The Industry and Moving Forward at Half Strength

I love this part of the year, both for cards and for sports. Training camps are about to open, Baseball season is starting to heat up, and Football cards are finally entering into the meat of the season. Because I am such a huge football fan, I start to get revved up for everything that comes with the start of a new year. New players, new targets, and usually much more news and interesting tidbits to write about. The difference is that this year, at least on the card front, lots has changed, and Im pretty sure its not for the better.

For the first time in close to 20 years, Upper Deck will not be producing licensed football cards. Because they usually produce the best looking cards in football, period, its going to be a long card season having to put up with the monotony spawned by Panini’s long line of clones, or Topps’ terrible high end offerings. Although I have seen bright spots in Panini’s line with some parts of Elite and Classics, they still don’t even hold a candle to what was taken away from the market when Upper Deck was forced into using their NCAA license. I said before that licensed Veteran on card autos went from multiple sets in multiple products to NOTHING this year, and its starting to look like that is going to really hurt my propencity to buy cards this year. I am not an NCAA fan, and I will not be buying any of Upper Deck’s products due to that fact, so when I start to look at what is coming, boredom sets in.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very excited for Topps Chrome and their Flagship product this year, but those are two sets in a calendar of 30 plus. I recently continued my tradition of buying a few boxes of Classics, but I am only doing that because there is nothing else available. I wonder how much longer I can sustain my own interest in a industry that will support and produce some of the most BORING sets in recent memory. I mean, has anyone ever sat down and really looked over the calendar? It’s a complete snooze fest this year without the normal blockbuster products that Upper Deck brings to the table. Sure, SPA will most likely look great as it always does, but the wow factor escapes me because they cant produce cards showing NFL logos or uniforms. SPX looks great for the first time in a few years, yet I am left out in the cold because I don’t care which college Sam Bradford went to now that he puts on a Rams uniform for a living.

At least in the past, when Panini would put out set after set that looks exactly like the one before it, I could stand it because I always knew there was something better coming. I don’t have that luxury anymore. I am seriously debating whether or not to purchase a case of Topps Chrome and just open it slowly throughout the year. Its really the only bright spot on the entire calendar for me, and its not even scheduled until october. That’s a long time to wait, especially when you consider that there isnt anything in between to garner interest among the people like me.

With that, I want to list out a few things that Panini and Topps should consider now that there is a big hole left by Upper Deck’s departure from the licensed game:

1. Enough With the Foil

I get it, there are a lot of collectors that gravitate towards shiny things like a baby to keys on a keychain. Does that mean that it has to go in every product? I think I counted once or twice that Upper Deck used foilboard last year and it was in subsets NOT THE WHOLE PRODUCT. They did fine, so that means that having good sales numbers is not contingent on the use of that horrid crap. Its amateurish, and looks like it is used to hide terrible design work. In most cases the designs are terrible, so maybe that says something.

2. Start Phasing out Stickers In Boxes That Cost More Than $75

Upper Deck made a name for themselves with more than 8 products last year that featured some sort of on card signatures. Most of those products featured an on card element from veteran and HOF players, usually with great success among collectors. Both Panini and Topps, despite the ridiculous price tags on some of their products, did not find a way to produce even one. Im not asking for the farm overnight, but they have to start somewhere. I would forgive some of the other egregious errors if they at least made an effort. So far, they have shown nothing but laziness.

3. Evaluate Content In Relation to Pricing

Panini is known for giving you 3 crap jerseys and a crap auto for 100 bucks. It’s the backbone of Prestige, Elite, Gridiron Gear, Classics, and just about every other product they sell. Topps isnt much better with their high end products, as Triple Threads gives you two shitty hits for a whopping 180 dollars. I don’t even know where to start on that. If they want to move to a different level of sales, they need to figure out ways to lower cost and raise content. Although that seems mutually exclusive, there are ways to do it as evidenced by a number of products from last year’s calendar. I think a lot of people out there would be happy to give up their jersey cards if it were replaced with a patch card, or another auto, but even patch cards are becoming commonplace now.

4. Make High End Products Look High End

The reason Exquisite was Exquisite was because of the way it looked. Every card was hard signed. Every card was ornately designed. Every card had an element that differentiated itself from other Upper Deck products during the year. Last year there was not a single jersey card without an auto on it. It was either a patch or nothing. National Treasures is completely stickers with few exceptions on the rookie front, and the rest looked like an over priced version of Donruss Threads. Complete poop. Triple Threads is even worse in that department because of how terrible the cards look. A lot could be solved with a little bit of reimagining when it comes to the way the high end products are produced.

