The Future of the Hobby
by Richard McAdam aka RGM81
When I was a youngster collecting hockey cards, the idea of an insert was getting two pieces of that awful pink gum in my pack of O-Pee-Chee. Flash forward 20 years and now my collection is filled with autographed cards, memorabilia cards, short-printed inserts, and even a couple 1-of-1 cards. All of these ideas would have been pretty difficult to fathom as a 9-year old living in the year 1990, yet here we are today and we have reached a point where collectors are clamouring for even greater innovations in the hobby. The growth of the hobby in the past twenty years has been remarkable, and it can only lead us to imagine: what is yet to come?
In order to remain relevant and keep the hobby flourishing, card companies will have to find new and exciting innovations to hold collectors’ interests and entice them to continue to spend hard-earned dollars on their products. Some current trends will likely disappear, only to be replaced by others, while some will probably continue and become even more prominent. That said, I do not expect there to be a revolution in sports card products so much as there will be an evolution, much of it based on the concept of survival of the fittest: the best ideas in use today will grow and flourish, while others that turn off collectors will be discontinued and relegated to the dustbin of history. The three key elements of the future in this hobby will be: a re-evaluation of how to use game-used memorabilia, a restriction of the number of products released each year, and the continued relevance of autographed content. Each of these elements will be discussed below, with an analysis of what is and is not working currently, and how that will translate into the future of the hobby.
Game-used memorabilia cards have been a staple of the hobby since the late 1990s. They were an instant smash hit with collectors, who paid top dollars for the initial memorabilia pieces of Lindros, Roy, and other superstars of the day. Since then, memorabilia cards have grown to include skates, pads, gloves, sticks, and more. Yet those cards are reaching a crossroads. They are usually not the major hit in a product, and many fear that collectors are starting to get turned off by abundance of jersey cards in nearly every release. While there is certainly a future for memorabilia cards, the landscape will have to change to make them interesting and desirable to collectors again. I believe that there will be two key new features in the future, and the decline and discontinued practice of some memorabilia.
Recently, one of the licensed hockey card manufacturers, Panini, ran a contest on their blog soliciting ideas from collectors as to what they would like to see in future editions of their low-end Score product. Many of the suggestions were perhaps a little grandiose for what is currently a $1 per pack product, but they could certainly hold water in other releases that are more on the higher end of the hobby spectrum. My own suggestion was to include pieces of a game-used puck as a memorabilia card hit. Puck cards have been included in past releases, and the now-defunct Sweet Shot Puck Signings were very nice aesthetically and had a strong following. By adding a game-used element to the puck cards, manufacturers can add value and interest to a box break.
When you look at an official game-used puck there are definitely opportunities to have some very interesting and highly collectible pieces.
Off the back side of the puck, there are a good 10-12 pieces that could be used which would be a nice visual piece of memorabilia: the NHL Shield, the “Game Puck,” and even NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s facsimile signature. The front side offers, of course, the home team logo and its own interesting pieces. Such premium puck slabs would draw a large premium over a plain black piece in much the same fashion that a 4-colour patch draws more interest than a plain white patch today. I am not well-versed in the art of puck slicing but I would think that it is a relatively simple thing to do compared to chopping up a stick. The pucks themselves are certainly cheaper than a game-used jersey for the card companies to obtain, making them an inviting prospect. Imagine even getting an autographed piece with the signature over top of the team logo – now that is a card that collectors will want to add to their collections!
Currently, many hobbyists are finding that jersey cards are becoming passé. Once a highly-desirable item, the saturation of the market with tiny 1”x1” swatches of nearly every player imaginable has driven down the demand of these cards considerably. A major set checklist such as Upper Deck Game Jerseys will have upwards of 100 cards in each of the product’s two series. That makes for 200 different players featured, at a time when truly only a handful of the cards feature desirable players. I don’t mean to offend any of the players but when a person is spending upwards of $100 on a box and they pull 3rd or 4th line players on both of their memorabilia cards in the box, it is very deflating and ensures that the opener will not be getting a good return on their investment. The downward trend in basic memorabilia cards is something that will likely come to a head in the next few years, and force a major re-evaluation of how and maybe even whether to include them in products.
