Heading into the summer of 2021, the trading card hobby is stronger — more interest, more money, more momentum — than it has been in decades. Where strength resides, though, conflict often follows.
We saw that last week when Target suspended all in-store sales of MLB, NBA, NFL and Pokémon cards after a recent incident between customers outside a store in Wisconsin ended with a gun brandished. It was a bit of a wakeup call — and one that gives evidence of a problem that’s been steadily building within the industry since last year.
“At first, it’s just normal supply and demand that the market dictates,” said Jeff Owens, the editor of Sports Collectors Digest, which has tracked the industry since 1973. “But there is sort of a seedy side to that, and when it’s leading to fights and violence in the parking lot and stuff like that, now you’ve got a problem and it’s got to be addressed. I don’t blame Target at all for doing what they did. It’s a problem for the industry. It’s a black eye.”
How in the world did we get to this point? There is plenty of blame to go around.
Why they are to blame: Let’s start with this: Flippers — the people who buy product at retail stores like Target and Walmart, then immediately sell them on eBay for twice or three times retail prices — are the primary reason you have rarely seen shelves full of trading cards over the past year. And over the past six months, they’re the primary reason you would often see fully empty shelves where cards used to be stocked. Flippers are seen as the embodiment of the problems in the hobby.
There are different types of flippers, of course. There are, certainly, flippers who have been obsessive about this practice for a long time. These are the people who would clear out entire stores — entire towns, too, depending on the size — buying everything possible five minutes after a store opened because they knew what day cards were stocked, because they’d asked or bribed store employees for the information. That’s where it feels a bit shady. These are the people who have often harassed employees. These are the people who pay customers to stand in line to buy product for them.
But these “all-in” flippers are not the only ones buying low and selling high. After retail stores started limiting to three items — or even one item — and hard-core flippers no longer could clear out a shelf with one shopping cart, lots of “normal” collectors would swing by the card aisle at Target and pick up a few packs. Maybe they’d open them, and maybe they would sell them. If they sold them on eBay, they were, essentially, flippers. And, sure, maybe there weren’t operating at the same individual volume as the capital “F” flippers, but there were more of them, because by this time more people realized it was possible to make a quick, risk-free profit on the cards.
Why they’re not to blame: Yes, it sucks that you haven’t been able to find a pack of baseball cards for you or your kids to open every time you go to Target. I get that. It’s frustrating. But it’s really hard for me to fault someone for making money simply by seizing an opportunity that’s available to literally anybody who could possibly get to a Target, as long as they’re not resorting to strong-arm tactics.
I wrote about this last week: Let’s look at a real-life example with basketball cards: A Panini Prizm fat pack, with 15 total cards, retails for $9.99 at Target. They’re regularly selling for $40-plus on eBay, with two-pack lots often topping $100. Think about that. You can — well, could before Target shut down in-store sales — spend $10 on a product, walk out to your car, snap a pic with your phone and post the product on eBay and immediately make a $30 profit. Immediately. There is not any other product at Target — or any retail store — that offers anything close to that type of money-making opportunity.
Now, Prizm basketball is the extreme example. The Select football fat packs retail at Target for $10 and are selling on eBay for $25ish. The 30-card Donruss basketball fat packs retail for $5 and are regularly selling for $20ish on eBay. A 2021 Bowman baseball blaster box retails for $25, and they’re selling for $45ish.
For almost a year now, it’s been free money to be made, legally. Again, hard to criticize someone for taking advantage of that. This is just speculation, but I feel like it’s probably accurate: How many of those people who stood outside, waiting for stores to open so they could buy packs and boxes to flip on eBay actually needed the money because of job losses or furloughs caused by the pandemic? There’s no chance that every flipper is a greedy, soulless ghoul hoarding stacks of cash like they’re portrayed on Twitter (though some certainly are and deserve the criticism targeted their way).
The eBay buyers
Why they are to blame: Flippers only exist because the market allows them to exist. If people are willing to pay $40 on eBay for Prizm fat packs that retail for $10, flippers are going to find ways to buy retail packs for $10 and sell them for $40. Of course. The people who pay these prices on eBay — and at local card shops or on Facebook Marketplace or wherever else they might be resold — are really the ones driving this practice of flipping.
No money, no flippers. Simple enough. So why in the world would someone pay $40 for something they KNOW costs the other person only $10?
Why they’re not to blame: Let’s take a look at eBay sold listings for Prizm cards. Starting on March 31 through Monday, a total of 43 different cards from that set sold on eBay for $5,000 or more. Some of those are numbered 1/1 or /5, but not all of them. For example, there are four Purple parallel LaMelo Ball cards — all ungraded, by the way — that are numbered /99 that have sold for more than $5,000. That leaves a bunch of LaMelo Ball Purple parallel cards that could be worth $5,000-plus still potentially in packs.
And if your goal is finding cards that are worth thousands of dollars — there are another 51 that have sold between $3,000 and $5,000, by the way — you’re probably not too concerned about the difference between $10 and $40 for a pack, right? The primary hurdle is finding the packs to open, not the cost of the packs to open. If people want to chase a lottery ticket, they’re gonna chase the ticket.
The card companies
Why they are to blame: A lot of the criticism being launched at the card companies — primarily Panini and Topps, because Upper Deck only produces NHL cards now — is centered around kids, that the companies are solely creating products that have priced kids (and their parents) out of the market. And that’s a valid complaint. When hobby boxes of 2021 Topps Series 1 (the flagship product) hit the market at around $120 per box — it was around $70 for the 2020 set — that’s out of reach for kids with a regular allowance. Even the Topps Opening Day set, which is the most affordable option, was hard to find initially and eBay markups were mildly baffling. Crazy amounts of chase cards — relics, autographs, numbered cards — have made each pack like a lottery ticket, and that’s driven the cost per pack way, way up on the secondary market.
