Archive for Thursday, October 5, 2006

Opinion: Sports cards are a lost joy

October 5, 2006

A recent article at Slate.com, http://www.slate.com/id/2150516, gave me a rush of nostalgia (Yes, at 25 I am old enough to get nostalgic).

The article was about the author's former career as a writer for the Topps sports cards company. He was in charge of writing little 50-70 word blurbs about players on the backs of their cards. Had I known such a job existed back when I was seven years old it might have changed my entire career path.

I started collecting cards at that age, back in 1988, when the industry was enjoying perhaps its best years. I was an avid Minnesota Twins fan and I can still remember the first Twins player I pulled from a pack -- a 1988 Topps card of middle reliever Juan Berenguer. No Juan Berenguer card has ever been worth the cardboard it's printed on, but I certainly treasured that one.

It wasn't long before sports cards became an obsession for me. For the next six or seven years they were a central feature of my life, only tapering off in importance when I started to discover cars and girls. Back then cards came in packs of about 15, and most packs only cost 50 cents. So, as soon as I managed to get a dollar, cards were the first thing on my mind. I'd hunt around for six pennies to pay the sales tax and then I'd jump on my Huffy and pedal the three blocks to the nearest convenience store. I'd pick out two packs, plop down my money ("No, I don't need a receipt"), and I'd be opening the first pack before I even got out the door.

Here's a Jose Canseco, that'll go in my binder. Gary Sheffield, never heard of him, but it says here he's a Future Star, so I better hold onto that one. Alright, Kirby Puckett, yeah baby! Now I've got doubles of that so I can trade one.

That was the joy of sports cards for me, pulling $1 cards from 50-cent packs, or rooting through the commons box at the local hobby shop, where you could choose 100 cards for a dollar. I've got a few thousand cards sitting in my room back in my parents' house, but they're now worth exactly nothing.

When I got out of collecting in the mid-90s, the card industry was transitioning to a new philosophy that ultimately ruined it. Out were the 50-cent packs full of cheap, cardboard cards and in were new, glossy, thick "premium" cards that came five to a pack, with each pack costing three or four bucks.

You see, the profit margin was low on the old 50-cent packs, with each sale making little after licensing, production and distribution costs. The new packs had a much higher profit margin, but the card companies forgot their primary market: kids.

The cost for sports cards became prohibitive for kids and Japanese companies stepped in and began offering cheaper substitute trading cards like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh.

It was the same thing that happened in the auto industry -- American companies got too enamored of SUVs and their hefty profit margins and Japanese automakers stepped in to fill the compact car void.

Sports card sales have been in steady decline for more than a decade now, and they're unlikely to come back any time soon. That's a shame because a generation of kids are missing out on the cheap thrill of buying a pack and pulling out their Juan Berenguer.

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