A possible solution to this negative trend may be found by looking at what In The Game is presently doing with its memorabilia pieces in such products as Superlative and Ultimate Memorabilia. The company uses, in limited numbers, jumbo pieces of memorabilia featuring entire emblems, numbers, and patch tags found on player jerseys.
If this concept were to be expanded it would surely be well-received by hobbyists. Larger swatches means more opportunity for there to be breaks, stitching, and multi-colour sections of the material, which makes for a more desirable card. By allowing for more jaw-dropping patches, collectors will have added incentive to pursue memorabilia cards with a greater intensity than they do at present.
Of course it is not feasible to expect that manufacturers will spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a jersey to use only the prime pieces. Not every product can include an Alberta flag patch from a game-used Jarome Iginla Calgary Flames jersey. Moreover, many collectors like the imagery on their usual hockey cards, and not all want to see a card that only has a piece of memorabilia on it at the expense of including that player’s photo. Of course there is no way to please all of the people all of the time, which is why manufacturers employ a variety of sizes and swatches across product lines to appease most collectors. One thing is for certain, though: collectors do not like getting plain tiny swatches of average NHL players in their products. The status quo will have to change.
One change that I predict for the future is one that will make a lot of collectors happy: the end of manufactured patches. In an era where the manufacturers proclaim to be striving to bring collectors as close to the game as possible, manufactured patches are an anachronism. There is no connection between the player and the collector on a card that uses a piece of material picked out of a bin and glued to the card. Quite possibly the worst use of these cards is featured in Upper Deck Black, a rather high-end product that had some otherwise very nice subsets in the two years that it was produced in hockey. Many of the rookies in the set simply had a manufactured patch letter from their name on the card, while others had autographed versions. In a product that was in excess of $100 per pack that had only two cards and one of them was guaranteed to be a rookie, to include such a card seemed to be a major affront. The only visible benefit was that collectors could make their own personalized name plates using various cards picked up at bargain bin prices.
The practice of manufactured patches was also used, highly ironically, in another high-end Upper Deck product: SP Game Used. This rather highly contradictory move allows for players to sign numbers and letters for numerous sets, and the concept has expanded greatly in recent years to include Nicknames and Nations. The small amount of space to sign these letters makes for a lot of illegible autographs, and the fabric and ink tend to not work well together. The themed cards tailored to individual players in OPC Premier is another high-end manufactured patch set, and many of them are among the least visually-appealing cards in the hobby (see above). Upper Deck is not the only company to use manufactured patches on their cards; they are, however, the only company to use them as a featured hit. ITG’s Ultimate Memorabilia and Superlative Bleu, Blanc, Rouge used manufactured patches…on their base cards. The hits in these products were all game-used and/or autographed content. The use by ITG of manufactured patches is made more tolerable by this fact, but the truth remains that most collectors have a particular disdain for this type of card. I believe that in the short term, these cards will be continue to be used and possibly even proliferate; that Panini has them included in one of their forthcoming products indicates that growth in the use of manufactured patches will occur before any potential contraction.
There is a way that a manufactured patch can be acceptable to the majority of collectors. If it is used as an accent to a card, rather than as its main selling point, it may win over an audience. To refer back to Upper Deck Black, the Pride of a Nation autographs were immensely attractive cards because of the sleek design and the incorporation of a country’s flag on the card to go along with a nice hard-signed autograph. The key to a successful manufactured patch card, so it seems, is to either have it as a non-hit (ie. a base card) or in conjunction with another aspect of the hobby that collectors like (ie. an autograph or a game-used piece). A card with a small Montreal Canadiens logo and a Carey Price autograph is something that would work for me personally. That said, I still believe that the future does not look good for manufactured patch cards in the hobby.
Change is crucial to keeping products fresh and relevant among collectors. If sets become too predictable or reliant on past successes, they will drop in interest. In order for memorabilia cards to regain their popularity, it is clear that change must be in the offing.
Contraction is a word that often hovers around the hockey market. The inability of some markets to sufficiently support an NHL franchise and keep it viable has led to a lot of discussion about whether the League has become too bloated. With 30 teams, the talent pool is somewhat diluted, and there are franchises that will seemingly never have a legitimate opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup. Relocation is a preferred option, though one to be strenuously avoided if at all possible, as surely there is a place out there somewhere that these franchises can survive.
