8 Survival Tips for Collectors Returning to the World of Sports Cards
By Ryan Cracknell | Hobby Editor
For a lot of people, collecting sports cards isn’t something we do our entire lives. We might start as kids then stop in the pursuit of a car, college degree, family or any combination of the above. Some may collect for a while and simply move on for whatever reason. And that’s perfectly okay.
Actually, it’s normal.
But there’s a solid chance that when you returned to collecting sports cards, the hobby landscape looked a lot different, good and bad.
Depending on when you last collected, navigating this new world can be fun, exciting, disheartening, scary and a little bit overwhelming.
Here are some tips to get you thinking and help you through some of those changes and back into the world of collecting.
1. Don’t Chase Everything
Taken as a whole, there are a lot of new products out there. No matter what you collect, don’t even try to collect it all. Even with Powerball millions, the rabbit hole will never end.
Up until about the mid-1990s, you could realistically chase everything of your favorite team or player. For that matter, you could probably piece together every major set including inserts.
Cards cost a lot less per box back then, too.
And there weren’t long lists of parallels.
And autographs were kept to a minimum.
And print runs were bigger.
See where I’m going here? The hobby has changed. Even though there are a limited number of companies making them, each release is intended to cater to a different type of collector. If you try to chase it all, you’re probably going to get frustrated fast. It’s simply not possible. There are too many rare cards now and too many pricey ones to realistically accomplish it.
A good goal should be attainable so be realistic. Look at what you enjoy most about collecting. A specific player? Rookie cards? Autographs? Building sets? Start here. Then further find your niche by looking at the styles of cards that are out there. Basically, you’re looking to find your niche within a niche. And for everyone, that will probably be a little bit different.
When you see a long list of products on the horizon, you don’t need to get them all. Even getting one box of everything can add up and leave you with stacks of cards you probably didn’t really want in the first place. Sampling is good, to a certain extent. Life gets boring if you order a Big Mac every time you go to McDonald’s. But don’t feel the need to go all-in on every product.
Even still, you might not want to bust any packs. Opting for the singles route might not have the same kind of magic, but it does help you focus your collection. Even if you don’t have a local shop or shows, there are plenty of places online to find just about any of the cards you’re looking for. The Beckett Marketplace and eBay are just a couple of them.
Today, sets are designed with niches in mind. Most are aimed at fairly specific audiences. Some products target nostalgia with big base sets, old-time card stock and familiar designs. Others are aimed at those who only want autographs. A few opt for wild designs and modern printing technology. Everything is different. So even when there’s a long list of new releases virtually every week, take a look at them and question what the product’s target is and if it’s in line with how you want to collect.
2. Yes, Some Cards Are Very Expensive
Other than a couple of outliers, new sports cards aren’t a dollar a pack anymore. But that’s to be expected. What might be harder to fathom is how high some products have soared. It started with 1989 Upper Deck Baseball breaking the dollar barrier. From there packs hit $5. Then we got the promise of an autograph per pack and other thresholds were broken.
In the last decade or so, things have really started to escalate. 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Basketball made headlines for costing upwards $500 per box back when they first came out. Then came 2012-13 Panini Flawless Basketball being the first to hit $1,000. Recently, 2014-15 Panini Eminence Basketball arrived costing around $6,000 per box. A 2016 Upper Deck All-Time Greats Master Collection set cost about $15,000. And it’s not likely to stop.
Yes, prices have risen. But before you start writing the entire hobby off because of these types of products, remember that not every product is meant for everyone. There are collectors out there with the means to drop thousands of dollars on cards without much of a thought. We can choose to resent these products or we can focus on the things that we enjoy. It is a choice. Personally, I have a hard time spending $100 on a box of cards. I accept the fact that the top-level products are out of my range and move on. I find spending my time, energy and money on the things I like to be much more enjoyable.
These expensive products are like every set that’s put out. They’re not for everyone. That $15,000 set — only 200 were made. With so much variety out there, look to the things you like. If it’s a $500 box of cards, great. If it’s a clearance box from last year (bonus tip: patience often pays off), there’s nothing wrong with that either.
3. You’re Probably Not Going to Retire Off of That Stash of ’80s Cards
The 1980s and early 1990s produced some fantastic sets. They also produced a lot of cards. If you’ve been hoarding a stash of cards away for the past 30 years as part of your retirement fund, you’re likely going to be disappointed. Exceptions exist, but for the most part cards from this era are tough to sell for any real amount of money.
The reason is basic supply and demand. Most everyone who wants 1991 Pro Set Football has it. On top of that are cases and cases sitting unopened in closets, basements, storage lockers and warehouses. Simply put, there’s tons of it out there and nobody’s buying.
Perhaps the best thing you can do with most of these cards is to pull them out and look through them. Get a sense of what made you excited to collect. Enjoying those cards covers everything except that pesky money-making part.