“The problem is, those boxes that are available at Target and Walmart are, theoretically and ideally, they’re for the average collector, for kids, for families, for your average Joe who just loves buying baseball cards and ripping them open and seeing what’s there,” Owens said. “If they’re not able to do that because of situations like this, that’s not good for the hobby, for the future of the hobby.”
And limited distribution is an issue now, too. The number of places a person can actually buy cards is way, way lower than it was years (or decades) ago. That makes it easier for a few flippers to clear out an entire area, because they’re only hitting up a handful of places instead of dozens of locations. Not to go all old-school “back in my day,” but back in my day, every single gas station had at least a few boxes of packs stuck down on a candy aisle somewhere. I built my collection — and my obsession with the hobby — one or two packs at a time. Now? Not a chance. Want to hook the next generation? It’s not just about making at least one base set of cards affordable, it’s about making them available.
Why they’re not to blame: Topps and Panini are businesses, and business hasn’t been this good in decades. “You can’t really blame Topps and Panini, because, again, it’s the market, what the market will bear,” Owens said. “Yeah, their prices are really, really high, but every time they put out a new set, they’re gone instantly.”
Panini declined to comment on Target’s decision and Topps didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The retail stores
Why they are to blame: It’s pretty clear that Target, Walmart and other stores were not prepared to handle the demand for this product. There was rarely company-wide consistency. Some stores started limiting purchases to three items per person months before other stores. Some were down to one per person before others put any sort of limit on sales. Throughout the past year, it’s always felt like they were playing catch-up, and that always leads to chaos.
Why they’re not to blame: Let’s take a step back for a moment and acknowledge that the steps Target, Walmart and others took regarding limiting trading card purchases were actually quite amazing. In what other scenario would companies whose goal is to sell as much product as possible, as quickly as possible, take steps to slow the sale of that product? It’s crazy to even contemplate. And, sure, those same stores did set limits on certain items earlier in the year, but let’s not pretend that placing limits on hand sanitizer and masks during a pandemic is the same thing as placing limits on trading cards. One is absolutely essential, the other is absolutely superfluous.
It’s not Target’s job or responsibility to ration out the product. The primary reason they’ve taken steps to limit sales — from three items per person, to one item per person, to moving everything behind the customer service counter — is because of the problems and harassment certain flippers are causing the Target employees.
The stimulus checks
Why they are to blame: For lots of Americans, the stimulus checks from the government were absolutely vital in a year when they lost their jobs or went through periods of extended furloughs. When cash for the basics and essentials in life was scarce, the stimulus money was a huge, welcome benefit. But the distribution of the stimulus checks was not necessarily well organized, and untold numbers of people received them even though they didn’t need the bank-account boost to weather 2020-21. For those people, the stimulus checks were basically found money. And what do you do with found money? For lots of Americans, they spent that money on things they might not typically have spent money on, and that included baseball, basketball and football cards. Found money spends differently than earned money.
Why they’re not to blame: The money that flooded into the hobby wasn’t just from stimulus checks, of course. With the country essentially shut down, travel just stopped, even for those Americans who didn’t lose their jobs or suffer through furloughs. According to this report, travel spending plunged 42 percent in 2020. Dining out stopped. Money that would have been spent on dinners, long vacations, road trips or weekends at the beach sat in bank accounts instead. For some people, the money didn’t sit for long.
‘It just feels different’
Maybe “blame” is the wrong word, mostly because it’s impossible to rank who/what is “most” to blame or hand out percentages of blame. And here’s the thing: There are reasonable justifications for pretty much every factor — short of the violence, of course — that contributed to this issue. The flippers are trying to make easy money. The eBay buyers are trying to find a strike-it-rich card. The stimulus checks were providing essential cash for Americans hit hard during the pandemic. The card companies are creating demand for their product. The retail stores are trying to keep employees safe and customers happy.
“There’s nothing really wrong with it,” Owens said. “It’s OK, it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. It can’t be good for the hobby in the long run. What does make it wrong is when it escalates to the point where things get out of control.”
There are so many factors involved, and it’s not just limited to those five we highlighted.
We have to mention the “breakers,” who open entire cases at a time, multiple times per week, and post their videos on YouTube or social media. They absolutely generate excitement for the product, which is a good thing, but they also definitely contribute to making product scarce and driving up eBay prices for the “hits” they find. Local card shops push prices up when they see what people are paying on eBay, which in turn validates eBay prices that might otherwise seem crazy. But, on the other hand, the card stores that have survived years and decades with interest relatively low deserve a good year or two, don’t they? Lots of new collectors jumped into the hobby with cash in hand but no real concept of the difference between eBay asking prices and actual values, and the prices they paid upped the “actual” value to heretofore unheard of levels.
Yep, lots of reasons/factors/causes/blame in this equation. The incident outside of the Target in Wisconsin was unfortunate. Thankfully, it ended without violence. Hopefully we don’t see a repeat when Target eventually starts selling trading cards in-store again. And sales will resume, but they almost certainly will look different.
But, if we’re being honest, everything looks different about the hobby now. That’s not always a bad thing, but sometimes it is. I asked people on Twitter what they thought of this whole situation, and their responses helped shape some of this piece. I wanted to include this, from Christopher Dziadosz, just as he wrote it.
“When it became all about making money, we lost the soul of the hobby. I know, that sounds incredibly melodramatic and naive, because money has always been involved. It just feels different this time. I’ve been through the ebbs and flows of the hobby for nearly fifty years now, and the joy of tearing open a fresh pack is a feeling that is hard to top. It saddens me that kids are being priced out of that joy because certain elements are solely in it to make a profit. This includes the card manufacturers.”
Could not have said it better myself.
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