The same concept applies to the hockey card market. With a combined 22 releases among the licensed manufacturers and a further seven in the offing this year from ITG, hockey collectors are constantly under siege from new releases. The first five weeks of the 2010-11 season saw five releases: Certified, Artifacts, Score, Upper Deck Series One, and Ultimate Memorabilia. This is simply too much for most collectors to handle. The deluge of products has caused some major player collectors to throw up their hands and drastically claw back on the scope and scale of their collecting intentions. These are collectors that have been maintaining collections for several years now, and even they cannot keep up the pace. While it is of course true that a collector does not have to have everything, a collector has to have everything!
While the hobby was very wise to recalibrate itself after the massive overproduction era that was the 1990s, it has done so in a way that makes the saturation of the market wider rather than deeper. Rather than having a small number of sets with innumerable parallels and sky-high print runs, today we are at a point where there are a large number of sets with medium-high print runs. The high number of sets means that manufacturers have to produce a slate of hits for every product, which leads to the problem of saturation of memorabilia cards that I have already discussed. A Wayne Gretzky autograph used to be a rare sighting and a difficult pull. The Great One is now included in nearly every Upper Deck release that features autographs. The problem in the past was that there were too many of each card; today’s problem is that there are too many different cards.
Nowhere is this issue more readily apparent than when look at rookie cards. While there may have been several thousand Martin Brodeur Score RCs back in 1991, today’s freshman will have up to 22 different rookie cards, each with a print run ranging from 99 up to (speculative) 5000. Add in the numerous parallels and other rookie-year cards, and the totals probably come pretty close to matching the numbers from the days of yore. While there are certainly staple rookie cards like the Young Guns, SP Authentic Future Watch, and more recently The Cup from Upper Deck, would anybody be truly heartbroken if they could no longer add a Be A Player or Artifacts RC to their collection? It is still too early in Panini’s hockey card career to say which cards will stand up as being must-haves and which will be afterthoughts; regardless, it is certain that at some point in the future the NHL and NHLPA will have to enforce some form of hard cap on the manufacturers to restrict the market to some degree.
What, then, is the ideal number of product releases, and how do the companies get to that point without having to make drastic cuts to their product lines that result in losing some signature subsets? How can the companies both contract and relocate without creating bloated sets out of what survives? This is certainly a matter up for some debate. In order to attract youths to the hobby—critically important if the hobby is to perpetuate itself—there must be variety among the low-end sets. In order to retain the established high-end collectors there must be a variety of super-premium products containing super-premium cards. The cuts, then, will have to come in the middle-range products. Fortunately there is a lot of fertile ground in this area. This season there are 11 releases per licensed manufacturer, plus the other seven by ITG. For each of the licensees, their 11 products have 2 entry-level products and 2 high-end products, leaving 7 sets in the middle price range. Ideally, and this is solely my own opinion, this number could be reduced to 4. Pick the four best-sellers, drop the other three, and where possible seek to incorporate what made the other three releases moderately successful.
By streamlining the product release schedule, the manufacturers will be able to space out the products and give collectors a chance to catch their respective breath. They will have more opportunity to dedicate themselves to creating superior products, including having fewer redemptions when the releases go live, and reduce some of the clutter that rests for months at a time in collectors’ traders boxes. With fewer releases, there will be fewer rookie cards, fewer autographs, fewer memorabilia pieces, and fewer inserts and parallels. Demand will be sustained by having only the best of the best sets, and the hits will hold a greater meaning. If a collector is an Upper Deck-only collector, they will have 8 great rookie cards to pursue instead of having to concern themselves with chasing a glut of cards like they did during the 2008-09 season. If they chose to focus on Panini’s products, their 8 releases will leave them satisfied without worrying about missing a set or two. And if a collector doesn’t discriminate, 16 rookies is much more manageable than 22. There are of course drawbacks to cutting back on releases: cuts can be painful, there will be less revenue, and some collectors will be displeased if their favourite product gets cut. The 07-08 lineup was the last year to feature the Hot Prospects series, and even today some collectors still lament its loss. However, the good will outweigh the bad, and there is always the possibility of annual product rotation, in which certain sets may be run every second year. This approach would allow some niche sets to still surface while giving a sense of freshness instead of simply churning out the same products each and every season. For that reason alone, contraction is an idea that should be explored in the hobby’s future.
