WHO’S HOLDING THE DECK?
Are you the kind that has to open your new package of hockey cards right in the shop? Do you open them in the car? Do you wait until you get home to open them, arrange them, put them in their special binder or sleeves, or (gasp!) do you not buy hockey sports cards? I spent the last week talking to sport card and hobby shop owners, card experts, and collectors, causing me to ask: Are we just not into the cards anymore?
Hockey sports cards were first introduced in cigarette packs in 1910. Hockey cards have always been in existence since then, except for a brief period after 1941 presumably due to World War II and reappeared in 1951. These small cardboard pieces offer a tangible piece of hockey history, one that presumably was made for the masses. All sports fans like to feel like they are invested in their sport and team of choice, and one way even the youngest fans with the least amount of disposable income could always participate in was by purchasing sports cards.
Sports cards are a great way of documenting the history of your favorite team or favorite player. They literally turn the Everyman into a holder of genuine and potentially valuable history. Growing up, I was well aware that my father had a large and somewhat valuable sports card collection. My parents lost their home in that F-5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri on May 22, 2011, and my sister and I breathed a huge sigh of relief upon learning my father had left his card collection with my brother in Kansas City. Sports cards are that big of a deal in my family. It meant something that my dad had preserved that history so carefully and for so long, and it still existed. This event might have provoked my concern about the continuing existence of hockey sports cards. I fear losing these unique pieces of hockey history.
On the heels of National Hockey Card Day in Canada on February 9, and NHCD in the US on February 16, I called a number of Sport Card, Hobby and Memorabilia shops in the US to see what the turn out was. It turns out, it wasn’t great. In fact, it was non existent in some stores. So I set about to get the experts take on what might be contributing factors.
TECHNOLOGY: FRIEND OR FRANKENSTEIN AND WHAT MARKET DO YOU SHOP IN?
The first contributing factor is the opinion that the multitude of distractions of game systems, iPods, MP3 players, and smart phones are drawing interest away from a hobby that some see as a non interactive experience. When the Avalanche moved to Denver, they won a Stanley Cup for the city, and that helped with the hockey card business. In the following years, the card business slowed down and hasn’t recovered. That brought up an interesting point I will get to shortly. While stores in that market took part in National Hockey Card Day, the response was poor.
Chicago stores told me they felt that hockey card collecting was dependent partially on the success of the franchise in the city. They saw an increase in sales after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2011, but it’s decreased as time has passed, even though they are in an Original 6 franchise market. Their take was that kids don’t play hockey, especially in non hockey cities. The cost of ice time and equipment is pricing a lot of kids out of playing hockey, therefore kids aren’t interested in collecting cards for a sport they can’t and/or don’t play. Kids are also less likely to collect cards if they don’t have a relative collecting them. The lack of pre packaged sets also seems to be deterring collectors, and that isn’t just relegated to hockey.
One of the experts in Kansas City, Kansas cited the dip in card buying in correlation to the popularity of MMA Ultimate Fighting and MMA cards. They believe that hockey isn’t the only sport to see this drop. Apparently NBA and NASCAR are also on the bubble that seems about to burst due to novelty cards.
Pittsburgh shops told me that eBay was cutting into the business. Brick and mortar stores, the stores we loved riding our bicycles to after school and on weekends are now being undercut by Wal-Mart, Target, and eBay. Customers can pick individual cards from the comfort of their living room due to the mass quantity of cards eBay has for sale, instead of paying a slightly higher price in the brick and mortar stores. The economy has hit hobbyists hard, and those who are reluctant to give up a hobby, see even a few dollars in savings a boon compared to understanding the necessity of keeping small businesses in business.
THE POWER OF POKEMON
The power of Pokemon is big. Several of the markets reported that Pokemon is taking the once youth demographic of sports card collecting to collecting Pokemon. Daniel Lyons, a self proclaimed Pokemon expert told me that Pokemon started as an Japanese anime style tv show geared for kids which was distributed on the Cartoon Network, thus infiltrating all markets. The show spawned collector cards, marketed them in every small town Wal-Mart providing accessibility, with the draw being that the cards have a game built around them. The more cards, you own, the better position you are to outplay your friends. Kids really seem to want that interactive experience. This is exactly the demographic hockey needs to target to keep our beloved cards printing and in card/hobby shops.
