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Sunday, July 31, 2011

A long response to TMH's Posts (card economics)

I was thinking about this (and posting several comments on the original post). I think something has been seriously overlooked by most collectors, and that's the value of common cards. Depending on where you go, commons for current sets seem to run from 5 cents to 25 cents each. I've seen nickel commons at some card shows, but usually the cheapest I'll find single cards these days are at a show, in a 10c or 25c box. Sportlots, COMC, and stores charge around 20c or more.

Sure, in bulk you get them for much less, and the sum value of base cards is more than a set (it's been that way as long as I've been collecting). But for single card purchases, the price has risen. Back in the 80's and 90's, commons were a nickel each in card shops.

If you look at a pack of flagship Topps, with a *retail* price of $2 per pack, you're paying 20c per card for a product you would pay 20c per card in the store. Add to that the one insert in the pack (which you could argue is 50c or greater in "resellable" value) and the likelihood of pulling a star (again, minimum 50c value). For a product like flagship Topps, you're generally getting (at least close to) your money's worth. Even with '89 Upper Deck, 15 cards per pack at $1 per pack is about 7c per card. The going rate for UD commons back then was easily 10c, if not closer to 25c, so you still got your money's worth.

I think part of the issue lies in the belief that common (or all base) cards are worthless, and the only value in a box is the big hit.

Now, if you look at a box/pack of Ginter, again doing retail prices, you pay 50c per card. It can easily be argued that Ginter singles are more valuable than Topps singles, but are they 2.5x as valuable? In this case you're paying for the hits, and I think that's where the disparity comes in. And when you talk about products like Triple Threads and Tribute, you really are paying for the hits, but they are designed for that purpose.

Most mid-90s products (pre-autograph/relic craze) were like today's flagship Topps. Each pack contained an insert and/or a parallel, and generally you paid around 20c per card. There were some exceptions which generally lied in the premium issues. If you break down the value of those packs, they're about the same as Topps flagship, even today. Singles generally sell for around 25c each, with inserts fetching 50c-$1 or more.

What is really amusing about sets like Heritage, Allen & Ginter and Gypsy Queen is that, when you look at it, you have about the same value as the Topps flagship set. Heritage, Ginter, and GQ have several inserts and parallels, a selection of low-level hits, and a small quantity of quality hits. Relics and autographs from players like Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Rickey Henderson are much harder to pick up than David DeJesus, BJ Upton, and Billy Butler. (Look at autograph/relic odds on packs/boxes: Group A, B, C, D, etc.) Not that there's anything wrong with DeJesus, Upton, and Butler, but face it, they aren't as popular as Jeter, Pujols, and Rickey. The big hits are just as rare too - dual relics, autographed relics, and patches are limited to 50 or less in each release. The "premium" aspect in Heritage, Ginter and Gypsy Queen come from lower overall print runs, better card stock, and higher popularity. You have a greater chance per pack of pulling a big hit, but they're really in the same quantities as Topps.

On the retail front, with Allen & Ginter, you pay $3 for six cards. One of them is a parallel, and one is an insert. However, you're paying 50c per card, right off the bat. Instead of star players and inserts providing you with a way of getting more than your money's worth, they only serve to help you equal up to your money's worth.

I'm not saying that Heritage, Ginter, and GQ should sell for the same as flagship Topps, or be valued the same. There is an increase in quality, and an decrease in quantity. But when you look at it, you're receiving the same basic deal. For hobby boxes, I could see paying $60 per box (now they're $50-55) for 360 Topps flagship cards (17c each), but not $90 for a box of 193 Ginter cards (47c each) - something that provides me a marginally higher quality of card, and two extra hits. But what hits do I get? Generally, three low-quality relics.

While you still get three hits per box of Ginter (compared to '09), you're most likely going to pull three bottom-tier relics in this year's release. Autographs, better relics, and multi-item relics are tough pulls. For my $30 extra per box, I expect that I would pull an autograph, patch, or a star relic from every box. I'm already receiving nearly a 50% reduction in the number of cards.

I will note that for any "hit" you pull from any box of nearly any product from nearly any manufacturer in the past 15 years or so, you will most likely pull the lowest-tier relic. The issue is the added cost you're paying (which keeps going up) for those hits (where the average quality of a hit is going down). The market is "flooded" with unwanted relics because there are so many of them in comparison to quality hits. There are too many common/semistar players on relic and autograph checklists messing up the odds.

Why are we getting so much less with the relics and autographs this year compared to the past has to do with the monopoly issue. Why should Topps make an effort to acquire more-expensive relics and autographs from team leaders when they can pick up Nelson Cruz's gray jersey or pants for $15-30? Boxes still have three hits each, and their cost per relic goes down.

By the way, how many relics can you make from a jersey? Ginter relics are 1.5cm x 1.5 cm (2.25 square cm). My size large t-shirt (which is much smaller than a jersey) measures at its narrowest points 58cm x 65cm (3770 square cm) per side (7540 square cm total). From my t-shirt, I can easily get well over 3000 Ginter-sized relic swatches. A normal 1-inch jersey swatch (6.5 square cm) could still be made well over 1000 times with my t-shirt.

What are your thoughts on the cost vs. value issue with boxes? Is it worth it to buy boxes anymore?