Many years ago, one of the great joys of my childhood was getting my cards autographed in person by the players. Every year in Penticton, B.C. (best known as the home of Norris Trophy winner and Stanley Cup Champion Duncan Keith), Boston Bruins goalie Andy Moog had a golf tournament in the summer that would have several NHL players in attendance. For a youngster, getting to not only meet my hockey heroes but also get their signatures on my cards was a really cool experience. Moog himself actually had a condo that was right around the corner from my childhood home. It was a regular thing for him, I’m sure, to have kids show up at his door with handfuls of cards to sign – and he always did sign them all. Years later when Moog had a brief stint with the Canadiens, I treasured those IP autos all the greater.
It did not take long for the card manufacturers to realize that including autographs in their products was a great incentive. The early super-rare Patrick Roy, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky autos in products like Score and Upper Deck hinted at the future. By the end of the 1990s autographed cards had become a staple of the hobby. Nearly all major releases would have autographed content in them, and the early cards fetched a major premium. To this date, a Maurice Richard signature commands at least $50 (for the relatively easy to obtain Beehive 5×7) and the harder-to-find cards can go for much more than that. While The Rocket lives on in current sets thanks to cut signatures, those handful of cards signed during his life are certainly special items in anybody’s collection.
What is it about an autographed card that makes it so valuable to collectors? They have certainly surpassed nearly any memorabilia card in terms of popularity. In talking to a lot of collectors about the autographs v. memorabilia issue, it is really very simple as to explain why: the players have either held the card in their hands and personally signed it, or done so with the sticker sheet. The problems involving memorabilia cards and the certainty of their legitimacy as to being “game worn” are well known – error cards have been a part of the hobby since jersey cards were introduced. With few-and-far-between exceptions (mostly on sticker auto cards), that problem does not apply to autograph cards. We know with certainty that a hard-signed John Tavares hockey card was held by John Tavares. Much like the days of our youth and chasing down in-person autographs, knowing this brings us closer to the players and therefore to the game. That is a powerful sentiment for collectors and cannot be understated.
There are, of course, some concerns involving autographed cards in the hobby today: redemptions, oversaturation, sticker autos, and signature quality are the main drawbacks to their inclusion in product releases. They are all issues that can be resolved, fortunately.
Redemptions are quite possibly the most reviled feature of the hobby today. There are fewer things more frustrating than breaking open a box and seeing in one of your packs that dreaded white card. Even if it is a name that you recognize and have good reason to believe will be produced, having to wait that much longer is not something that many collectors want to do. Rather than redeem it themselves they will sell it and allow the redemption process to become someone else’s problem. The redemption backlash reached a climax with last season’s “Mystery Redemptions” featured in SP Authentic. Collectors expected these dual autographs to spotlight superstar pairings; the redemption cards reached a peak of $100 on eBay to reflect this interest. When Upper Deck later announced that the player selection would mostly be mid-range players similar to those featured in the single Sign of the Times set, collectors were furious. Some ended up with good pairings, but most got the likes of Jason Arnott or Mark Fistric on their cards. That’s not intended as a slag against Arnott or Fistric, but there is no chance that either of these players would attract even half of the value as what people were paying for the mystery cards. Collectors have disliked redemptions for a long time with good reason, be it a long wait or even worse, the all-too-regular occurrence of a card not ever being made at all. The replacement process is often fair, but not something that should have to be undertaken in the first place.
