SCU Go-Live Report: 2014 Inception Comes Back Strong

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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.

On the Radar: 2014 Flawless Football Previews Some Crazy Cards

If there is one thing I am happy about when it comes to Panini, its that Flawless is coming to Football with a reduced price tag. Anytime a product seems to be 100% on card is made, Im going to try my best to support it. Flawless does look pretty good, and I think we should definitely give it a look.

Flawless was created in Basketball because of issues that may come up when 2016 rolls around, and it did produce some pretty incredible cards:

2013 Panini Flawless Kevin Durant Auto Patch 1/1

2013 Panini Flawless Kyrie Irving Auto /10

2013 Panini Flawless Damian Lillard Auto Patch /10

2013 Panini Flawless Kobe Bryant Dual Patch Auto /25

2013 Panini Flawless LeBron James Jumbo Patch /5

Here is why I think this type of a set will do better in Football than it ever could in any other sport. First off, cards that feature game used swatches with crazy patches in football rarely come along. To make a set that brings well designed cards along with those crazy patches is going to be big. There has been a significant shift towards more logos and relics on event used rookie stuff, but not with vets. When the vets get nice patches that look good, crazy prices follow.

The same thing goes for on card autographs, as the only real autograph friendly NFL licensed product out there is Five Star. Everything else has sticker elements to it. Basketball hasnt really had this same issue, both on the patch side and the autograph side. Add in that no player exclusives exist yet, and it just spreads the wealth a bit more.

Basically, let me put it this way. Flawless may be the first product in a decade that will put a big focus on both relic content and hard signed autographs – IF EVERYTHING TURNS OUT CORRECTLY. I always put that disclaimer in there, as Panini has been known to fuck things up more than any other company. The checklist could suck, the redemptions could be plentiful, and the price tag could break the 800 dollar mark.

There is a big reason, im sure, that it hasnt been formally solicited to the dealers yet. Although I dont expect it to be 1200 a box, it could easily cost well above where it should be. Here is why I am saying that. This product was nothing special in Basketball, at least in terms of special and unique content. With such a high price tag, there should have been ridiculous patches and logos everywhere. Instead, the price tag looks to be high because of seeding rates of the top tier players. The fact that nothing in this product has broken the modern ceiling price, in a sport GOVERNED by high end, says a lot.

For me, as a singles buyer, its not as special when I can pull the same cards in other products. Its much more interesting when the cards are crazy, rather than giving breakers a better chance to make back their money. Of course, this is just personal opinion, based on my collecting habits. If I were a breaker, Im guessing I would feel differently. When you pay 1200+ per box, you expect something more like this.

For football, based on previews, it should be a different situation. Now, the bar is a lot lower, as I said above, mainly because of previous releases. Football cards have been horrendously awful for a long time. Though we get excited over great looking sets like Five Star, its only because our standards are so low after years of torture at the hands of sticker autographs and shitty content.

Will Flawless fix everything? No it wont, and though it solves some of the content issue, it will come at a HUMONGOUS cost to the people breaking it. Let us not forget that we had a calendar FULL of hard signed products with nice content from Upper Deck in 2009. None of those will even sniff half the box cost of what Flawless will sell for per case. Im sure the UD folks from back then would tell you how mouth watering a budget like Flawless’ sheet would have been.

Dont get me wrong, I am VERY eager to see how this turns out. On the same token, you wont find me in line to break boxes. I just cant see how this will work until we get a price. Even then, skepticism will be part of my DNA when it comes to any new Panini product.

What Does the Panini VIP Party REALLY Represent?

If you are a Panini fan or supporter, last night was one of the bigger nights of the year. The VIP party is basically a “reward” for either spending 10k on specific unsellable product as a dealer, or 7.5K if you are a collector buying from the same list. To be completely honest most of the products on the list are so bad, that they deserve a party like this for buying it. As you are well aware, that’s the point, as a party of this magnitude only happens because the distros cant move Panini’s crap without it.

Here are some of the giveaways from the VIP party:

2014 Panini VIP Party Johnny Manziel Signed 8×10 Photo

2014 Panini VIP Pack Set Mike Trout Auto 5/5

2014 Panini VIP Pack Set Aaron Rodgers Superfractor Auto 1/1

2014 Panini VIP Pack Set Kawhi Leonard Logo Patch

2014 Panini VIP Party Lebron James XFractor Green /5

For attending the party, VIPs get the chance to hob knob with players (autographs were pre-signed in the past), obtain specific VIP packs of wrapper redemption cards, and eat and drink with the top brass of the hobby. The guest list includes all the distrubtors, a who’s who of the hobby, and just about every group breaker there is. This year, players like Joe Namath, Tom Glavine and Kyrie Irving were scheduled to appear, only making things more lucrative for the attendees.

