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.