5. Less is More

Panini has become famous for using weird lines and oddly placed elements on a card front. Topps has become famous for trying to stuff 89 relic windows onto a card front. Why? Topps low end products are wildly successful because Topps never tries to do more than is needed. SPA was the best looking product because Upper Deck wasn’t afraid to use negative space to their advantage. You know that addage “KISS – Keep it simple stupid”? That most definitely applies here. There is nothing prettier than a field shot and a border. No need for a photoshop bonanza. Just give me the player and the field, and let the rest speak for itself. This is overkill. This is worse. This is makes my head hurt. This is more of what we need.

6. Parallels have no place in a mid to high end product

You know why Chrome can use parallels? Because for 50 bucks a box, its catering to a different audience. When you start getting up into the products like Limited and Platinum, there is not a need for 123 parallels of one card. Panini has a formula, and that formula makes me want to take a human life. You have the normal card, the numbered normal card with 10 parallels, the normal card with a jersey, the normal card with a patch, the normal card with an auto, the normal card with an auto and a jersey, the numbered card with a patch, and then ten parallels of that card. Is any of that necessary? Not at all. If the product cost nothing, then fine, parallel the shit out of it. But if that product is National Treasures then there is a MAJOR problem. Did someone see that any given player in Triple Threads can have have up to 3,500 cards? That is parallel hell. How about developing unique content instead of just stuffing parallel after parallel into the set? Interesting idea, no?

7. Use Player Pictures To Your Advantage

Cards look better when the subject of the card is the focus, not the jersey pieces. Panini has gotten MUCH better at this, but Topps is a complete EPIC FAIL. To the Topps design team, its more important to have 73 different relic pieces than it is to have a player picture bigger than a pinky nail. We collect cards for the players on them, relics are the add ons. Not the other way around. I actually avoid buying cards with crappy pictures, even if they feature everything else I am looking for. The picture can make or break a card, and its time for the companies to start considering that.

8. Re-evaluate Where Scrub Autos Fit In to the Industry

I get it. The best players charge out the ass for signatures. Even the rookies charge a ridiculous cost per card. That’s a given. But, when I pay a bunch of money for a box, and the box hit is an undrafted free agent, I swear off buying more of that product unless there is something else in the box to make up for it. The problem is that when the cost of obtaining autographs is rising at rapid rates, the need for cheap autos is essential. However, then you consider #3 on this list, you are taking even more out of the products than just star autos. Not every box can be a winner, but every box needs SOMETHING. Put the sweet patch cards in the boxes with the scrubs. Redo seeding in the products that feature scrub autos as box hits. If there is a scrub in the box, give it value SOME other way. That’s where the 1/1 parallels need to go. Panini has actually done a better job of seeding the boxes with the crap autos, but there is still a lot of untapped potential that could be used.

9. Offer a Loyalty Program That EVERYONE Can Participate In

I have no idea why this wasn’t done before, and I am not talking about the diamond club for UD where only the whales get the preferential treatment. Im talking about getting something in the works that rewards people who buy the cards that the companies want them to buy. If the companies showed appreciation to the customers on every level, it would give us another reason not to go to ebay for singles. For example, for every X number of packs or boxes, give me a shot at an exclusive unreleased card. Offer lotteries for good prizes. There is so much here and it is completely unexplored.

10. Find a Way For The Best Common Box Hit To Be Worth More Than the Price of a Box

If I can go on eBay and buy the best card in the set for less than the cost of a box, something is wrong. A lot of this is a result of the numbering on the card, the strength of the rookie class, or even the looks of the cards, so its time to make the best rookie hit worth enough for people to consider spending money on the unopened product. 1/1s only go so far in a product.

11. Speaking of 1/1s, Make Them Important Again

Triple Threads features over 4,000 1/1s in the product. Many of them being crap parallels or printing plates. That doesn’t give me any reason to want them. Upper Deck was notorioous for making most of their 1/1s worth the time of the collectors who bought their products. Especially high end. If companies want to create the chase element, learn from rule #6 and take the one of one in a brand new direction. If it says 1/1 on the card, it needs to bring something than no other card brings in the set.

12. Enough With The Lame Subset Names

In most Panini products, all of the autos are coming from the subsets in the set. But when the subsets have terrible names as well as terrible designs (like they usually do), the whole product suffers. It is paramount to create a theme for the set and build on it, not just throw words together and hope they make sense. Why do you even need a name? Cant you just throw different player pics with different designs on it and let us sort it out?

13. Hire Some Consultants

Products are conceived months, sometimes years in advance, which gives ample time to consult with people before heading to production. As I have said before, I can think of no less than 500 people who would do it for free, myself included. I honestly think that I could easily offer some valuable advice before something like this hits the production line.

That’s all I can think of right now, but im sure there is a lot more that the blog community can offer.

