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?