STACKING THE DECK: WHO CAN AFFORD TO P(L)AY?
All the markets reported that price point is a problem. Kids are being pushed out of collecting due to the high end nature of the pricing. Retailers told me they are selling cards with price points of $2.99, 3.99, 4.99, 5.99 and up to $500 in US dollars. I thought price point was the biggest factor in lack of sales, but it is obviously not according to what I’ve leaned through speaking with my sources. Pokemon cards are approximately $3.99 US and MMA cards are even higher at $10 and the demographic hockey needs to retain or gain are buying these novelty items. Panini, one of the hockey sports card manufacturers told me that they have starter packs as low as 99 cents and $1.99. While that seems to take care of the price point issue, there is a glitch. Those affordable cards aren’t making it to the stores. Panini has an application process for stores to complete and have approved in order to carry their cards. Some stores have filed several applications to carry Panini’s cards in particular, only to never hear back from them. The disconnect between the shops and card manufacturers is one I admit I can’t quite wrap my head around.
THE L WORD- YES I HAD TO BRING IT UP
Of course, you have to know that another reason I was going to bring up is the L word. I wish it meant love of collecting, lusting after that one special rookie card or game used card; but you all know what I’m talking about: The Lockout. The 2004-2005 lockout did a lot of damage to the casual collector. They came back for hockey cards afterwards, but merchandisers said customers didn’t really want Ovetchkin’s rookie card to come out a year later and debut alongside Crosby’s. The lockout has really thrown a wrench in what was already declining sales. In order for a hockey player to have a rookie card made, he has to play in one NHL game. When the companies, don’t manufacture rookie cards one year-it’s bad business for card shop business. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting a great rookie card when you open your pack of cards. Rookie cards can be a great investment. So when manufacturers have to go back and get creative with cards, because they don’t want to print cards halfway through the year, they come up with interesting and not so interesting alternatives.
One of the newer cards you might find is one of Ryan Kesler’s game used stick sliced up and put into cards. Pieces of the net are also appearing in cards. They are also making the game worn cards a little differently for additional appeal. Next year might be a little better, but stores just aren’t bouncing back in the hockey card business after the lockout this year. The ‘No More Merch’ lockout song might as well have been the ‘No More Hockey Card’ song. One store that deals in bigger hockey merchandise like sweaters, pucks, etc. informed me that sales on the bigger more pricey items have rebounded, and they are seeing an increase in customers buying again. Just not in buying the hockey cards.
PANINI ISN’T JUST A SANDWICH
Talking to Panini, I learned that they are trying to get back the youth demographic. They have created the NHL Sticker Album specifically geared towards the market Pokemon and MMA is appealing to. They don’t participate in National Hockey Card Days each year, because they celebrate hockey through their own special NHL Player of the Day promotion. In 2011, Panini reported more than 250 shops and 100,000 NHL card collectors participated in March and April in the US and Canada. Participating in this opportunity can lead to the ultimate payoff-finding a special redemption card that wins a collector a day with Panini’s selected player and $250 to spend on Panini products with a real NHLer by your side. 2011’s NHL player was Nazem Kadri. However, Panini decided to cancel their promotion this year in lieu of the lockout. They also have printed what they are interested in printing for the year and will not be putting anymore cards in the stores. Panini loves hockey and they even mentioned that the female collector is a big part of their sales. Panini believes that the 2014 Winter Olympics will bring about a renewed interest in hockey cards, if the NHL allows the players to participate.
