The Economics of Player Collecting
By Richard McAdam aka RGM81
Approximately twenty-two times per year, I have the great joy of doing my initial run-through of a new hockey product’s checklist. While the search begins as a general scan for various subsets and players of general interest, it does not take long for me to get to the main purpose of the checklist search and utilize the Crtl+F function on my web browser/Excel to look for two particular names. This is the routine of many player collectors, I am sure, to scout out just what Upper Deck/Panini/In The Game have in store for us in the newest release. My eyes light up when I see one of the names (so it goes when it’s a #4 defenceman) and depending on how many times I see the other name I am either content or a little concerned. When you collect the most popular and thus most expensive active goaltender in the hobby today, you hope for balance.
When the cards inevitably reach the market, I generally have an idea in mind as to how much it is going to cost me and what the actual market values will be for these two players. After three-plus years of collecting, it gets to the point where I know what constitutes a fair price for an autograph or memorabilia card of my two main collected players. When you have purchased as many of them as I have, you do not just help set the market; indeed, sometimes you are the market. There are some anomalies and semi-regular price adjustments, but over time you attach a figure in your mind as to what you are willing to pay for a particular type of card. This is one of the many positives that player collectors bring to the hobby: they play a central role in establishing a trend in market values for the players that they collect.
Because I collect two players that are at opposite ends of the hobby spectrum, there are really two stories to tell here. The first story is about the super-popular player and going to whatever lengths are necessary to acquire the cards that you want. The second story is about the niche player, the guy that does not have a huge following but for whom you truly have a large hand in establishing that player’s card values. There are certain areas which overlap, but in many ways they are two very different tales to tell.
Collecting a very popular player brings with it a special set of challenges that are somewhat unique in the hobby. These challenges include, but are not limited to: intense competition, selectivity, and seasonal spikes in prices.
Whenever a checklist is released there will inevitably be a certain card or number of cards that virtually any of the player’s followers will key in on as a primary focus to acquire. If it is a particularly short-printed card, some will file the card as “it’s nice to dream” while others will make a decidedly concerted effort to acquire the card at all costs. Because all collectors are on a different budget, where you stand on a particular card will often depend on where your bankroll sits. We all have to be realistic with our budgeting, and when it comes to an incredibly popular player, we must have often have Jedi-like instincts and train ourselves to let go of everything we fear to lose. While we all know that we will never be able to acquire every card of the player we collect, there are some truly amazing cards that we feel that we must have to set our collection apart from others. The problem here is that the others also feel the same way. So when we see something like 2010-11 SP Authentic Sign of The Times Duals Carey Price/P.K. Subban on a checklist, we know immediately two things: 1. “I have to have it!” and 2. “Everybody is going to want that card.” Supply and demand are such that initial sales of this card featuring hard-signed signatures of the two most popular current Montreal Canadiens approached $200 on eBay. It will be some time until prices settle down to make this card attainable for many collectors.
To return to the theme of letting go, another unique challenge for player collectors of extremely popular players is the knowledge that there are going to be huge numbers of cards released every season. One only needs to look at the SCF Inventory System to see that Sidney Crosby has averaged nearly 400 cards every year since 2007-08. Given “The Kid’s” popularity and overwhelming demand, even obtaining 25% of these cards each year is a notable feat. As such, a collector must be selective when deciding to pursue the cards of that favourite player. If you make autographs a primary focus of your collection, you simply cannot allow yourself to get bogged down shelling out $8 here, $12 there, or a few decent traders to get inserts and parallels. Sure, these additions boost the quantity in your collection, but they do so at the expense of quality additions. You need to remain focused on the big picture of your collecting goals, and try to minimize the number of sub-optimal acquisitions in order to use your hobby budget to get the cards you truly want and will want to show off in a show & tell thread.
While the hobby’s top performers can always be relied upon to sell strongly, there are certain times when they sell even stronger. A hot streak, reaching a certain milestone, and a strong playoffs run are but three things that can cause a spike in sales prices. Last year at this time, Carey Price was riding the pine during the Canadiens’ deepest playoffs run in 17 years. While some cards were still doing well on the secondary market, things generally were in a real funk, which was something of a blessing for those collectors that remained loyal to him. When there was a lot of talk that Price might be traded out of Montreal, his card values reached their nadir. And then Carey Price went out and had one of the best statistical seasons for a goalie in Montreal’s history. Price’s card sales continually increased throughout the year, his hobby hotness reaching almost the same level as his rookie campaign. Not only were sceptical collectors fully back on board, he was now attracting new collectors as well. Whereas last year you could get a hard-signed autograph card for $20-$25, by the end of this season initial sales of similar cards (i.e. SP Authentic Sign of the Times) were doubling those numbers. Price has once again established himself at the top of the hobby food chain when it comes to active goaltenders, and if he maintains his performance levels from this year collectors will continue to pay premium prices for his premium cards.
