Monday, August 09, 2010

New Pack Formats Leading to a Fundamental Change in Non-Sports

The winds of change are blowing and it's leading to a fundamental change in non-sport collecting. More and more releases are coming out strictly in pack form that offers at least one premium card and only a couple of base cards. The movement is a controversial one that is bound to divide collectors, depending on their collecting goals.

Last summer 5finity emerged as a player in sketch cards based on niche licenses. They started with Archie and The Greatest American Hero. Both sets had no base cards, just sketch cards. Autographs and prizes added a chase element to the releases, but it all revolved around packs that guaranteed at least one sketch card. Both 5fininty and Sad Littles have continued with this trend using sketch cards to drive releases, with the latter having a small base card presence. Breygent recently jumped into the mix with similarly styled releases for Cartoon Sketch Cards and Golden Age of Comics. Again, cards were released in packs only, each of which guaranteed a sketch card. Breygent also introduced Metallogloss inserts in Cartoon Sketch Cards and inserted them one per pack. There were also 40 reproduction sketch cards in Golden Age of Comics that made up a sort of base set.

But now Breygent is moving beyond sketch cards for the pack-only format to release some smaller sets based on current films and television shows. First up is Paranormal Activity. For about $30 collectors will get five base cards, two basic chase cards and two premium chase cards (autographs, costumes and/or film cell cards). Breygent is going to follow suit with similar releases for their latest Classic Vintage Movie Posters series, Woodstock Generation Rock Posters and The Tudors.

Non-sport collecting has long revolved around the base set, I'd argue more so than any other type of cards except maybe the annual Topps Baseball set. Sure, chase cards have been trickling in at an ever-increasing rate. But even still, most manufacturers marketed base sets very prominently offering guarantees in boxes. But a funny thing has happened in the past decade. Despite some stunning sets being put out, you can pick up these base sets for less than the price of a couple packs of cards. I regularly buy the ones I want now for a couple of dollars. The problem with the box format is that they lead to a glut of base sets floating around. Supply is far greater than demand. I'd regularly get two complete sets and almost a third from a box of Inkworks cards. As much as I love the look of many of these sets, I simply don't need that many. The real draw for many sets became the hits. Who was signing? became the question that drove box and case purchases.

With the pack-only format, base sets should hold some value again. By their very nature, they should be much more limited. Still, I don't expect base sets to be too expensive. A quick scan of eBay shows one dealer selling a Paranormal Activity set for under $25. It's far higher than the $2-3 that I'm used to spending but nobody's going to be tripping over excess cards either. The biggest change for base set fans will likely be the transition from ripping boxes to tracking down an already-made set. Sure, it's not as fun but, for me, neither is nine extra sets of Lord of the Rings Evolution.
In the realm of sports cards, it's been this way for years. It's just phrased a little differently. Instead of being sold individually as packs, sets like Upper Deck Exquisite and Upper Deck Ultimate offered one-pack boxes. If this is the way things are headed, this format way of packaging has some advantages over simply sending out packs.

Boxes, no matter how small, can prevent some searching as there's an outside layer around the cards. With products offering costume cards, sketches, autographs and other hits, I doubt it'd be very hard to feel the pack up and figure out what the big card of the pack is. With boxes, it's awfully hard to do the same without mangling the box. I can think of a couple other ways that some might try to get around this, but I'm not going to get into that as I don't want to offer any ideas.

The spin-off of this for dealers could be good. If cards stay in pack form then it's going to be essential for collectors to fund dealers that they trust so they know their packs aren't being searched. There are lots of them out there (on and off eBay), but it just takes one shady experience to turn someone off of the hobby altogether.

Another nice thing about boxes is that they offer added protection when being shipped through the post. There's lots of folks out there who simply don't know how to properly ship things. I don't want to chance $25-30 on a  pack of cards only to find they tossed it into a bubble mailer loose and slapped some stamps on it only to find a side bashed in by the time it arrives.

The biggest knock against boxes and additional packaging is the cost. I'm guessing a big reason why manufacturers are moving toward this new format is that it cuts expenses and allows them to try out licenses that might not have otherwise been released. I'm not privy to the behind-the-scenes stuff when it comes to licensing but there is something worth noting that a small company can manage to put out sets - no matter how small a print run - for TV's The Tudors, yet Topps is forced to cancel their planned Avatar release.

I suspect that the pack-only trend is something we're going to see more of. It'll likely take on different forms as manufacturers try out different things and approaches. For collectors, it's going to take some time to change. For some, they're beloved hobby is changing. Things aren't the way they used to be. Autographs and premium chase cards drive the hobby today. They did five years ago, but I think a lot were in denial. Don't get me wrong, I love the base set and believe it needs to be the cornerstone of the hobby. But at the same time, fewer base cards not only make them hold some value, but it lowers the overhead of manufacturers as they're not printing a bunch of extra filler that sits in inventories for years, gets sold for almost nothing or simply gets tossed out.

Personally, I don't know what to think of this new format. On the one hand, I love the impulse possibilities of grabbing a pack of cards from the store for a few dollars. But when you're looking at $20 or $30, the impulse element disappears. On the other hand, these packs offer far better value. Plus, you're guaranteed to get some cool premium cards. Ideally, I'd love some mix that offers the best of both - something like the recent Ringside Boxing set that had two levels of releases, one for the more casual collector with a budget and one for those that can afford to drop a few hundred on a handful of cards.

As with any case of change and transition, I'm willing to give it some time and be flexible with my collecting. I learned a long time ago that this is the only way one can stick with cards and be happy in doing so.

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