There Is A Perfect Strasburg Storm A Comin’…

Topps is plowing through their late 2010 release calendar, and most of the products that populate that calendar are ones that I would love to see burned as a sacrifice to the almighty cardboard deities. The recently re-released Topps Tribute, Topps Sterling and Topps Triple Threads form the unholy trinity of Topps High end that I talk about as what to avoid, and I stand by that regardless of the gimmicks they use. This is mainly because the products focus more on packing cheap relics onto the cards than making cards that actually look good or have unique concepts. Topps Tribute may be a newer product than the old and stale Sterling and Triple Threads, but it is already falling into the familiar pattern of a design that doesn’t change, retina burning neon foil board, and stickers that are built into the design to draw your eye. Sounds like I have heard that one before, I wonder where?

Regardless of my feelings on these terrible excuses for products, there is one card that I believe could make more waves than people are expecting. Well, with all the parallels, its probably closer to 9000 cards. Of course, I am talking about the Triple Threads Stephen Strasburg Triple Relic Auto (OMGZ STRAS-JO!!11!!!!). Because Topps is actually taking the step to get some hard signed cards into the product for once in their life, this particular card should be one of those instances. Now, think about how perfect this storm is turning out to be. The people who pay 800 dollars for those Strasburg autos are probably the same people who buy four cases of Triple Threads each year. I see a distinct correlation between the two. I say this because it takes a certain type of person to buy Strasburg cards when they are selling as high as they are, and it also takes a certain type of person to love what Triple Threads brings the table each year. I think you catch my drift. When you combine the two, things could get ridiculous.

Even though the Stras cards from Triple Threads could end up being redemptions as a result of the timeframe needed to produce and sign the cards, it wont matter. Those people, you know which ones I am talking about, will go nucking futs when one is posted on eBay. Hell, they may even send it to Beckett and get it graded first, because after all, that group of people also overlaps this venn diagram from hell. Of course, this is after they post a card by card break on a message board, and combine it with a recap from their latest mail day. Yup, that’s about right.

The cards from Triple Threads will also be some of the first to have MLB Strasburg relics in them, something that will drive the prices even higher than they already would be. Yeah, see what I am saying? Its going to be like that movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, a hobby apocalypse, and I am going to be stuck shivering in the New York Public Library while the Triple Threaders are going to be making snow angels in the piles of two dollar hits they will get from their boxes outside.

Don’t get me wrong, Topps is doing everything right in this case. They have a player they can exploit like a sweatshop worker, and they have shown that they will plaster his face on any possible thing to sell more cards. Funny enough, collectors sure are responding like it’s a new concept. They don’t care if Topps puts out blowup Strasburg dolls that they can use in the privacy of their own home, they just want them and they will pay through the nose to get them. Its that crazy right now.

I still stand by the frame of reference of how popular a Nationals pitcher can become when someone like Tim Lincecum has already won 2 Cy Young Awards. Lincecum’s cards arent worth half of what Strasburg’s are right now, and he plays for a much more popular team. When was the last time you met a Nationals fan outside of Washington? Im pretty sure they don’t exist actually. So, if Strasburg goes on to win 2 Cy Youngs, like Lincecum already has, where does that put his value? Lincecum’s has already peaked and it isnt anywhere close to the value of a Bowman Strasburg auto. What does that say for future prospects of value? Its NOT likely that Strasburg will accomplish anything close to what Timmy Longhairs already has, and its actually more likely that he wont last more than a few years if fireballer history lives up to its name.

In all reality, I am going to sit back with a cold beer and watch the fireworks when Triple Threads hits shelves. Its like watching that kid open his Nintendo 64 on Christmas. Triple Threads collectors have very similar reactions in most cases, and it is equally hilarious. Even more so when this Christmas is Stras-mas too.

Triple Threads = Ratings

Topps released pictures from my absolute favorite set of the year today, and I think you will see why its my favorite each and every year it comes out. With what we saw from the 2010 set in the preview, it brought nothing but everything we expect from a Triple Threads set. Horribly designed cards with stickers built into the layout, so that they draw the eye away from the train wreck below. Cards printed on eye obliterating bright neon foilboard with more parallels than Panini could shake a stick at. Fold out booklet cards that are more concerned with spelling out obscure accomplishments in confusing die cut windows than actually making the card something to collect. A 180 dollar price point for two hits, one of which does not have an autograph. It makes me feel dumber knowing that I associate with collectors in this hobby that think this is ALWAYS the product of the year.

See that paragraph above? I wrote that two days after the release of the preview for the 2009 set. Almost 365 days ago. This set is so utterly predictable, that I could write an intro without even knowing what the 2010 cards would look like. In fact, these cards are so much more like 2009, 2008, and 2007, that there is not a visible difference other than the players on the card. I guess thats what you get with Topps High End. Overpriced boxes with ugly cards that only appeal to the people who dont consider what the actual product looks like, as long as it is stuffed full with “OMG MOJOZ!!!!111!” cards stuffed with 280 jersey pieces and five billion 1/1s.