That is the story for player collectors of the game’s most prolific athletes. What about the guys on the other end of the hobby spectrum, the niche players that have no less dedicated followers, even if they are in fewer numbers? For these players and their collectors, the challenge is different than it is for the superstar collectors. Some areas that have to be considered are: maintaining pricing structure, motivation, and keeping resources available for procurement.
Earlier I touched on the concept of not just setting the market for a player, but actually being the market for a player. For a role player, there are often only a handful of dedicated people that will focus their attention on his cards. As such, these people determine what constitutes a fair price for particular cards of this player. Knowing that there are only a certain number of high-end cards out there, and having acquired many of them, there is a tendency to establish a pricing structure for any given card. If I paid X dollars for a 1-of-1 The Cup Black Rainbow—considered the pinnacle of a player’s high-end rookie-year cards unless they have a shield card—that is likely going to be the ceiling for any purchase of any given card. If I paid Y dollars for a 2009-10 Upper Deck High Gloss #’d /10, if somebody comes along and expects Y+20 dollars for the 2010-11 version they are likely to be sorely disappointed. Most fellow traders will not take this approach when they know that they have a very nice card that a player collector wants, and will be very helpful in contributing to the collection, but there are those that think they can extort a very high price by preying on the collector’s interest in getting as many cards as possible of that player. If we hold close to our pricing structure, we can usually find another copy out there to keep the percentages high. There are of course limitations to this; fellow SCF member 30ranfordfan describes a situation in which a Bill Ranford/Bernie Nicholls 1/1 patch card was lost forever: “I lost out on a parallel version of that same card – the 1/1 version – because a Nicholls collector felt that spending more than $200 was a good idea, and I didn’t.” I can understand this sentiment, as there is a Josh Gorges card out there that has a much too-high price tag for my liking, and so it remains out of my grasp.
Because the role player is not a superstar, he is often overlooked in product checklists by the card manufacturers. It is unlikely that he will be featured in a high-end product and a certainty that he will not appear in The Cup beyond his rookie year. He may only see cards in the larger sets like Upper Deck 1 and 2, Score, and O-Pee-Chee, and even then it will only be a base card and whatever parallels are produced. When the guy you like only gets a dozen cards per year, and you are able to get them all quickly and cheaply, you will find that you can go weeks or even months without a new addition to your collection. For some, this can result in frustration and a lack of desire to continue the collection – and when that happens, you may find that you are stuck with those cards because you cannot find a trade partner to unload the collection upon. We see this happen pretty regularly in fact. Unless you have a very solid reason for collecting a role player, some sort of attachment that is deeper than “he seems cool, and he’s cheap!” it is not advisable to collect his cards.
If you are not concerned about losing motivation for your favourite role player, one thing that is always on our minds is when the next white whale will surface. There is always “that card” that you kick yourself over for not buying right away when the product came out, and then you don’t see another copy for two years. You know that because of set builders, team collectors, and others who may have a passing interest in a high-end card of the player, you are going to pay dearly for it. It is just part of the game; my friend HammerHawks, who presently needs one card for a complete Niklas Hjalmarsson collection, puts it like this: “If it [the elusive card] ever pops up, money is not an object. If I am able to pay for it, I will. No questions asked.” For me, because the majority of my hobby dollars go to acquiring new Carey Price cards as they steadily stream out on to the market, there is usually not a lot kept in reserve for my short Josh Gorges want list when a card makes an appearance. I will usually sell off a few things to cover the purchase, but it does impact my other collecting for a short period. Wherever possible I try to make a fair offer up front to secure the card, but if it goes to an auction or a bidding war, I am faced with the choice of sticking to my guns about my pricing structure or overpaying to secure a card I fear I will not see again for a long time.
Player collecting is a very rewarding aspect of the hobby. While we all have favourite teams, collecting the cards of our favourite players brings a great amount of fun to our hobby. Scouring trade lists for new cards, opening up the mail for the latest arrival, these are the moments that make the hobby worth while. The financial aspect of player collecting can sometimes be daunting, as players that are hugely popular around the League can inspire a lot of competition that drives up prices, while those niche players give us some relief and help bring structure to our collecting methods. Ultimately, money plays a big role in our collections, but it is the passion that is the real value.
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