Thursday, February 28, 2013

Breaking Bad

A Case Breaking Cautionary Tale

Baseball is America's past time, or so the old saying goes.  Whether or not that remains true today with the rise of football is questionable.  What's not in question is that gambling has become America's obsession.  In an economy that could be described as unstable at best, the American Gaming Association estimates that $2.88 billion was gambled in Nevada sportsbooks in 2011.  The FBI estimates that $2.5 billion is wagered illegally during March Madness alone each year.  It should come as no surprise that in the current hit driven market of sports cards, gambling is steadily taking a stronghold on the hobby.  

If you're not familiar with the term "group breaks", you soon will be.  Organized box and case breaks have taken the hobby by storm.  Do a Google search for box breaks and you'll see at least a dozen sites offering group breaks of some sort.  The concept is simple.  Rather than absorbing the cost of an entire case of cards that the average collector could never afford, individual team or hit slots are offered at a far lower price.  This gives customers the chance at landing an entire case worth of one team, or the chance to land a legendary hit from an upper tier product at a fraction of the cost.  I was able to land the 2012 National Treasures Lou Gehrig booklet card you see above (#3/4) for a mere $50 in a randomized case hit break.  A case of this product by itself would cost around $1350.  

So you might be thinking, hey this is a win/win for everyone right?  Not necessarily.  Anyone that has ever known a serious gambler knows that for every jackpot story you hear about, there are 5 stories of epic failure that never get told.  And don't kid yourself folks, this is gambling.   You're not going to hear from the guy that got stuck with a Chipper Jones jersey or a Jimmy Rollins plain white jersey booklet numbered to 99.  Out of our entire case there was probably only about 5 cards out of 32 that will be a guaranteed profit.  Those are actually good odds compared to what you will face in many other breaks.  Products like Panini Contenders can easily burn you on an entire case with no autos for a particular team.  I paid just under $50 for a random team in a recent Contenders football break and was assigned the Bears, which netted me one Shea McLellin auto worth about $5.  I'm not telling you this to receive pity, I just want you to see this for what it is: a huge risk.  Many of you will never pull a card like the Gehrig, and you might want to consider that a blessing.  I realize that sounds ludicrous, but let me explain with a mildly cautionary tale:

About 10 years ago in the early stages of the Texas Hold 'Em poker renaissance, I routinely spent several nights a week at a nearby casino playing $4/$8 Hold Em.  I was single and it was a fun hobby that I loved studying and trying to read people.  I brought in my hundred bucks, went straight to the poker room, and either left when it was gone or went home with an extra hundred or so.  Then one seemingly ordinary weeknight, I was playing and got dealt pocket Queens and flopped 4 of a kind, with an Ace on the board.  To make a long story short, another guy had a full house (Aces full of Queens) and we hit the bad beat jackpot, with $20,000 going to him for losing and $10,000 to me for winning.  It was a rush that is hard to explain if you've never experienced it, but it was so empowering I found myself suddenly taking risks that I never would before.  I started dabbling in slot machines, even though I knew better and the odds were horrendous.  I wanted that chance to hit another jackpot, the quick rush.  Having the 10 grand in the bank gave me a false sense of security and soon I was withdrawing my daily max at the ATM.  One night I was up nearly $500 and somehow ended up giving it all back.  That was the longest drive home I've ever had and I realized at that point that I had a problem with addiction and had to get it together.  I was lucky, I caught myself before things got any worse and found better ways to spend my time(and money).  As we all know, there are countless tales of other people who weren't so fortunate and have lost everything.

This might seem like an extreme example but the truth is, addiction can happen just as easily in cards as it can in a casino.  If you find yourself buying more and more slots to chase that next "big hit", please take a step back for a day or two.  Make yourself look at your paypal/bank statement. If you have difficulty distinguishing which charges go with which breaks, then you probably need to scale it back.  Try a diversion like set building.  It can be so rewarding, and it will remind you why you got into card collecting in the first place.  The case breaks will still be there when you're ready again.

The chances of me pulling another Gehrig level card in my lifetime are slim, which is why I'm going to take some time off from breaking.  Not permanently, but long enough to really enjoy this "jackpot".  As Kenny Rogers said, you've gotta know when to fold em.  A booklet card seems like an obvious fold to me.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Topps Flagship Losing its Luster?

The end of February is one of the most underrated times of the year.  It marks the approaching death of winter, my least favorite of all seasons(move to Iowa and you'll understand why).  It also means the beginning of March Madness, the greatest spectacle in all of sports.  And lest we forget of course, it means spring training has arrived and baseball card season is getting in full swing.  By the end of February you can count on Topps Series 1 having a stronghold on the market, as collectors clamoring for new product have gorged themselves on inserts galore and wrapper redemptions.  But are we seeing a shift in collector demand?

This year has a different feel to it.  Topps does a fantastic job of promoting its products and using social media to routinely whip collectors into a mouth frothing frenzy over new releases.  There was plenty of hype surrounding Series 1 once again this year, and I'm sure sales will still be good numbers but I have to wonder if we will see a considerable drop off from years past.  The price of hobby boxes are sinking faster than a dribbler inducing pitch from Tim Hudson.  What is causing this precipitous drop in price?  Inferior product?  I don't think so; in fact I believe it's just the opposite.

The 2013 Topps flagship product is one of the nicest looking sets I've seen in years.  The design is clean and eye catching, and the photography pops.  The '72 minis blend in perfectly.  The code card program isn't as ravenously addictive as years past, but still solid and I think it's important that the codes don't start to become a crutch for all base sets.  I would go so far to say that the inserts in this set, specifically "The Greats" are a home run.  If I didn't know any better I would think I'm holding a base card from Five Star.  The cards look and feel that good.

So why is demand fading faster than in years past?  Normally we don't see these type of price declines until Series 2, when other products like Bowman and Allen & Ginter are soaking up collector's wallets.  I think it's a combination of factors.  The increasing number of products released throughout the year, an unstable economy, and consistently high fuel prices have all combined to reduce the average collector's disposable income for cards.  If you had to cut back on card spending, what is the first place you would trim the fat?  I think the answer for a lot of us is base cards.   Especially when factory sets are so plentiful and inexpensive by year's end, it's more convenient and cost efficient to snatch up a sealed set for a Christmas gift, and store it away in the closet for the next decade.

The current hit driven market has not only pushed away the younger collectors, but it has created a murky gray area of products (opening day, triple play) that don't seem to hold much appeal to any one demographic.  Will Topps base soon fall into this category?  That remains to be seen.  Now if you don't mind, I need to go back to clearing out space for 2013 Heritage.

Sidenote:  If you like Heritage, and you like bingo then you need to get over to Crackin Wax right now to sign up for one of the remaining slots for BoBuBingo!