Are trading cards cool again?

I wrote a little about the Fanatics takeover when it happened but for the most part I’ve shied away from speculating about what will happen. Too many unknowns and the transition is too far way. I did do one interview about the collectors’ viewpoint and how people are attached to the brand, but as someone for whom the investing/speculation side of things is uninteresting at best and aggressively boring at worst,* there’s been little that I felt like adding to the conversation.

*One of the things I love about SABR Baseball Cards is our editorial focus on cards as objects we use and how they inform our understanding and appreciation of baseball. Questions of value are only of interest as they relate to budgeting purchases and don’t drive any of the posts on the blog.

Last week though, Josh Luber posted a long read about how Trading Cards are Cool Again* which made me rethink a lot of my positioning. Luber joined Fanatics in September as “Co-Founder and Chief Vision Officer” of the trading card division so his post can only be seen as a statement of intent about what his vision for the future of cards is.

*Heads up, it’s super long.

That vision is incredibly dire and has effectively removed any of the cautious optimism I had about the takeover. My optimism was couched in the fact that Fanatics as a brand has been about making merchandise available to fans of all teams at all times. This is something I would love to apply to cards as well. As a parent I’d love my kids to be able to access cards whenever they’ve saved enough allowance to make a purchase. And as a collector I’d like to be able to buy cards when I want them and not have to make a snap decision in the days after a new product ships.

Luber’s post though doesn’t touch on any of Fanatics’ core competencies and instead focuses on the world that Luber knows. Specifically sneakerheads and the current speculative world that trading cards occupies. There’s a ton of information* about the shape of the secondary market, how it’s behaved over the past couple of years, and what kind of events have influenced it. I actually enjoy the graphs and the way they highlight inflection points with stimulus payouts and other external events.

*Many people have legit quibbles with the data and how it includes known shill bidding and other market manipulation but in a general sense, Luber’s point doesn’t require bulletproof data.

I appreciate the way he’s able to articulate the values of the sneakerheads and explain what kinds of products they find valuable. What makes something hot and desirable and what can kill that buzz. How the hype is a feedback loop that can multiply the excitement around a product so it becomes even more valuable on the secondhand market.

The problem though is that this is clearly all that Luber cares about. He claims to love cards but he actually loves slabs and the way they can be flipped. He wants to create a “sustainable” market where cards are rare enough to drive flip opportunities and create excitement through ever-increasing values* but there’s never an acknowledgment about how the product itself can have value. He’s able to compare sneakers to trading cards because he doesn’t care that a shoe can be good or bad based on how it protects your foot and holds up over time. Or that a trading card can be desirable because of what it is not what it’s worth.

*Yes, “sustainable.” We all know that value is never always up and to the right and peddling that lie is a total scam. 

Which is why I’m now massively pessimistic about the Fanatics takeover. For the Chief Vision Officer of the endeavor to come out the gate with a vision that never sees cards as products is a huge red flag. He wants to manipulate the market but doesn’t care at all about the actual quality of the product. There’s no admission that a lot of people collect cards because they want to own cards. There’s no recognition that at the end of the hot potato value cycle, someone has to desire the product because of what it actually is.

Give me a vision of cards that talks about how they touch the history of the game. How they connect generations of fans. How they get kids excited for the new season. How they allow middle-aged men to enjoy the therapeutic  elements of a quick rip and sort. How they’ll enhance our enjoyment of the games and bring us closer to the players.

There’s so much that a baseball card can be as a product. Limiting them to a moneymaking asset is such a disappointment.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

10 thoughts on “Are trading cards cool again?”

  1. Baseball cards aren’t meant to be “cool,” they’re meant to be nostalgic, worthless pieces of cardboard for dorks who love baseball and want a piece of their childhood back for a short moment.

  2. The people who are now in it for the money drive will eventually move on to the next thing. It’s the type of people they are. I really don’t see this boom sticking around longer than a few years.

    1. In many ways the best possible outcome at this point is for Topps/Panini to do exactly what Luber says not to do and intentionally torpedo the market before Fanatics takes over.

  3. thanks for sharing the article, and your thoughts of course. I agree with you, and am especially dubious of cards being sustainable as purely investment commodities. that said, I do wonder if maybe the industry is heading for a split: products for speculators and investors, contrasted against products that are meant for collectors with no real investment future. I don’t know exactly how that might work – we all enjoy pulling an auto or a rare parallel from time to time, so removing that aspect entirely from the collectors side of the equation seems like a sacrifice we shouldn’t have to make. but at the end of the day, if we just want some cards more or less on demand of the players and teams we connect, I can’t help but think there has to be a divorce from those who are gambling/investing, and those of us that just want to have some fun.

    1. I’d argue that the split between accumulative guys and speculative guys has already happened. Began in the late 1980s but has only increased and widened with time—in part because whenever they compete for the same products they end up hating each other. I do think there’s room for both camps but distinguishing between those two requires the card companies to design products for each of them.

      1. agreed, and that was what I was trying to get at – will the companies catch up and design and market completely different products for both markets? what will they look like, how will it work? because I think that might be the only way. even if they did this though, like you say, it will still probably suck. sigh.

  4. My gut is telling me the Fanatics thing is gonna be a disaster for all parties involved – it’ll price the longtime collector out of the hobby, and eventually the bubble will burst and all the “sneakerheads” will eke their way out of the hobby ’cause there’s no money left to be made. I really hope I’m wrong on any and all of this, but I’m scared. Nothing left to do but cross my fingers and knock on wood.

    1. Yuuuup. I was cautiously optimistic before Luber posted that but now I’m fully in the “it’s going to suck” camp. It’s not just that it’ll price the longtime collector out of the hobby but that there’s not going to be anything worth collecting even if the price were right.

  5. Reading the words “drive flip opportunities” makes me sad. The hobby has always had peaks and valleys. I’m glad that I’ve hoarded enough cards over the years that I can enjoy sorting and organizing stuff for a lifetime… or at least until the next hobby valley when everyone starts dumping their collections again ;D

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