Marketing firms are licking their chops at the possibilities that lay ahead for Toronto Maple Leaf, rookie sensation Auston Matthews, and the sports card industry is no exception. Comments from dealers speaking about the impact Matthews is expected to have, projecting that his rookie card should settle around $150. The card featuring him wearing the North American, World Cup sweater was the highlight card but I recently saw one with a Leaf uniform.
The ancestor of the trading card is that in the late 1800’s they were inserted into cigarette packs to protect the product from bending. Kids would wait out the front of stores asking customers for the cards found inside the cigarette packages. They contained information or advertising about the tobacco company and around the turn of the century contained a variety of topics from nature to sports. By 1900 there were thousands of tobacco sets manufactured by 300 individual companies.
Cards in the past were made of paperboard or thick paper while today they come in every form including digital.
Here’s why there is such a difference in collecting. The kids in schoolyards played with the cards; they were placed in bike spokes, stuffed in pockets, wrapped in elastic bands or stored in shoeboxes. The old story of mom clearing out the closets or basements usually meant most of the cards ended up in the garbage. But it was a result of this that tightened the market for cards with less in circulation.
However, with the popularity of cards increasing dramatically in the 1980’s, the demand for product exploded. The card manufacturers flooded the markets with regular card sets but always looking for an edge (greed) added subsets, special cards, signed cards, gold, platinum labeled cards and one group cut up a Babe Ruth Bat to insert pieces in the packs. Some moron did the same here in Canada with George Vezina’s pads. Really? How do you prove they aren’t a $10 pair bought at Play Again Sports? Regardless all these promo type collectables are for the most part worthless.
At the height of the craze in 1990, Upper Deck became the card of choice because they started manufacturing cards made of a plastic like, non-bendable material in sealed packs that were laser cut, so never an issue with condition and centering. Previously the cardboard images were hand cut off sheets of players and placed in wax packages with a stick of gum. The wax packs could be tampered with and the gum could stain the cards. Unscrupulous dealers or collectors could open wax packs searching out the key cards and replacing them with lesser-valued cards, then reseal the wax pack with a drop of glue. Upper Deck’s revolutionary product ended all that, but also ruined the innocence of the hobby because collectors could make a few sets with a box of packs (usually 36 per) and have trader’s left over. Great but where was the excitement of building a set?
From the beginning of the 1995 baseball season through the 1995-96 NBA season, seven trading-card manufacturers issued 105 different sets of sports cards. Fleer alone printed nearly 2 billion cards a year during the boom times.
With the new age way to collect also came a price and no longer could packs be priced at 25 cents or less, because the cost to produce the new product wasn’t just cut off a cardboard pressed sheet anymore. As a result the collector must protect the new treasure and instead of placing a card between a couple of bike spokes or tossed against a wall, the new found treasure was handled like an original copy of the Declaration of Independence and placed strategically in a plastic card holder. If it is a real hot card the enclosure case was impenetrable enough to with stand a rifle shot.
I’ll give you a good example of card collecting and its market affect. Jaromir Jagr with over 700 goals, 1,000 assists, is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest players of all time. His 1990 rookie card (Upper Deck draft) was one of the hottest in the hobby and traded in the range of $25 to $40 at the peak. He had seven rookie cards that year. Today those cards can be purchased for less than a dollar and the top card maybe a couple bucks. Sergei Fedorov was the same year as Jagr, became a star with the Detroit Red Wings and his rookie card value shot through the roof. Today most of his cards can be had for pennies and the top card maybe a couple bucks. Remember, he scored 483 goals, 696 assists, won 3 Cups, a Hart Trophy, Selke Award and six-time all-star to mention a few of his accomplishments. Mario Lemieux one of the top 10 players in the history of the game; his rookie card can be purchased for a few hundred dollars depending on condition but even then well below a thousand dollars. How about you Jay’s fans? Remember Roberto Alomar’s rookie card turning Toronto collectors upside down? That $100 card of the Blue Jay Hall of Famer can be owned for well less than $20 and the Donruss version, a buck. Juan Guzman was the flame-throwing star of the 1992-93 Jays with an 11-0 start. His Rookie card topped at $35-$40 and today can purchased for less than the cost of a gummy twist at a variety store.
The point of this exercise is to caution collectors to not become investors when purchasing cards of today’s up and coming stars. Hopeful stars like Mcdavid, Eichel, Matthews and Marner may have Hall of Fame careers (we certainly hope two of those four examples do) but all the card companies are betting they will as well and will flood the market with product centered on these kids. There is a term in the investment business after news is released and a stock doesn’t move. The news was “priced into the stock” as the saying goes, meaning the market anticipated good news and bought the stock in front of it. That’s what we have with the card industry since the greed of manufacturers in the late 1980’s. Remember the cost of that pack of cards you purchase today is also factoring in you may pull a “hot” card from the pack,’ thus the price of the pack is inflated and “priced in” before you’ve opened it.
Still not convinced? Having spent forty years of my life in the investment business I liken the card craze to the affection for diamonds years ago. While diamonds make wonderful gifts, the chance of your diamond purchase increasing in value is very slim. Diamonds may be lost but they are never destroyed, therefore every diamond produced may still exist. Now they may end up in estate sales, pawnshops or auctions but with a new setting, a cleaning, they’re good as new. Since the card explosion of the 1980’s any collector protected all the cards of significance. It’s the old supply and demand scenario and in this case all those cards I’ve mentioned are extremely plentiful. Even the greatest player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, his card is still very affordable and very easily accessible.
Before you start shelling out hundreds of dollars for rookie cards of Auston Matthews and company, remember they are printing plenty of them. Never believe this “limited” nonsense because they are limited to as many as can be sold, besides has anyone ever counted them all? Of course not.
I’m contacted weekly from collectors asking the value of the cards they’ve meticulously protected all these years only to break their hearts informing them they are probably out money in most instances. I suggest they sit their family members down and talk about the great players in the collection and recount stories about why they were the favoured players. That’s what they were originally intended for; to enjoy.
A group doing a documentary on the trading card industry contacted me recently claiming that in the height of the craze 25 years ago; some of the card companies were releasing older cards into the hobby to keep the excitement high.
In 1933 Goudey released a 240-card set but only 239 were made available with card number 106 held back as a marketing ploy to keep kids buying packs of cards. The card number 106 featuring the retired Napoleon Lajoie was issued the following year and today like the Honus Wagner, is a very desirable card.
No one knows how many cards are printed every run including the Honus Wagner card. How do these dealers know someone doesn’t have cards that have never come out of a shoebox or trunk in Grandpas closet?
The other piece of information to check is the hobby price guides. Now I have always frowned on these self-serving publications but look at the size of the cards priced pre 1980 vs. after. The cards priced in the early years could be printed in the size of a small comic book whereas the list of available cards after is the size of an encyclopedia. That should be enough of a cautionary note alone that the cards are not rare.
Finally I’ll leave you with this thought. If you are collecting Auston Matthews’s cards because you are a fan, then purchase packs and keep your fingers crossed. If you are of the mindset that there is money to be made, then buy boxes of the cards and be an immediate seller. Believe me when I tell you the most money made on Bay St and Wall St is by being a good seller. It is certainly no different in this case.
Hockey Card Collecting
with Mike Wilson, the Ultimate Leafs Fan
L&A County Museum & Archives, 97 Thomas Street East, Napanee
December 3rd, 10 am
It’s all in the cards! On December 3rd, learn about hockey card collecting with the ultimate Leafs fan, Mike Wilson…
INSIDE THE ROOM WITH THE ULTIMATE LEAFS FAN
Mike Wilson with Lance Hornby & Paul Patskou