The cards are interesting as the look completely different than the ones included in the packs sold to the general floor. They also seem to have stooped to a new low, ripping off Topps’ Superfractors for 1/1s and autographs. Its basically like building a new brand of car and stealing the body design and look from a superior competitor to create additional value. The lowest of the low begets Panini, and I cant say that enough times. Panini is unable to cultivate anything of value on their own without stealing from the other manufacturers. Even then its still not even close to the real thing.

This party not only looks big, but it represents a lot of what Panini is going to bring to the table in 2016. Its clear that a lot of money is spent on an event like this, as many of the players are not there just out of the kindness of their hearts. To add in the cost of catering and production of all the giveaways, and its starts to make a lot of people wonder why this money is being spent in this fashion instead of being used to improve product that has been underperforming.

Considering so few people are actually capable of spending this kind of money to attend, having these types of parties only serves to flaunt the funds that Panini has. They are run more like a record label than a responsible manufacturer of consumer products, and that is a major issue. As I have mentioned before, you dont do stuff like this because you love the people that open your product. You do stuff like this to show the bankroll and what you can offer to the people who really run this hobby. If you really wanted to pay people back for the year long shit show of Panini products, you wouldnt make shops and collectors take on thousands of more dollars worth of horrid releases that they cant sell as it is. People might say you can sell the giveaways to make back the money spent to attend, but that is not the point.

Because Panini recently secured the NFLPA exclusive starting in 2016, I want to make sure everyone FULLY understands what the potential is to sweep the landscape of cards. I want you to think about what this list of products will be like when they have to create a dozen more products to fulfill the 200 million dollar licensing contract they signed through 2026. Will the hobby end? No, that will likely never happen. Yet, the environment, the cards and the people involved are going to get much worse without any competition to keep them honest.

SCU Go-Live Report: 2014 Bowman Platinum is a Rare Bust For Topps Design

Now that we are well into the 2014 year for Baseball, Topps is starting to release those products that I can tell are a result of having to produce too many sets each year. Collectors are soon going to be facing a very similar situation in football come 2016, especially as Panini tries to build out a nauseatingly huge calendar to make up the money spent on licensing.

Here are some of the cards up so far:

2014 Bowman Platinum Byron Buxton Red Refractor Auto Jumbo Patch

2014 Bowman Platinum Jose Abreu Canary Diamond Refractor Auto

2014 Bowman Platinum Kris Bryant Red Refractor Auto

2014 Bowman Platinum Miguel Cabrera Cutting Edge Die Cut Auto

2014 Bowman Platinum Miguel Sano Relic Auto

Bowman Platinum is another prospect and rookie focused product that follows other recent releases that also have a very similar checklist. The difference is that unlike previous releases, this one is about as hideous as it gets. The design of some of the cards is so bad, that I am actually surprised that Topps put their name on it. Although concepts can get repetitive, you dont usually see ugly sets from them. Its just not like Topps.

In fact, previous years of Bowman Platinum have been a very simple design, although that doesnt necessarily support the need for this set to exist. There are already closer to 10 prospect products that Topps puts out, and I would argue this has been the weakest historically.

Funny enough, Panini actually put out a very similar looking concept back in 2009 with Limited Football, which was actually just as ugly save a few nice cards. This set literally is a complete fucking dog, and I really dont know how else to put it. Not only is the checklist strikingly similar to Inception, Finest and other rookie/prospect heavy releases, but it is literally hard to look at. The boxy lines and triangular type motif does not do the card any favors, and the jersey swatches are almost lost in the mix.

Inception had its issues, but for the most part the cards looked pretty clean and simple. These are literally some of the busiest cards of the year, and as most can attest, busier does not mean better.

Now, the base cards with on card autographs arent horrible, which is probably because they dont feature a lot of the same angular elements. However, adding colored parallels make the cards look like alien spaceships are hovering over the players, which looks really weird. The design is more simple, and it doesnt feel like I am looking at the Empire Strikes Back in baseball card format. The oddly composed die cut inserts and relic autos more than make up for this in horrendous composition, especially when the background is more prominent than anything on the card.

I sincerely hope you havent subjected yourself to this, as it is really, really not even close to good.