I dont even think I need to say anything more about it. Its all been said before. Here is the preview, have fun. Im out.

2010 Topps Sterling Brings Everything I Hate In a Product

Topps Sterling came out in 2006 to rave reviews, even a few upturned eyebrows on my end. It had on card autographs from the living players included in the set, and ridiculous amounts of relics and cuts for the people who were dead. I remember watching a few case breaks at a local shop and seeing a Mantle cut and a Dimaggio cut come out of consecutive cases, along with a whole lot of other cool cards. Basically it was the checklist that drove the product, capped with autographs that actually made the boxes worth while.

In 2007, the product returned, not only at the same insane price point, but with a crappier checklist and sticker autos. At this point the product became more of a one hit Triple Threads box with no retina-torching foilboard and the chance of getting a jersey letter at one per case. Collectors inexplicably bought THAT much more of this product, and it was cemented as Topps’ highest end product available for the next two years.

Well, its coming back AGAIN for 2010, and there is seemingly zero improvement to the horrid concepts that this product embraces. I have always said that the golden rule of Topps states that no product over 100 bucks should ever be bought, and it was mostly due to the complete crap that Sterling brought to the table. Although you now get more hits for the worst price point product available on the market, it still lacks in just about every category.

I think its safe to say that Strasburg will end up in this product along with a bunch of other guys that move away from the original intent of the set, and it may include a few on card signatures to boot. However, its still going to be stuffed full of weird stats and stupid sayings spelled out in lame die cut swatch windows, and booklet cards for the sake of booklet cards. I would normally be much more worked up about the audacity of Topps to try and skate through on the coattails of a set produced almost 5 years ago, but im just tired of the general viewpoint around the hobby in general.

As the popularity of products like this show, people don’t care about how a card looks as long as every inch of it is covered with swatch windows and jersey pieces. No matter that the cards look hideous, and that the foil stickers become the focus of the cards instead of the players, people don’t give a fuck about it. That’s what I am the most tired of, and it’s the reason why the people like me who care about design and layout are bored out of our skulls with products made by companies that don’t try anymore.

Updates on the Fake Babe Ruth Cut From 2009 Triple Threads

Fake cut signature cards have been a huge issue for everyone involved since the time card companies started using deceased players as a chase for their higher end products. In 2008, Upper Deck received a ton of criticism and negative press for releasing a quad cut signature card with fake cuts in the card. It was featured on HBO and eventually the owner received some cards as a repayment that many collectors would kill for, including a replacement for the actual cuts themselves.

More recently, Topps has had a very similar problem with a card out of my all time favorite set, Triple Threads. In the 2009 product, a dual cut of Babe Ruth and Lou Gherig made the rounds as a card that was featured as THE chase for the product. It was pulled by a collector and immediately posted on eBay, as expected. Within a few days, rumors were running rampant that not only was the Ruth cut featured in the card not real, but that Topps knew ahead of time and still released the card. The auction was pulled and the card was submitted to a number of grading services to determine authenticity of both cuts, with mostly negative results. Although the Gherig was determined to be likely genuine, the Ruth received “no comment” or “not likely genuine” across the board.

After all of this took place, the collector placed the card on eBay AGAIN with wording that commented on the authenticity of the card according to Topps, not any of the services that had returned their opinions. It was pulled again, and the collector was left with a pretty large problem. Keep the card knowing it contained a fake signature, or sell the card under false or truthful pretenses. From the explanation given by the collector, Topps eventually produced the original COAs, and forced the collector to send in the card for further investigation. After a number of days, they have made good on their promise to replace the fraudulent signature, and the collector has a new card.

Personally, the way this was handled by both the collector and the company was terrible. The collector should not have relisted the card after getting bad news from all those services, and Topps should have made good immediately instead of dragging out the process.

When it comes down to it, cut signatures will always be a venture into trust. You have to trust the company that made the card, you have to trust the service that originally authenticated it, and you have to trust that the opinions of those people are correct. I do not have that trust under most circumstances, especially those of services like PSA, JSA, and company. I get that they cant always be perfect, but people treat them as such. PSA seems to have just as many problems as JSA, and a lot of collectors have sworn off authenticated autographs simply because of their past experiences. I only own one piece authenticated by either service, and I still question it to this day. It seems to me that PSA and JSA (especially JSA due to their partnership with Beckett) are only out to make money rather than performing a needed service for collectors. In the end, it will always come down your eye versus theirs, your level of expertise versus theirs and both your and their abilities to outsmart the douchebags out there that live off of selling fakes.

Watch your ass.