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Ratings for Last Yearís Sets

by Paul Angilly
March 23, 2004

With the last of the 2003 football card sets released last month and the first of the 2004 sets due out in April, now would seem to be a good time to take a look back at the year in football cards.

First, the numbers: 48 different NFL-licensed sets, plus four draft picks sets from Sage and Press Pass. Fleer and Upper Deck led the way with 13 different sets each, while Donruss/Playoff had 12 releases and Topps had 10.

Of all those issues, only eight did not include short-printed rookies in the base set: Score, Fleer Tradition, Upper Deck MVP, Upper Deck Standing O, Bowman, Topps, Topps Draft Picks and Prospects and Topps Total. Leaf Rookies and Stars had the most total rookies at 180 (80 short-printed), while Upper Deck SP Authentic had the highest total of short-printed rookies at 149 (printed in varying qualities from 250 to 2,200 copies). The scarcest rookies are from the recently-issued Skybox LE set: 100 total limited to 99 copies of each.

Just four base sets topped the 300-card mark, with Topps Total leading the way at 550 cards. Upper Deck MVP had 440 cards, while Topps was a 385-card set and Score included 330 cards. Prices ranged from about $1 per pack for Topps Total to about $100 per pack for Upper Deck Ultimate Collection. The largest packs came from Score, with 18 cards each (at about $2 per pack).

Hereís my thoughts on the best and worst from 2003:

BEST OVERALL SET -- Call me a traditionalist, but I have to go with Topps. The comprehensive (and non-short-printed) base set features a clean and attractive design, with complete year-by-year career statistics and a bio on the back. Also, the various inserts are a nice incentive without being a distraction from the main set -- and this is one of the few sets with a pack price under $2.

BEST SET FOR ROOKIE CARDS -- Bowman is a nice looking set with a whopping 165 rookie cards, all non-short-printed, that include useful information on the back. Easy to collect, easy to enjoy. Of course if youíre looking for investments, Skybox LEís ultra short-printed rookies will likely be in high demand for years to come.

MOST ATTRACTIVE CARDS -- I have to go with Playoff Honors. A nice, full-bleed action photo highlights the high-gloss fronts. Another small color photo, bands of personal and career statistics and a brief bio printed over a ghosted team logo make for attractive backs. The only drawback is that 130 of the 230 cards in the set are short-printed rookies -- it would have been nice to have a much larger set of veterans.

BEST PHOTOGRAPHY -- This honor goes to Fleer Ultra, hands-down. Not only does Ultra feature sharp action photos, the full-bleed, uncluttered design of these cards really puts the emphasis on the photography.

BEST HIGH-TECH DESIGN -- With every card a refractor, the sparkly Bowmanís Best set really stands out from the crowd.

BEST THEME SET -- The excellent painted portraits used for the Donruss Gridiron Kings set makes these cards a nice departure from the norm for any collection.

BEST NEW SET -- Sometimes bigger is better, especially in football: Topps Total gets my vote. Considering that at least 30-40 different players per team see regular action in NFL games (including offense, defense, special teams and situational subs), itís hard to believe that collectors put up with so many sets that only feature the top 3-4 players. Including double-player and triple-player cards, Topps Total manages to stretch that number to about 20 players per team. Cleanly-designed fronts and informative backs help make this set a winner. Add in the cheapest pack price on the market and this issue is a most welcome addition to any football fanís collection.

FOND FAREWELL -- Topps didnít release a Stadium Club set, ending a run of 12 straight years for that issue. Since its inception in 1991, Stadium Club had annually featured some of the best-looking photos of any cards.

NO TEARS SHED -- Few collectors even seemed to notice that Pacific Trading Cards, which had been issuing NFL sets since 1991, left the market. Even fewer cared. With 48 NFL sets still being released, the absence of Pacificís additional 10-12 issues was more of a welcome relief than a disappointment.

MOST DISAPPOINTING COMPANY -- Upper Deck seemed like it was just going through the motions last season. The regular Upper Deck set was nice, but not exciting. MVP had a good number of cards, but an unattractive design. The SP Authentic and SPx brands each featured very busy designs that just didnít work. Despite an $8 to $10 price per 3-card pack, its Finite brand was not easy on the eyes. Pros & Prospects and Standing O were downright ugly. Ultimate Collection looked nice, but at $100 per pack it should have been a lot better. What happened to attractive retro sets like Vintage or Authentics, or big sets like XL? A lack of diversity hurt the entire 2003 Upper Deck lineup.

$500 Packs Coming: In my first column of the new year, I speculated a bit on what the future might hold for the hobby, and one of my predictions was that weíd see "a card product with a suggested retail price of $200 or more per pack by the end of the year."

Turns out I underestimated things just a bit.

According to the May 2004 issue of Tuff Stuff, Upper Deck recently announced plans for a basketball card release that will be priced at $500 -- thatís right, FIVE HUNDRED dollars -- for a pack of five or six cards. The set will be called Exquisite Basketball, and is expected in May.

Reportedly, one of the top cards will be a LeBron James autographed jersey patch rookie card, numbered to 99 copies.

At $500 per pack, youíd think that Upper Deck would get James to show up at your home and deliver the card personally.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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