200608040249Neilalien rounds up a bunch of recent links that paint a sad picture of the decline of the sports card industry.

Slate: Requiem for a rookie card

… this was my old stash. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of baseball cards from the 1980s. Puckett, Henderson, Sandberg, Gwynn, and McGwire stared back at me with fresh faces. So long, old friends, I thought. It’s time for me to cash in on these long-held investments. I started calling the lucky card dealers who would soon be bidding on my trove.

First, I got a couple of disconnected numbers for now-defunct card shops. Not a good sign. Then I finally reached a human. “Those cards aren’t worth anything,” he told me, declining to look at them.

“Maybe if you had, like, 20 McGwire rookie cards, that’s something we might be interested in,” another offered.

The Washington Times: Baseball card industry retrenches

Not so long ago, baseball cards were the sun of the sports memorabilia universe. Kids couldn’t get enough of them. Grownups treated them like shares of Microsoft, with hot-blooded rookie card speculation forming sort of an early version of day trading. Hotel ballrooms from coast to coast were booked with card conventions.
Those days are gone, left in the wreckage of a baseball card crash that in the last month has claimed Fleer and Donruss as players in the industry.
Both companies were major pioneers, helping to break a 30-year monopoly held by Topps Corp. and usher in an expansive new era in collecting that saw the introduction of holograms and bits of game-used jerseys and bats in card packs. But a perfect storm involving an oversupply of card releases, out-of-sync pricing at retail and flagging fan demand prompted a $1.2 billion industry in its go-go days of the early ’90s to collapse to less than $270 million in projected revenues this year.

Read ’em all and weep.


  1. A few years back I had to clean out my old room when my parents were moving, and I tried to sell my old baseball card collection to a local card/comic retailer. In return for my entire collection (hundreds if not thousands of cards), I think I ended up with enough store credit to trade for ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY #3 and a copy of Larry Young’s TRUE FACTS.

  2. I don’t weep one bit for the trading card industry.

    In the 1980s and early 1990s, both veteran and upstart publishers alike overproduced and overpriced their product on an artificial tidal wave of speculation that was as phoney as a three-dollar bill. Like some vast collectable pyramid scheme, the growth only lasted as long as the public perception that the these cards being produced by the billions had some intrinsic value beyond that of a baseball fan’s desire to have images of his/her favorite sports hero.

    By the early 1990s, however, as more and more fans and speculators tried to cash in their trading card “stocks” only to find that dealers weren’t even paying a penny on the dollar, price-guide-valuewise, for 99.9 percent of this vast sea of mostly worthless paper, the bottom started to fall out of the hobby. And like any economic crash, the cold reality of the situation spread pretty fast.

    There was a similar such speculator feeding frenzy in the comic book business, but not quite of the same scale. I think the saving grace for the comics business was that many people actually had a use for the material other than pure speculation — i.e., they read them for enjoyment.

    Still, by the late 1990s, the results of the speculation boom transformed both the card industry and comics industry in one chillingly negative manner. In short, the speculation-fueled price increases almost wiped out the demographic that for decades had been the core demographic for both industries: Eight- to 14-year-olds.

    Since 1968, the cost of comics have increased at a rate that is about four times the rate of inflation. For the trading card industry, the increase is far worse: more than 11 times the rate of inflation for the average pack of cards.

    So, gone are the days when young kids could runs down to their local store and buy a few pack of cards with their pocket change. Such a demographic was apparently deemed unprofitable in the speculation-fueled late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of excuses why kids don’t collect cards or read comics (video games, cable TV, the Internet, etc.), but personally, I think a big reason is the one you rarely hear from the publishers: comics and trading cards are just too expensive these days for the youngest demographic.

  3. Folks keep floating the theory that the sales of comics and cards dropped because they became too expensive for kids. And yet in 1999 and 2000 kids, or their parents, in the US bought $500,000 worth of Pokemon cards according to an article from ICV2. The packs sold for an average of $3.99 a piece. That half a billion a year is not including the sale of individual cards on eBay or in hobby stores.

    I can tell you from personal experience working in a comic store that the “pocket change” of kids during that period was mainly $20 bills.

  4. If those numbers are correct, that equates to about $250 million per year in sales. That’s impressive, but I’d classify it as “fad moneyâ€? like money spent on Cabbage Patch dolls, Pet Rocks, or whatever the fad of the day might to be. The problem with fads is that their life cycle is a steep bell curve — not something that will sustain an industry and a network of retailers over the long term. Fad money in no help to business owners who are developing or implementing a sound business plan, because fad money can’t be anticipated in advance and cannot be counted on to sustain a business for any length of time. Sure, the savvy business owner can look for emerging fads and try to jump on the bandwagon as early as possible to make money to help the business, but there are no guarantees, and if one doesn’t get in and get out at the right time, one may get stuck with shelves of unsold fad items that can’t even be given away once the fad runs its course.

    Ideally, a comic book business (like any business) should have a steady stream of customers who can be relied on to sustain the business over the long term. If some customers lose interest in comics, move away or die, there should be new customers, preferably young ones, who are brought in the pipeline to nurture and develop a long-term interest in comics.

    Over the years, I’ve had many conversations with veteran comics shop owners, several of whom are now out of business, and almost all said there was a long stretch during the 1990s when almost no young kids were coming in the stores. One dealer said something to the effect, “We lost a generation of comic book readers.â€?

    This disappearance of what was once THE core demographic for comics was no accident, I believe. It coincided exactly with the industry’s emphasis on gritty, more adult fare, along with the ballooning cover prices of comics (which, as I stated previously, increased at a rate that was four times the rate of inflation).

    And don’t tell me how those price increases didn’t matter, because they certainly impacted MY buying habits as an adult in the work force. Those kids who came in with the wads of money to buy those Pokemon cards, I’ll wager, were probably from the affluent suburban areas where some parents may not think twice about underwriting such a fad. However, I’ll guarantee the majority of kids in this country do not have the same resources, and those kids — kids who 40 years ago were regular comics customers — can’t afford to be comics regulars because the low end price points of today are just too high (artificially high, in my opinion). Based on inflation, the lowest end price point comic should be about 65 cents, compared to its 1968 counterpart. This means that, at worst, on the low end, there should still be “throwawayâ€? comics available on the stands with a cover price of about $1, in my opinion.

    And don’t even get me going on the issue of trading cards…

  5. My bad, I wasn’t clear, the $500,000 was for each year. That’s one company for one line of trading cards, not the entire trading card industry or even the total for that one company. The comic industry as a whole doesn’t reach that number.

    Kids don’t remember the “good old days” when packs of cards were only 50 cents a piece. All they know is what card packs cost now. What things used to cost has no effect on their buying habits. How much money they have on them or can wheedle out of mom and dad is how they decide how much they’re going to spend.

    40 years ago if I dedicated all of my allowance to comics I could purchase three books a week. A kid that gets $10 a week now could buy three books a week if he/she so desired. I’m sure that price is not the issue.

    For the record, my experience selling Pokemon cards was, and still is, in Shreveport, LA. Not one of the most affluent towns by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, the “rich kids” spent more of their twenty dollar bills but all the kids were spending a lot of money back in ’99 and 2000.

  6. I think the difference in Pokemon and Magic cards vs Baseball cards, is that kids can actually have fun playing Pokemon as a card game. Baseball cards on the other hand are just inserted into protective plastic cases to be looked at.