Gregg Jeffries, Adrenaline Response, Don West, Racketeering, and Probability Theory
For me, the hobby started innocently enough as a kid simply seeking out packs of baseball and basketball cards at my local convenience store. All I wanted was some Atlanta Braves cards and a complete set of basketball cards. I’m a lifelong collector, so things have changed a lot since those days. As a lucrative market emerged for sports cards in the 80’s and 90’s, it morphed into a national phenomenon with countless people building collections of Ellis Burks and Gregg Jeffries rookie cards in anticipation of funding retirement dreams with their new cardboard treasures. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Nothing about the cards of the 80’s and early 90’s was scarce. Therefore, with only very few exceptions such as the Michael Jordan rookie card, the vast majority of the cards from that era are completely worthless. If you came to this blog to find out if your box full of 1991 Donruss baseball cards has any value, it doesn’t. Sorry, but nobody wants it.
Collectors didn’t understand that one of the most important things that make vintage cards valuable is the fact that they are scarce, especially in top condition. Upon release, vintage cards were never thought to be anything more than an amusement for kids. But now those cards provide nostalgia for those same kids that owned them in the first place. Funny how sentimentality, longing for your youth, discretionary income, and a little scarcity can make pieces of cardboard with photos on them such valuable assets. Lack of insight into market dynamics and information about just how many cards were being made during the card collecting boom created a scenario where trying to collect for profit was a losing proposition for almost everyone in the 80’s and early 90’s.
Those speculative years sowed the seeds for the state of the hobby today. The masses went away once they realized the fault in their plan. The experience left them feeling like they had been duped. The world also changed for the card companies. They could no longer increase revenue by just printing more cards. As a response, the card companies’ marketing departments have been hard at work over the years experimenting and refining their products and business models to optimize profitability and revenue growth for their remaining customer base. Remember, every business in the chain from product manufacturer to retailer is in the business of selling cards with a goal of growing revenue and profit every year. If you’re buying new products, you are the source of their revenue and profit.
The new releases you buy today are a reflection of their efforts and their understanding of our buying habits, preferences, emotional responses to anticipation and surprises, and tolerance for product pricing. This is all done while keeping the cost of producing and distributing products at a level that delivers an ever increasing profit margin. Hence, the sea of colored, numbered parallels, event-worn material cards, sticker autographs, and box prices. Meanwhile, many card collectors hold on to the dream of making a profit on each box of cards they crack, knowing the next one will be the one where they hit it big. This is nothing new. Heck, there was a lawsuit in 1996 against Topps and Marvel suggesting that packs of cards constituted illegal gambling. The suit alleged that all the same elements as gambling are present – cost, chance, and prize.
Finally, the digital revolution of the last 20 years has totally changed how collectors think about our hobby. The local card shop is nearly extinct. The weekend card show has seen a similar fate. Forget about walking into a 7-11 and picking up a pack of cards. Online platforms now rule card collecting. We can buy and sell pretty much anything we want with a few clicks, taps, or utterances (thanks Alexa). What once was an over-exuberant Don West on the Shop at Home Network is now an army of online breakers who shout and hawk their wares with exactly the same fervor as the days of old. The new world of eCommerce has taken away any friction between the want to open a box of cards and having it opened several states (or countries) away in a matter of minutes. Immediate gratification rules the day.
I’ve created this blog because, despite however negative or condescending I sound when describing everything above, I still like collecting cards. It’s a fun distraction from day to day stresses. But, I think it’s probably beneficial to be aware of all the things that can influence what we collect and buy. We’re all susceptible to having our judgement skewed. For example, have you ever won an auction for a card and then had at least some remorse because you spent way more than you probably should have? I assume that none of us wants to make a poor decision on purpose. However, as humans, we’re limited in our ability to mentally process large amounts of information and decipher complex systems in a short period of time. But, that’s exactly what we often try to do when we buy sports cards. New sports card product releases, launched more than 50 times more frequently than in my youth, feature a disorienting level of complexity to decipher. It’s ridiculous really. Jumbo boxes, FOTL, blaster boxes, parallels, autographs, parallel autographs, retail exclusives, the list of variables feels nearly endless. Add in the countdown timer of an auction and we’re at our most vulnerable. I know you can feel your heart pounding! That’s what sports cards and auctions are designed to do, make the biochemicals in your body respond with a bit of an adrenaline rush. It keeps you coming back for that feeling.
But, we’re smart. We’re in control. We know how things will turn out. Right? You can tell with certainty when your luck is looking up or you’re on a hot streak. Us humans, we’re adept at recognizing patterns like that. But, what if the pattern isn’t really there? Stay with me here. The problem is, our brains are so keen to keep finding patterns that we often observe what we believe is a pattern and convince ourselves that the pattern exists. It may appear or feel as if we’re lucky or on a hot streak, but luck or hot streaks aren’t really a pattern. They’re how we end up describing a pattern we construct when we observe things that we feel like shouldn’t be happening. But, what actually happens is pretty random. Most of the events in our life are a product of probability. Probability is the extent to which an event is likely to occur. It will be a recurring core element of this blog. My goal will often be to share with you the calculated probability that an event will occur as it relates to sports card collecting. Turns out I like math too. Humans are also notoriously bad at estimating risk and reward. Math and probability can help provide us with some clarity around risk and reward. Of course, like any blog worth reading, there will be other endeavors provided to keep this a fun and interesting conversation.
So, that’s it. You made it to the end of blog post #1. Thanks for enduring 1200+ words. Hopefully what I’m preaching sounds good, or at least amusing, and you’ll be back to collect some cards and do some analysis with me.
Till next time - Jeff