The Sports Card Industry Has Changed for Good

Card companies have gone away from catering to kids, but don’t mourn for the hobby, or for kids.

Every so often, a high-profile sports columnist will come out and write a piece lamenting the fact that the sports card industry isn’t the industry they remember as kids. They write about cherished memories they had with their friends riding to the corner store to buy a wax pack for 15 cents and then coming home and making a lineup out of the cards they pulled out of that pack.

These pieces always catch my eye because I have many of the same memories. Packs of cards cost about a dollar per pack when I was a kid (I only wish they were still 15 cents), but I do remember buying packs with my friends and then eagerly seeing who we got.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the days where kids are going to have these types of memories are all but gone.

What kids used to do with cards they now do with video games. Not only can kids put their own teams together like they used to, they can play out the games on their television screen with striking realism and accuracy.

I don’t think there’s any denying what I just said, but I’m not buying into the angle that a disconnect with the youth of America is a tragedy for kids and a death knell for card companies.

But I seem to be alone on that one. Just about every piece written on the subject has that same theme.

My biggest gripe is that I’m not sure how true it is when they say that getting kids involved with the hobby is some magic elixir that will bring back the glory days of trading cards.

The habits of kids haven’t changed all that much from the mid-90s when the industry was booming. All of my friends collected cards to varying degrees between the ages of 8 and 14 and I know of one person, other than myself, who is still an avid collector. Kids grow up and move on to something else and that would be true no matter what Topps and Upper Deck did to cater to kids.

Let’s also not kid ourselves into thinking that the card companies are down on bended knee begging for kids to come back to the hobby. Sure, they wouldn’t turn down their business, but the card industry made a conscious decision to end the days when they exclusively put out the inexpensive, low-end product that kids purchased on the regular.

They realized that there was more money to be made selling 300 dollar boxes and ten dollar packs of high-end product with jersey patches and autographs than there was to be made selling 30 dollar boxes and one dollar packs of cards that all looked the same. In short, they took what was once considered a cheap hobby for kids and turned it into a high-stakes hobby for grown men who have memorabilia collections. Sports cards are no longer just sports cards. They are memorabilia.

I won’t argue that the bottom lines of the card companies are hurting when you compare them to what they were in their respective heydays, but I think that has more to do with the fact that everyone in this country is hurting financially and less to do with the changes they have made over the years.

So much ink is spilled complaining about how card companies have left kids behind, but maybe the card companies just made a necessary correction when it became clear that kids were just going to leave the hobby behind.

Joseph Healy writes for The Fan Manifesto. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_On_Sports. You can follow the entire FanMan team here.

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