Saturday, April 12, 2008

Donruss Americana: Was is Worth It?

When I first heard about the Donruss Americana line, I was intrigued. The concept was simple: bring together pop culture icons past and present, and show them as themselves. The composition was strictly Donruss: oodles of parallels that make everything and nothing rare. Pushing the limits for SRP in the non-sport arena ($40-50 per pack initially), Donruss Americana was a risk to begin with. So now that it has been on the shelves for a few months and an even more expensive follow-up on the way, one has to ask, "Did Americana meet the hype?" In some, definitely, but the secondary market hasn't been too kind.

What initially stood out for me with Americana was all the autograph possibilities. Not bound by any one particular movie, show or even segment of entertainment, there was literally something for everyone. Seeing as how it's unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior is ever going to grace a WWE trading card set, his signature might be the only time it makes it to cardboard. Barbara Eden and Larry Hagman made up the I Dream of Jeanie duo, while sci-fi fans could chase after Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and several others. Heavy metal aficionados had both Motley Crue front man Vince Neil and Dee Snider from Twisted Sister. The list goes on and on.

There was an equally deep lineup of costume cards. The problem with a lot of the base card costume variants is that the source material (pun slightly intended) came from various sources, many of which weren't from what made the subject famous. For example, if you get Lee Majors you probably want a costume swatch from The Six Million Dollar Man, or at the very least The Fall Guy. Instead you get a little piece of pajamas from Brothers Solomon. To me, the costume card is about owning a piece of history. Brothers Solomon isn't a piece of history so why would I get excited about such a card - even if it is limited to 1oo, 50 or even 25 copies?

That said, I think the Hollywood Legends memorabilia subsets are the nicest cards in the product. Heck, I'd rank them as some of the best cards in the modern hobby. The checklist includes many of the biggest icons in Hollywood's last 60 years such as James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. There's also some lesser names by today's standards, but huge in the history of movies such as Mae West and Jean Harlow.

There really is something for everyone in Donruss Americana - at least checklist wise. However when you're spending $50 on a pack of non-sport cards - around the same price as most new boxes - a valiant effort is a tough pill to swallow. Although it's filled primarily with non-sport subjects, it's got a sports card mentality and has been snatched up by sports card collectors. As a result, if changes aren't made in future releases, the brand is likely to crash pretty quickly.

Just look at the prices of some of the "hits". Autographs of Martin Klebba can be had for $0.99. His autographed costume card are also selling for under a dollar. Okay, maybe a background character from Pirates of the Caribbean isn't the biggest name on the checklist. But Carrie Fisher - perhaps better known as Princess Leia - is up there. Here's a completed auction for autographed shirt card numbered to 25. At slightly over $100, it'd be a welcome part of my collection but it's hard to justify a $50 pack to have a chance at getting one. This pattern repeats itself over and over with Donruss Americana. Leonard Nimoy, William SHatner, many dual autographs can all be found at reasonable prices given the price of packs. Sure, there's cut autographs and some other anomalies but it's very unlikely that collectors are going to recoup their costs from a pack or a box.

I don't believe in buying cards simply to turn around and sell them, but the value question has to come into play with a set such as this. The selling point from the get-go has been the chase aspect. That's what's been marketed by Donruss and that's why there's very few base cards in a box.

I welcome more Americana-themed sets and spin offs from Donruss and other companies but there's some things I'd like to see to make the lines more attractive with all collectors (sport and non-sport):
  1. If you're going to use stickers for autographs, work them into the design. Donruss Americana simply has clear stickers put of the front of the base cards and the result is pretty ugly.
  2. Have some uniformity in the photography. Americana not only has all sorts of subjects, but the photography varies widely. Some stars have promotional photos, others are caught in unattractive paparazzi shots. There's little consistency, even between color and black and white.
  3. Break the subjects into themed subsets. Have your actors in one, singers in another, politicians in another and number them accordingly. If you really want to get fancy, change the design up a little bit.
  4. Use memorabilia from roles that made the star famous. This one might make things a little more costly but I simply don't care about a shirt someone wore to dinner or a pair of pajamas from Brothers Solomon. However, if those little fabric swatches are from movies and shows I connect with (or have at least seen) I will connect closer with the cards.
  5. Keep the price down. Yes, Donruss offered a more reasonably priced retail version of Americana but it comes across as an inferior product. The base cards don't have the foil finish, autographs are slim to none and there's not much else in them. I appreciate retail releases but don't like feeling I'm getting something that isn't as nice. I've got three Americana autographs in my collection: Tom Green (/200), Cedric the Entertainer (/135) and Bernie Mac (/85). These aren't huge names, but they all have solid star power. My cost for all three? Less than $50 - less than the price of a pack that may have had a Martin Klebba memorabilia card. It's pretty easy to see why I'm not taking a chance.
What I like best about celebrity sets is that it opens up the hobby to tons of new possibilities. For the past couple of years both the sports and non-sport ends of the hobby have become stagnant and even a little boring. As the hobby wades through a major economic downturn, collectors are going to become more careful with how they spend their money. At the end of the day, Americana is a good start but it just doesn't hold the value given it's high cost. Collectors need to see the value of their purchases otherwise they're going to spend their money elsewhere.

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