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Collectors, Dealers and Card Manufacturers Have Changed Over the Years

Bill Wagner - Babe Waxpak by Bill Wagner, "Babe Waxpak"
July 31, 2005

Dear Babe: After reading another article with folks asking just about values, I felt compelled to write. I started collecting sports cards during the peak of their popularity in the late 1980s. I am 34 and have been collecting for 23 years. Basically, I have a couple of questions. What happened to local card shops and the owners who had kids at heart? When will the card companies put the fun back in collecting and bring back the popularity of the hobby?
Mark Gravel, Cumming, Ga.

Provocative questions. Keep in mind that most folks who seek Da Babe's help are not collectors. Instead, they just have some cards or items that they are curious about. And yes, they almost always are interested in value. That aside, I'll take a stab at offering my thoughts.

Of course, there's no easy answer. Fun is in the eye of the collector. Folks collect for many different reasons, and those buying packs today are a lot different than they were even 20 years ago and certainly much different than the baby boomers who collected in the 1950s. In today's marketplace, I'm not so sure that collecting for pure fun is at the top of the chart for many who purchase sports cards - that is unless you consider pulling a nice insert that can be sold on the Internet "fun."

We've seen a lot of card companies come and go since the Topps monopoly was snapped in 1981. Even with Fleer's recent demise, there still seems to be room for a few with Topps, Upper Deck and the newly revived Donruss/Playoff folks hanging in there, although they just lost their baseball license.

While there are few base products and pack prices might seem high, the companies are in business to make money. The only way to do that is to produce products that people will buy. Plus, today it's just as important that they offer products that collectors/dealers can buy and sell in the secondary marketplace, especially in online auctions.

That translates to short-prints, inserts, autographed cards and memorabilia cards. Today's athletes aren't about to sit down and sign cards without getting a hefty fee. The jerseys and bats that are trimmed for memorabilia cards don't come cheaply either. Those costs are reflected in the price of the products.

This dovetails into what happened to the local card shop and, for that matter, smaller card shows. Internet sales have changed everything. It's hard for folks who have a storefront that comes with rent, utilities and employee costs to compete with millions of dealers who work out of their homes with virtually no overhead. Plus, there's a much wider range of cards to choose from.

There are still some old-time dealers who have been around for years. There are also lots of new dealers who purchase and open new material and have little knowledge about the hobby and its history. More often than not, these newer dealers come and go with many concentrating more on Internet sales.

It's all about supply and demand. Beckett, Sports Collectors Digest and Tuff Stuff appeared on the scene in answer to a demand for a comprehensive list of secondary marketplace values. Once secondary values were established, the hobby changed.

Speaking from personal experience, I know my son was drawn to the hobby in the mid-1980s when he was 12 or 13 because cards had value. However, he also liked history and quickly discovered (with a little nudge from dad) that it was fun to build sets and collect older cards. He also spent time looking at the stats on the backs of cards.

It's a different world today. LeBron James was a high school kid with cards selling like crazy for astronomical prices when compared to most Hall of Famers.

I don't think you can blame the card companies for that, especially since most of those James cards weren't from any of the licensed manufacturers.

Long before you were born, folks thought they had died and gone to heaven when they could listen to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. The same was true when those small black-and-white TVs began appearing in the 1950s. You can see where I'm going. There's nothing as constant as change.

My New Year's tradition was to grab every TV set in the house (two of three) and put them in the same room, so I could watch all the bowl games. Now, I just wait for ESPN's Sports Center.

The bottom fell out of the stamp-collecting hobby years ago, but at least with stamps, you can always use them at face value for postage. There's really no intrinsic value in a sports card - unless you have one of those Action Packed cards with a diamond on it.

There's no secret that today's hobby turns off a lot of folks - even relatively younger ones like you.

I wouldn't venture a guess where the hobby will be in 10 years, but I suspect there will be sports cards out there. There will be happy collectors and there will be disillusioned folks who yearn for the good old days - whatever they might be.

BABE NOTE: It's that time of year when Pepsi, Upper Deck and Arizona Diamondbacks join forces. This year, one of 15 cards will be inserted into each 12-pack of Pepsi and Diet Pepsi. The players include Royce Clayton, Brandon Webb, Tony Clark, Mike Koplove, Greg Aquino, Russ Ortiz, Alex Cintron, Shawn Green, Shawn Estes, Troy Glaus, Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez, Javier Vasquez, Chad Tracy and Jose Cruz. Tracy and Cruz cards will be found in Pepsi and Diet Pepsi Fridge Mates. The promotion begins Aug. 1 and is good while supplies last in the Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff and Yuma areas.

About the author
Bill Wagner is a veteran journalist with 37 years in the newspaper business as well as being a former Army combat correspondent in Vietnam. He developed the Babe Waxpak sports card column in the 1980s and took over authorship in 1993, expanding into sports memorabilia and autographs as well as answering questions on cards.

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