The current (sad) state of card collecting

Thanks to Big League Stew, I stumbled upon this little eight-minute documentary about modern-day card collecting. Anthony Stalter watched it as well, so we’re going to discuss how card collecting has changed throughout the years.

John Paulsen: For me, card collecting started with basketball. I was never really into baseball as a kid (mostly because my dad preferred basketball and football, which he played in college), so my focus was on other sports. I had some old Topps football and basketball cards from the late ‘60s and ’70s, but I don’t really remember how I acquired them. Basketball cards were defunct for a while — Michael Jordan’s “real” rookie card could only be found in a regional set produced by Star — and once the mid-90’s hit, the NBA’s popularity blew up, so did the prices of those Star sets from the ’80s. I got into collecting for two reasons: 1) because I liked basketball (and to a lesser extent, football) and 2) I thought it was an investment that I could someday pass onto my son to teach him about the history of the sport (and about investing). Unfortunately, by the time I had some real money to spend on cards (when I was in college), the basketball card industry was so saturated with all the different brands and sets. Instead of going out and buying one or two rookie cards of your favorite player, now there’s 10 or 15 or more amongst all these different brands. The old rookie cards are iconic. I can still picture the first cards for Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, as well as Jordan’s Star rookie and his Fleer rookie, which came a few years later. With so many different brands/lines floating around, rookie cards have lost their appeal. The whole industry has lost its appeal for me, which is depressing because I probably have a few thousand cards stored under my bed that are worth a fraction of what they were 15-20 years ago. I was more of an individual card buyer than a pack or a box buyer. I bought a few packs and boxes in my day, but all those “commons” seemed like a waste. Anthony — how did you get into collecting and what do you think of the industry today?

Anthony Stalter: My dad used to buy me a box of Topps baseball cards every year for Christmas starting in the late 80s. I remember going through the box carefully and organizing all the players by team with him at our kitchen table. I remember when Topps used to be the brand everyone bought, but in the early 90s, UpperDeck got huge and started pushing Topps out of the picture. Eventually my dad stopped buying the boxes because Topps just weren’t worth what they used to be. But I remember sitting on the steps outside of my friend Josh’s house and trading with all the kids in the neighborhood. I distinctly remember fleecing a kid when I traded him Ken Griffey Jr. “Rated Rookie” card that had a crease in it. I traded for a couple of valuable Frank Thomas cards and he didn’t realize until the next day that he got taken. I then had to convince him that he must have bent it after the trade and eventually he blamed the entire thing on his sister, whom he swore must have snuck into his room and bent the card. For me, collecting cards was all about my favorite teams and players. If I purchased cards individually, I only bought players that were on my favorite teams. And the only reason why I sold any cards were so I could add to my Will Clark, Deion Sanders or David Robinson collections. I also really enjoyed the process of putting the cards into those plastic sheets and binders with my father. I can still remember spending hours on end with him sorting the cards, and my looking for days trying to find his specific baseball card because he told me he played for the Pirates. (Turns out he meant the Little League Pirates, not Pittsburgh.) That said, it’s sad to hear that the massive collection I have tucked away at my parents’ house in Florida isn’t worth as much today as it was just 15-20 years ago. Even though they were never an investment for me, I know my dad looked at it that way and I had hopes of one day passing along my card collection to my son.

JP: I went through my collection a few years ago and got rid of a lot of the worthless commons that were just taking up space. I sorted the cards by player in the hopes that I could eventually sell “player sets” on eBay. But then I saw what a lot of those cards were going for and figured that it wasn’t worth my time. I’d just sit on the collection and hope there’s an increase in interest. But it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Still, on the whole, I’m happy that I collected. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have an autographed Brett Favre rookie card that I had him sign at an appearance back in his second year with the Packers. Sure, he’s wearing a Falcons jersey and his name is misspelled, but it’s still cool as hell. Do you have a particular card or group of cards that mean the most to you?

