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.

8 thoughts on “The Downward Spiral of Football Cards – Can It Be Avoided?

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I have not bought any of paninis garbage and don’t ever plan on it

  2. Two cents from someone who has recently returned to the hobby from a long hiatus:

    1. There’s too many product lines. Trying to figure out which products to collect vs. which products to invest in vs. which products to avoid is nearly impossible without extensive online research or a super knowledgeable hobby store owner (or blog!). I’d rather see less lines with deeper production runs (which would make the hits more valuable).

    2. Don’t forget about the kids. Kids are the life blood of any collectible hobby as that’s where the new consumers come from. They LOVE cards — whether they’re sports or Pokemon or whatever. Topps understood this and always had some lower price mid-level options that didn’t break the wallet and still had an appealing “cool” factor to the kids.

    3. Don’t forget about retail. Hobby shops are great if you have a good one in your area, but for everyone else, it’s the Walmarts and Targets of the world where new customers are going to come from. Love what Topps is doing this year with Topps Fire Baseball — a retail exclusive product with plenty of hits that’s reasonably priced.

    4. Don’t forget about the cards. While collecting base sets and inserts isn’t going to make anyone rich, it can be a lot of FUN when the cards are well designed and thought out. I love seeing what Topps introduces each year, while Panini seems to put as little effort in as possible, encouraging their customers to simply throw out their non-hit cards (which I’ve seen first hand at my local shop).

    The bottom line is that Panini’s product strategy is all about short-term sales to high end collectors and group breakers and they seem to have no sense for long-term customer generation or for creating secondary market value for their existing customers. As their customers realize the collapsing values of their collection, they’ll simply abandon the hobby. I wish my son was more into baseball as I’d love to shift his Panini dollars entirely to Topps, although there’s room for improvement for all the card companies.

  3. Just had this conversation in the past week. There are no generational, HOFer type, players to follow (collect, even) anymore, outside of a few QBs. Who’s the Larry Fitzgerald that’ll be around for 15 seasons, breaking records on a playoff run? I’ve been watching LaDainian Tomlinson highlights on YouTube and there isn’t a single player I would even say is close to his talent level. I mean, the dude THREW for something like 7 TDs in his insane career. The guys who *might* have a chance to be the guy these days, seem to have a great year or two, a couple decent years, all broken up by injuries and missed games. No continuity anymore, outside of QBs.

    As for the collecting side of it all, yeah, it’s a disaster that’s only going to get worse unless the NFL voids the exclusive. I figure we’re only about 3 years into a ‘lost decade’ of collecting. All this regurgitated garbage will be worthless and easily forgotten until competition is revived. Having collected a decent amount of the older UD and Topps stuff, I can say that the money has definitely been chasing it the last few years. There has to be a point where people just get sick of losing on all the new product and begin to appreciate the stuff that we don’t have any more. Topps Chrome base refractors are absolutely beautiful cards. I can do without the majority of the colored border ones, but you can still pick up HOFers from many years for a couple bucks, some for $1 each … or even less in quantity. It’s the kind of thing where you have to reach a level of collecting where you’ve decided you want something because you love it, not because you want to say you have it.

  4. “The horror is that in the last 10 years, there have maybe been 25 players that were worth collecting, and that’s being generous.”

    I’d say this is accurate:

    Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, Dez, Gronk, Antonio Brown, Cam, Julio, Luck, Russell Wilson.

    Jury is still out on guys drafted 2014 onward.

  5. I agree with all comments . Going back buying Vintage Chicago Bears – Payton, Sayers, Butkus, even some Urlacher.

  6. i just got back into collecting after a 30 year layoff and have been buying a lot of cards the last 3 months. This is a great article and confirms a lot of what I’ve learned since I got back into the hobby. Most cards I buy from boxes are completely worthless. I don’t know if Panini is mass producing, but there are commons of 2017 cards on COMC are ridiculously saturated. It seems only way to dump these cards is is to do it immediately as soon as it is released. I also have noticed as the author points out that most RB and WR rookies are close to worthless and that QB like Watson is only way to maintain long term value. i also am confused and turned off by the never ending releases of products. It’s a real turn off for new collectors. The most alarming thing tough is the complete lack of interest from kids. All of my friends with children have told me there kids have 0 interest in sportscards. I just don’t how in this hobby could survive without enticing future generations. Thanks again for this blog. It’s really become my favorite as it tells the truth instead of the sunny malarkey on the other sites.

  7. The undoing of rookie saturation would be the greatest godsend this hobby has ever seen! Please somebody make that happen! And make the fonts bigger while you’re at it!

  8. I do pretty much the same thing. I save the money I would invest in wax if it wasn’t garbage and buy high end vintage that should actually have value in 20 years from now.

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