I read a very interesting article <link> that reader Jason left in a comment.  Th article had some interesting figures, the article states that the industry peaked in 1991 with sales of 1.1 billion dollars.  In comparison, by the turn of the century, the sales had slipped to $400 million, last year, sales hit a dismal $200 million.  I say dismal because in truth, for the amount of money spent on contracts and autographs and exclusivity deals, the numbers just don’t add up.

Now throw in the decline of the hobby shop.  Once a business that was 5000 + shops strong, has been reduced to only roughly 500 now countrywide.  Businesses used to pull in $10,000 to $13,000 a month with expenses being around $1000 to $2000 a month.  Now one hobby shop says that they don’t even do a $100 a month in cards.  The most out of control the industry got was in 1994 when dealers were making $3000 a month, but the product was costing them $5000 a month.

A look into the baseball card heyday 1988 – 1992 reveals some interesting things. First off packs of cards were cheaper.  You could buy a box of 24 – 36 packs for only $20 – $30.  Second, there weren’t as many sets.  Sure there were tons of manufacturers, but each manufacturer only had one set.  Thus is was less confusing for the collector to collect every card that year.  Then 1994 rolled around and up sprouted multiple releases from each company.  Collectors didn’t have the means to collect every card released that year.  Cards started getting short printed, autographs start to make an appearance.  By 1997, the decline is on in full swing as card companies try to include pieces of jerseys to entice prospective buyers.  It worked, but not the way the card companies hoped for.  It made the hobby for adults only, an investment for the upper class.  Now, base cards are nearly throw aways, it’s all about the mighty hit.

In 2011 if the trend continues, sales will hit between $125 – $150 million.  They won’t bring back products if it gets much lower than that as you are starting to eat into profits.  So what is the industry going to do?  What should they do?  If I ran Topps, I would start to make cards for the masses again. Three sets, the base Topps set (which contains chrome parallels and inserts), one Bowman set (which would also contain chrome inserts), and Allen and Ginter (which can contain heritage cards as inserts).  Make it simple for the collector.  Will it be possible to make a master set (since you would have to have 20 insert sets to make it profitable)? It will be possible, but people are going to buy lots of boxes to try to do it.  Make the boxes cheap, there is no reason to charge more than $40 a box.  Forget about the relics and autographs, give the collector what the collector wants, less sets to have to save for.

If the companies don’t start scaling down their product lines there will not be much to the hobby after 2011.  There is just too much stuff out there, make it about the design (like it always was before 1991), not the fillers.  Make it for the kids, to carry the hobby on.  Let’s face it, in 20 years a lot of the core collectors will be in their 60s and at that point we won’t be thinking of baseball cards (or maybe we will who knows), of course that’s even if they still make baseball cards.  I do hope that Michael Eisner and Topps can figure this out because we are really at a critical juncture in the hobby.  Go down the familiar road and make less money, or take the less familiar road, and possibly save the hobby.

I hope they make the right choice.  What is your feeling about the hobby?

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12 responses »

  1. Kevin says:

    totally agree, I don’t buy boxes or packs anymore, just towles cards or cards i like. I think that a lot other people will do this since boxes are too much $$$ and you need to open like 3 to complete the set.

  2. Durkadurr says:

    Short answer: No. There will still be a market in 2011.

    Longer answer: No, because I believe there will always be a market. It wouldn’t shock me if a few companies closed, but if it’s only, for example, two companies fighting over a $200 million dollar market, I think there’s some profit in there.
    Yes, there likely will be some serious attrition over the next couple of years. I predict at least one of Topps/UD/Panini get bought out or go bust. But a market will still be out there for profit.

    However, if the numbers keep trending the way they do, by 2020-30 the card market will likely disappear or be so tiny that you can only get one or two sets online direct from the manufacturer.

  3. Mike says:

    Going into a hobby shop is kinda painful sometimes. You just feel bad if you buy supplies and a random pack or two because hobby boxes are just too inflated compared to online prices. Maybe when the economy picks up I can do some more with local shops, but right now it just doesn’t make sense.