4. Making Money Isn’t Easy
Some people jump into sports cards with visions of easy money in mind. While you can make money, you’ll probably find out very quickly that it’s not as easy as ripping open a box, selling what’s inside, moving onto the next box and pocketing the profits. Making money off of sports cards isn’t easy — at least any significant amount.
Like any industry, those that are most successful at making money look for opportunities. They fill gaps that others aren’t covering. That’s the key here as well. If you’re focusing on local collectors, what are their needs? If you’re looking online, what can you offer that’s different?
Even if selling is a casual part of your collecting (it is for most of us in some form), take the time to figure out where the best place is and way to do it.
One other thing to remember is that this can be an expensive hobby now. If you’re buying a box purely speculating on a return, you’re likely to lose out quickly. And losing a significant amount of money a couple of times will quickly lead to burnout. So if it’s a business you’re looking for, research the market first. If you’re here primarily for a hobby, stick with what you enjoy and what’s in your budget. That way, the worst case scenario of getting a scrub player doesn’t seem so bad.
5. Take Your Time
If you stopped collecting 25 years ago, cards are going to look a lot different. You might have tried to “Find the Reggie” in 1990 Upper Deck Baseball, but back then autographs were definitely the exception compared to now. And they’ve also started putting pieces of memorabilia inside of cards as well.
Those aren’t the only changes. Checklists have gotten more complicated. Distribution has changed. People’s collecting habits have evolved. We haven’t even gotten into the role of the Internet in the modern hobby.
There’s a lot to digest. Be sure to take your time and look around. See what kinds of cards there are and where to find them. Make a plan for how you want to collect. Connect with other collectors on message boards, Twitter or many of the ever-evolving forms of social media. There’s a large network of blogs out there as well. And if you have a local card shop, they can be great too.
It’s easy to get consumed and overwhelmed trying to take everything in at once. You’ve been gone for a while. Taking it slow at first probably isn’t going to make much of a difference other than helping you get focused and more comfortable.
6. Where Did All the Card Companies Go?
Back in the boom times, there were several manufacturers making products for all sports. Today, all five of the major North American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL and MLS) have exclusive deals. Topps is baseball. Panini has basketball and football (starting with 2016 products). Upper Deck covers hockey. These exclusives carry over to other leagues and bodies as well. It should be noted that Panini has an MLBPA license but that only allows them to use Major League players, not MLB logos or trademarks.
Fleer, SkyBox, Pacific, Press Pass, Pro Set, Playoff and others are either gone or have been folded into other companies.
The hobby world isn’t as big as it once was. Good or bad, exclusives are the new reality.
7. Beyond the Box
The Internet has changed the hobby in so many ways. Over the past few years, the biggest is probably the rise of group breaking. If you’re not familiar, the basic premise is that cards are opened by a dealer offsite and mailed to you. They come in many forms but one of the most common is when you buy into a case break and you get all the cards for a particular team.
These breaks serve a few purposes, many of which can help you focus your collection. If you’re a fan of a specific team, you don’t have to worry about getting a lot of cards you don’t want. Maybe you want to check out a product that’s out of your budget otherwise. Perhaps there’s a rookie that you’re chasing. Maybe you just want to hang out and take a chance on a cheap team from the leftovers. All work.
Another great thing about online breaks is the sense of community they can bring. Many sites have chat rooms where collectors talk during the break. Sports, collecting, celebrating a nice pull, ragging on a bad box are all fair game. At the same time, it’s helping collectors connect no matter where they live in the world.
A couple things to think about if you’re looking at group breaks. Do your research first. Watch them online either live or recordings on YouTube and see if their style works for you. See what other people think of them. Some breakers have been established for several years and have lots of experience and knowledge.
Also, be sure to know what kind of break you’re buying into. They can all be very different, each with their own pros and cons. There are no guarantees that you’re going to get a major card out of a break. Sometimes you might not land a card at all. Some have more risk than others. Just make sure you know what the terms are before you commit to buying. If you have questions, ask them. If you don’t get the answers you want, it’s probably for the best and you can find another breaker to help you.
8. Some Things Never Change
Despite all the changes in the world of sports cards, some things remain the same. If you’ve got a card shop nearby, hopefully it’s a destination where you can go and chat about the things you love (and the players you don’t). Card shows are still great places to find deals and meet people as well.
The excitement of getting a new card of your favorite player is still there. Even if they haven’t played in decades, there’s a good chance they’re in today’s products.
If you’re getting back into collecting, there must be a reason for it. Remember that and hold onto it. And most of all, welcome!
Are you a returning collector? What brought you back? If you’re a hobby veteran, what piece of helpful advice would you give?
Comments? Questions? Contact Ryan Cracknell on Twitter @tradercracks.