THE GAMBLING FAN
In covering all the aspects of collecting history, I got a most fortunate interview with a fan who put collecting into perspective from the buyers viewpoint. I posed a few questions to Chris Thorne, who is an avid and enthusiastic card collector and he shared his thoughts on the interest and demise of hockey’s celebrated collecting of cards. “I have always been a collector of one sort or another, cards, comics, VW memorabilia, whatever caught my fancy. I remember getting into hockey cards around 1993 and there was only one shop in Flagstaff, AZ. I would head down there every day I felt I could spend a few bucks. It was great to learn about all the players and connect with the guys I watched on TV. Game used cards were great because I was able to connect with a piece of the team that was so far away (LA Kings). I collected GU cards as well as autos. the designs weren’t that great in the 90’s, but there were a few standouts, the Duflex cards from TSC were awesome. Then I discovered that I could flip cards to get better or cards that I actually wanted. At one time was able to possess two Gretzky RCs at the same time. But I was able to sell them at a profit, so I couldn’t really say no. Collecting always evolved into a way to make some extra money. I could collect what I want, but use the cards I didn’t want to keep the money flowing for cards I did want. I also was exposed to actual full game used jerseys and started collecting those. as well as sticks and other equipment. It was a way to further connect with the team I followed. The hobby was great for connecting with other fans. That is what I love about the hobby.”
Are you are buying more or less than past years? “Far less. Cards packs have gotten too expensive for me to buy. It is more like gambling than collecting. So I keep a look out for something I actually want and buy that instead of buying packs or putting sets together. I hope my son discovers it though, I loved collecting sets.” Are they a good investment? “New cards are a terrible investment. Rookie cards are like a hobbyists crack and just about as damaging to the wallet.” Do you see an increase or decline in purchasing cards or their current value? “New, hot cards will always be that, a liquid commodity that goes hot and cold too fast to be an investment. My card buying days are not over, but I am buying a lot less than I ever had before.”
The ultimate reason I’m writing this article is why? “The fun cards are expensive. I have outgrown collecting base sets, that is what the reality is. People outgrow that stuff. You can buy base sets on eBay for cents really, depending on the quality of the product. UD MVP was supposed to get kids excited, but they had to increase the inserts and level of cards to compete, people just didn’t buy it for the base sets, they wanted a $200 insert from a $2 pack. I haven’t gotten into vintage sets, but that is where collecting is fun again, but it is still expensive. I have partial 79-80 sets that without the Gretzky and Howe cards are almost worthless. You really have to go way back to the 50’s and 60’s to find a rush in putting together a set of cards. I imagine at some point I will do that, but right now. I just buy the cards that I want, at a fraction of the “Beckett” price (and don’t get me started on on the price guides and what they did to the hobby.)”
HOLIDAYS ARE FOR HOCKEY
Yes, I’ve had an interesting week. There is nothing quite as cool as talking with collectors, card and hobby shop owners, experts, and even an executive at a hockey card manufacturing company. Hockey fans are passionate people, and the sellers know it. One seller said there’s nothing better than seeing kids come in with their dad and start out collecting cards. The thrill of watching them open a pack and get a card of their favorite player make a shop owner’s day. It seems that even moms are bringing in their sons to participate with them in a sport they don’t play, but want to bond with their child over. So to answer my own question, are we just not into the cards? We are, but-we are in danger of losing an inherent part of hockey history if we don’t get interest back. To lose these sweet little pieces of the coolest history form available, we fans need to jump back in fast and hard.
Get your kids or nieces and nephews into collecting. Easter is coming up for those of you who celebrate the magical mystery of the Easter Bunny. Why not have the Easter Bunny give your kids card packs instead of candy? A little Kesler or Crosby, in your child’s basket? Your kid losing a tooth? Tim Thomas or Kimmo Timonen under the pillow could prove more worthwhile than a dollar in the long run. Halloween? Henrik and Daniel Sedin? Forget the candy, that will only give your kids cavities. Give your kids a pack of history. You could be making a big investment for them, while preserving hockey’s history.
By Cherie Tinker
Interests: Reading, writing, art, music, movies, history, and especially hockey! BS.Ed., MS.Ed. I currently write articles about anything and everything for The Hockey Writers.