    The short-print sets just kill me. WAY too difficult to gather.

  4. Gellman says:

    This again? Cmon, I thought we dumped this “Less products equals better sales” junk. Its complete crap, especially when making sets only for the lower end collector means that you cut out about 70% of the buyers who spend tons of money on high end.

    Baseball set collectors have more of a presence than in any other sport, but marketing to them makes no sense when the products they buy dont generate the majority of your business.

    • chemgod says:

      Gellman I have to disagree with you, even if there is a market for the high end stuff, which is getting killed by the way, in a few years there will be no use for it except on the secondary market. Go back to basics, go back to what made kids want to collect cards. No kid is going to get mom and dad to drop 70 bucks on a box of cards, and no kid is going to buy 10 – 20 blasters at 20 bucks a pop to try and complete the set. The future of this industry is the kids, without having someone to continually get hooked on the hobby, the hobby will die out. When I retire and I’m pulling in Social Security (maybe), I’m not rushing out to by UD Black for a group break. No I’ll be done with the hobby when the money runs out. Truthfully I’m done with it now, I make my own cards and mail them out TTM which means a hell of a lot more to me.

      Four simple words will define how the hobby does in the next few years:
      No Kids No Hobby!

  5. Shaun says:

    I remember how much fun opening packs that were intended for kids only back in the day. UD’s Collector’s Choice was a brilliant set when it first came out. It featured unique designs (unlike first edition), was loaded with subsets, and had great inserts too. It also had contests which drove you to follow the game. I never cared much for the Dallas Stars, but I got contest card that I could redeem for a special set if Mike Modano scored a goal in a particular game. I was happy as a clam when I saw him score that goal on TV. There are absolutely no low end card sets that provide that much enjoyment today. Today’s low end sets are just unimaginative. If kids never fall in love with the joy of opening up packs, they will never buy the higher end stuff when they have the income to do so.

  6. Bill says:

    This was highlighted in a recent SI issue which chronicled the history of UD, along with the ’89 Junior Rookie….great read, not sure when it came out, but it was in the last few issues for sure, you may be able to find it on SI.com

  7. lfjoseph says:

    You see with Gellman, these are the people who killed the hobby. High end collectors that have no idea what collecting was in the late 80’s early 90’s. If you look at the decline it is due in large part to the success of bigger, better relics, auto’s and short prints, those in part were not around in the late 80’s early 90’s. The companies will never go back to that time, it is over, but until collectors relize that you pay over 100.00 for card board which was once .25 a pack reality might set in for companies to keep it simple. But until then bust old junk wax.

  8. will says:

    well crap i must be weird.. i like autos and relics … i agree about the base cards … i like base cards , the photography and player collectors need base cards .. i hate watching youtube videos of guys totally not even acknowledging base cards when doing a break … wow wtf..

  9. mtcards says:

    Speculation. There were not many industries at all whose sales were not down last year, the economy had more to do with sales than did product aspects.

    The problem as I have stated before is the fact that the explosion of cards was driven by money hungry individuals who did not appreciate the collector value, but only the monetary value. Unfortunately, THOSE are still the people who spend the most money. The little 12 year old who spends $10 a year is not fiscally worth it anymore, sad but true.

    Take away Beckett, Craigslist, eBay or the number of dozens of other sites and go without some kind of “Book” and you will see that card should be collectibles, not investments or profit

  10. Jason says:

    Completely agree about kids being the future of the hobby. I think it was mentioned before, but when I (used to) go to shows, I felt relatively young even though I was in my 30s. Most of the guys there were 50+. There were NO kids anywhere besides the few that were drug there with their parents! What’s the hobby going to looks like 10…20…years from now?

    I still buy cards on ebay…but only cards I was unable to find when I was younger….misc 1970s, 80s, and 90s. I stopped buying heavily in the late 90s when the price of packs and the numerous sets drove me away.

    Maybe Topps could do giveaways at ballgames? The first thousand kids get a free box of Topps?

    BTW, my most favorite set all time is 1984 and 85 Donruss. No inserts. Great design.

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