official license?

BG: As long as the licensee and licensors do not attempt to unfairly eliminate ALL competition, this could end up making Leaf (and similar products) a preseason alternative attractive to collectors.

SCU: Will you continue to produce cards in the NFL space? In what capacity?

BG: We will manufacture draft one way or another. Should we be forced to defend our legal right to compete, we will. However, I am hopeful for a friendly coexistence.

SCU: With an exclusive in place for NFL and NBA now, plus more licenses coming up in the next few years, is there trouble brewing for sports cards?

BG: Maybe. Everything depends on the lengths to which exclusive licensees go to eliminate competition. Without a variety of products (from multiple manufacturers) available, the hobby could face some challenges of boredom and loss of interest.

SCU: Do you feel this is a sustainable model for sports cards?

BG: No. Something will change in the next 5 years. I am hopeful that it will be the opening up what is/is not covered by first amendment for trading cards.

SCU: Are you going to fight this, considering you have so many products that could be impacted by this exclusive?

BG: Hopefully, they’ll be no need to. Hopefully, everyone will complete fairly. Im not naïve, there is a real chance for conflict. I will do my part to avoid this, but I cannot control the licensees.

SCU: Seems like there are a lot of “hopefully” statements in some of your answers, which I understand. Based on Panini’s past management of their basketball brands, do you think there is a good chance they will allow fair play?

BG: I mean exactly that, hopefully. In Basketball, I believe a legal challenge would be successful. There are multiple factors which turn that legal exclusive into an illegal monopoly. We are doing everything in our power to keep our business outside of the courts. If the same combination of behaviors occur in football (meaning licensees and licensors teaming up to stifle all competition), there will be a challenge.

SCU: If Panini doesn’t allow you to sign GLAs with rookies and vets thanks to similar player exclusives they have signed in basketball, then what is your outlook for football products post 2016?

BG: We will make what we can and look to the courts for protection from unfair competition and violations of US Antitrust law.

SCU: What would you expect some of the major changes collectors will see in pricing, content, etc just based on your knowledge of producing cards yourself?

BG: To make huge guarantees, you either have to sell huge amounts of product (high print runs) or increase your margins (reduce content). Neither looks particularly exciting. However, I think the licensees deserve the benefit of the doubt until we see the “real” result of an exclusive.

SCU: Is there any potential silver lining to this announcement that I am not seeing?

BG: I cannot see one at this point, but as I said I will give the benefit of the doubt until its no longer deserved.

SCU: A benefit of the doubt is an interesting way to put it. What is the absolute best case scenario and worst case scenario that might happen come 2016?

BG: Best: Competition is allowed and encouraged and we make great products.
Worst: We end up in court to defend Leaf, Hobby Dealers and the consumers harmed by unfair behavior. Again, I believe Panini has good intentions and am confident the best scenario will exist.

SCU: Im sure you know a lot of people who have all voiced their opinion – what is the general consensus around the hobby?

BG: It is generally negative, but most things in the hobby are. Let’s sit back and remember people are innocent until proven guilty. And lets hope they don’t become guilty of abuse.

SCU: With the seemingly unlimited resources available, what would stop Panini from buying everyone out? What about just forcing everyone out?

BG: Forcing everyone out will be found illegal should it be challenged in court. I would love to see Panini buy UD and Topps and leave us as the sole competitor for legal purposes. I believe we could coexist without conflict. With that being said, I would obviously welcome the challenge of being acquired and joining their team to help turn around their company in the eyes of dealers and consumers. I think the hobby would collectively applaud such a move. But, im equally happy fighting the good fight, listening to collectors and making great products.

SCU: You mentioned Topps and UD being bought out, is this a likely scenario in your opinion?

BG: Yes. I think both are sold within 12-24 months.

SCU: If you were a card shop or distributor right now, how do you see this shaping up?

BG: Prepare for very limited competition to exclusive licensees. Prepare for some loyal consumers of eliminated companies to leave the category with their favorite manufacturer. Conversion will be nowhere near 100%.

Bottom line, we all know that there will be changes coming when the NFLPA exclusive goes into practice come 2016. I think Brian did a good job of explaining his stance and hopefully he will continue to be able to produce in the NFL space. As he mentioned, “hopefully” is the best he can do right now, but it looks like this isnt the end of the discussion. Im sure there will be more to come.

Thank you again to Brian – you can follow @Leaf_Cards on Twitter and visit their website at www.leaftradingcards.com.