One thing that really struck me about the documentary was how 95% of the guy’s customers were adults. “It’s not for kids anymore.” That’s sad, and it explains why card collecting has lost popularity and why our collections aren’t worth as much as they used to be. If kids have no interest, then that next generation of collectors is just going to get smaller and smaller as time goes on. They mentioned how costs have risen in the doc, though I’m sure there are affordable sets out there. The question is – do kids want the “el cheapo” sets at all? I think part of the problem is that there is so much else for kids to get into these days. Everyone is playing video games, sports, etc., and maybe they just don’t have time to pour over little pieces of cardboard anymore.

AS: For sure. My favorite is the aforementioned Will Clark collection. I have a small, separate binder that only has Clark cards and while it’s hard picking out a favorite, there’s a 1992 Upper Deck where he’s getting eye black put on by coach in the dugout that I always thought was cool. He was my idol and I remember any time a friend or neighborhood kid got a Will Clark card, I stopped at nothing to acquire it. (Looking back, I probably got hosed on a ton of trades just so I could add to my Will “The Thrill” collection.)

You made a good point about how if kids have no interest, the next generation of collectors will continue to get smaller and smaller. I don’t knock video games because I think they do serve a purpose (i.e. hand-eye coordination), but it’s sad that kids these days have little to no interest in collecting cards. It wasn’t just about collecting cards when I was growing up, it was about saving enough money to buy a box or a couple of packs and the thrill of opening them and wondering what they would be worth someday. Collecting cards was the first investment lesson I ever got and now it looks like they were a bad investment, at least in financial terms. One of the more depressing scenes in that documentary was when the store collector said that one of the Reggie Jackson cards was only worth $5. Five dollars?! For a Reggie Jackson card?! That’s amazing to me and it goes to show you how little cards from back in the day are worth nowadays.

Unfortunately there might not be any way to reverse the fortunate of card collecting, at least for kids anyway. Why would a kid buy a $100 box of baseball cards when he could buy two video games for that price? He or she would get more mileage out of the games and chances are, there won’t be one card in the box worth the investment made to buy it. Plus, as technology grows and toys get more sophisticated, there are better things to collect today anyway. As you alluded to, a small piece of cardboard to you and me back in the day was gold depending on who was printed on that cardboard. Nowadays, kids could care less.

JP: You mentioned the excitement inherent in opening up a box of cards to see what was inside. These days, I’m not so sure this is “investment” as much as it is “gambling.” It was clear that those customers in the doc got a thrill when they opened up all of those packs, hoping and praying for an autographed card or a piece of someone’s jersey. Back in our day, the investment part of collecting was legitimate. Prices of cards had risen in the past and there was good (or at least decent) reason to believe that they’d continue to rise in the future. But with the great sports card collapse that we’ve seen in the past two decades, is there any value in teaching kids about collecting? It seems like the card industry today relies heavily on customers that have an addiction, whether it’s the thrill of the unknown or the compulsion to hoard memorabilia. I’m not so sure that the current state of collecting is a good thing for kids to get into. Buying a card of his or her favorite player here and there couldn’t hurt, but taking hard earned money and risking it on a box of cards that are probably not going to be worth what you spent – that’s akin to scratch-offs at the local 7-11. It’s sad, really.

AS: Card collecting was about many things to me – saving up to buy the cards, opening them up, collecting and trading with friends. On a deeper level, you’re probably right suggesting that card collecting could be akin to gambling or feeding a compulsion. And if you are right, then it is sad and it’s probably safer that it has turned into an adult business. But I also think that it’s sad that my kids probably won’t have the same joy as I did tracking down Will Clark cards or trying to trade for that Shaq card your friend just scored. There probably isn’t any life lesson that I can contribute to collecting cards, but not everything in life has to be about lessons or investing or whatever. Card collecting was fun for me and taking about it conjured up some good memories.

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