Part of the problem when it comes to redemptions is the oversaturation of the market with autographed content. Players have only so much time during their season to sign cards, and the numerous other demands on their time leave for a limited window of opportunity. Even if the unsigned cards are sent to the players weeks or months in advance, there still may not be the time or desire on their part to sign them all and return them in time for the product’s release. Rookies have an especially large pile of cards to sign, particularly the more popular freshmen that are featured in every set. When you consider the following: 999 cards for SP Authentic, up to 799 for SPx, up to 1299 for Certified, and many more for subsets and other products, rookies have a tremendous burden to bear. Given how RC-driven the hockey card market is, a lot is dependent upon them getting the cards signed and returned in a timely fashion. If a major rookie becomes a problem child getting card back on time, that will have a severe negative impact on the product. Even the veterans have arguably too many cards on the market. Sidney Crosby is now in his fifth NHL season and has over 300 autographed cards. While many may be short-printed and while demand for the NHL’s poster boy remains sky-high, imagine how much more valuable those cards would be if he were not included in every release. By that same token, of course, imagine how less popular those releases would be if they deliberately omitted Crosby from the checklist. As suggested in the previous section about contraction, perhaps the opportunity for a middle ground exists if there were fewer product releases. With fewer sets on the market, there would be fewer autographed cards on the market thereby allowing demand to increase, and bring values up with it.
Connected with the contraction concept is the reduction and possibly even elimination of sticker autographs. Sticker autographs are something that is tolerated within the hobby as they do help minimize redemptions. If a player only does two or three autograph signing sessions per season, the stickers allow the companies to feature that player in a multitude of releases without having to worry about them getting cards from different sets back on time. That said, sticker autographs are still nowhere near as desirable as hard-signed autographs, in part because there is a level of separation between the player and the collector. The player never held that card, so it does not have the same “as close to the players as possible” sentiment. The other part of the equation is the propensity for errors, most notably the stickers being applied upside-down on the cards. It is something that has happened to cards of the most common player all the way up to Wayne Gretzky. This is something that cannot happen with a hard-signed signature, and the lack of attention to detail when it comes to quality controlling sticker auto products is one driving reason that I hope and believe that they will someday be far less prominent in the hobby.
Often times, the player is as much to blame for such things as an upside-down sticker autograph as the person quality controlling the product. This is due to the lack of care and effort that some players put into their signature. The days of Jean Beliveau-quality signatures are definitely a thing of the past; I cannot think of a single current player that has a signature as crisp, clean, and full as that of Le Gros Bill. Again, I refer back to the saturation of the market with the volume of content. If a player has to sign several hundred cards at a time, eventually the quality of their signature will deteriorate. Compare and contrast these two Carey Price autographs.
The first is one of his earliest releases. The second is the result of three years of being included in every single autographed set imaginable. The quality of Price’s signatures has since bounced back (much like his on-ice play) since that mid 2009-10 season release, but it goes to show just how quickly a player’s signature can decline in quality. There are many well-known poor signers in the NHL. It would be beneficial to collectors, the companies, and the players if somebody were to take these players aside and instill in them a sense of pride in their name. This is not a call for every player to sign every letter of their name on every signature; rather, it is an expression of a belief that two lines and a squiggle is not something that collectors want to have included in their collections.
Unlike the sweeping changes I predict for the other two concepts discussed in this article, the changes needed in autographed content are mostly cosmetic. The cards are, and will be, central to the hobby and its continued success. Nothing brings a player closer to a fan than an autograph, and nothing is more desirable to a fan than to have their hockey hero’s signature. By reducing sticker content, improving quality control, and encouraging the players to put more pride into their autographs, hockey cards will remain at the forefront of this hobby for years to come.
Recently I wrote about the dawn of a new era in hockey card collecting, due to the end of the Upper Deck Exclusive and arrival of Panini on the scene. The hobby is already adjusting to its new reality, and there is much more to come. The early-season inclusion of autographed memorabilia cards of the hottest rookies was a stellar first impression, and it will up the ante for the manufacturers to make cards that collectors want in order to increase their market share. Staid products and complacency are not options for either company if they want to remain at the forefront of collectors’ buying choices.
In the coming years, we will be treated a number of innovations and evolutions in current content. I expect to see new and interesting uses of memorabilia cards, fewer products resulting in fewer redemptions and increased emphasis on the product lines that work, and the continued central role of autographed cards. These are not the only items on the agenda for discussion. Everything from parallels to print runs to rookies to inserts are under constant scrutiny, and surely there will be ongoing evaluations of all of these items and their relevance to collectors. However, to bring real bang to a collector’s buck, the three major agenda items discussed here are front-burner issues, and deserve to have a spotlight shined upon them to stimulate discussion and put the onus on card manufacturers to deliver change that people want in the hobby.
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