  1. I may be the only one, but I loved it (am building the sets) when Topps, et. al. had 20-25 players per team and didn't worry about the gimmicks. That was card collectin', young feller. You opened a pack of 1977 Topps hoping to get Dave Hilton, Andres Mora or Bill Plummer because you needed him to complete the set - and you could trade your double of Reggie! to the fat kid down the block to get three cards you needed.

    I buy boxes, just because I want the set, not because I want the 'good stuff'. The 'good stuff' brings me more base. Of course, I'm an oddball.

  2. I guess that's the problem that I initially started my blog to address. Not to self-promote, but I'm always looking for boxes with good value in them (the best boxes on my blog page). The products I find to have the most value never are the big-name products but ones that either feature Minor-Leaguers or are overlooked for some reason at release and have been heavily discounted.

    I definitely enjoy base cards, inserts, and rookies, but I'm not really a set builder and I love pulling hits. The jersey cards are getting ridiculously pathetic though. The swatches are so small and hold little value. The only jersey cards I see that hold their value seem to be from the SI Swimsuit sets and that's for a pretty obvious reason (and the swimsuits are small so the jersey cards are limited).

  3. I remember the days when sets were just about the cards, though I came in towards the end of that era. Trust me, I'd be happy with just the base cards in some of these issues. Back in the '80s, the gimmicks were boxed as their own individual sets (like Fleer's Baseball's Best and Topps Big).

    Unfortunately we passed a point a long time ago where sets could be released without the frills. The Topps flagship set still retains most of it's value per pack (in fact, it would without the inserts too), and the inclusion of inserts and hits gives it added value (in your case and sometimes mine, to trade for more base cards). But I can't see buying a box of something for $80-100 or more in an attempt to build the base set. I suppose I could trade away the three hits and the inserts for most of the other cards I need, but I can't justify paying that much when I can pick up the base set or at least a very large lot of base cards for $15-20. In other words, I feel like I'm paying more for something I don't necessarily want and most likely won't pull anyway (the lottery effect).

    I enjoy getting a hit, but I don't buy packs hoping to pull one. So I can't justify $4+ packs. On the other hand, if I feel like spending $80-100 for a box, I expect a certain quality to the cards (especially the hits).

  4. As a kid I bought packs to try to pull my favorite players or "hits" (then rookie cards, fancy inserts, etc.). The way I see things with packs and boxes now, fewer of my favorite players make the set (since they're all inserts and Topps Total died) and meaningful hits are much harder to pull. These hits are also repetitive - I know designs change and all that, but as you mentioned you can get thousands of relics from one jersey, and so it's no coincidence that a lot of the same guys get relics and autos year to year. You have to be pretty devoted to stick to a player through that, as I am with my Seneca Wallace collection, which likely is made up of 3-4 jerseys cut up into all the relics I own and 2-3 sticker signing days stuck to all of the cards I own.

    I'm rambling, but my biggest issue, despite my love for it, may be with the serial # in some ways. This one number artificially brings card value up and down, often with very little difference in the cards. You might pull a jersey card of your guy, but it's not as rare as the same card tinted blue #'d to 150, so who cares? Same thing with gold parallels and things like that. Back in 1992 you could build a topps base set and a topps gold base set. Now there's base, blue, gold, black, opening's nuts. How can you even keep up?

  5. Smed - I agree - that's why I loved Topps Total and even Pacific Online...sets with massive checklists. It was fun to get cards of lesser known guys...back up catchers and middle relievers that are usually excluded from regular sets.

  6. Great comments from everybody and solid analysis, Ryan.

    I am contemplating these issues right now, myself, as I re-enter the hobby. I need to have limits on what I'm chasing, both monetarily and quantity-wise. I love the thrill of a big hit, but I want there to be something tangible to enjoy once I'm done - a.k.a. a complete set. I'd rather be able to thumb through a complete set and review the players and teams for historical purposes than have a sizable stack of random premium base cards from a limited 100-card checklist (I'm looking at you, Bowman Platinum) and one 'HIT' of a prospect's auto/relic who never actually panned out.

    In a few months, I've sampled Gypsy Queen, Topps Flagship, Topps Heritage, Allen & Ginter and Bowman Platinum. All were fun to bust but I enjoyed the Topps line-up (flagship, heritage and GQ) the most. Sets of 660, 500 and 350, respectively, allow for a better representation of all players for that year - which in this case, is important to me. It's also a more enjoyable challenge to build the set(s) and wheel & deal for needed base cards. I know for some that is frustrating, but it's my kind of fun. Plus, I am just as excited to pull a base Posey, Jeter or McCann (if not more excited) as I would a David DeJesus auto. DD gets a lot of grief these days...

    It's all relative, I guess. Don't get me wrong, the Bowman Platinum (for example) are beautiful cards and I enjoyed busting those packs. But at about 30 packs (120 cards) for right around $100.......I'd rather take a 30% reduction in price and double the cards.

    Next year I will definitely buy boxes, but only for the sets that will satisfy what I am ultimately looking for.

    I must learn more about those SI swatches, CCC!

  7. This is why I usually wait a year or two to buy boxes. Generally speaking, the prices will continue to fall as the years past. There are exceptions, I've had a few SP Authentic boxes that have risen in price and although I am not collecting the set, I believe that GC hobby box prices have gone through the roof. After all, it's a hobby, it shouldn't cost a large amount of your disposable income to enjoy it.