Monday, August 20, 2012

First Impressions: 2013 Topps Series One Baseball

In what has become an annual late-summer rite of passage, this past weekend Topps unveiled the design and structure of next year’s Flagship baseball set.  Not unlike back-in-the-day when the Big Three car makers would start selling next year’s models by Labor Day, Topps has been sending out the sell-sheets for next year’s Flagship before the current season even ends.  In a way, I kind of like the way Topps gave us a preview this far out in advance.  It whets the collector’s appetite and gives us a sneak peak on what to look for next year.  Now that the sell-sheets have been out for a few days, I do have a few thoughts regarding 2013 Topps Baseball Series One.

The design of the base set isn’t the greatest, but it doesn’t completely suck either.  Despite all the recent issues of the Topps Flagship (and there have been many), they deserve some credit for making a well-designed base set.  The asymmetrical, home-plate motif reminds me of the 2009 design, but with the typeface of the 2010 set.  However, there’s way too much empty space at the bottom – space where the player’s position could have been noted.  It’s not as great as 2009, 2010, or even 2012, but it’s not as bad as “The Girlie Show” of 2008 or the “Black-Bordered with Colored Boxes” thing of 2007 either.  It’s alright.

Before I continue, I want to stop here and get something off my chest regarding the two most overused words in The Hobby today: “Added Value.”  Let’s go back about 5-10 years and compare Topps’ Flagship of the pre-“added value” era to the post-2008 Topps.  Back then, if you bought a Hobby box of Topps you knew that not every $2 pack would deliver $2 worth of cards (Actually, back then, the MSRP was only $1.50/pack, but work with me here.), but there were some packs were you’d get maybe $3-$5 worth of cards.  Over the course of a full 36-pack $50-$60 Hobby box, generally, you’d get $50-$60 worth of baseball cards -- $75-$80 worth if you were lucky enough to pull the case hit.

Then about five or six years ago, Topps decided to “add value” in every pack.  They did this by gradually adding something new to the product every year, without subtracting much, if anything, to its structure.  Over time, we’ve seen more inserts, more parallels, guaranteed “hits” in every box, and (my favorite) gimmicks, all justified as “adding value.”   

They may not have stated it out-front, but clearly the goal was to do something that completely violates the laws of economics: Have every $2 waxpack yield more than $2 worth of cards. But it’s not possible to consistently deliver $3-$5 dollars worth of cards in every $2 pack.  It’s just not.  Either the market price of those packs has to increase or the cards inside those packs have to decrease, and as we’ve seen over the last five years, all of the new “value” additions to the Topps Flagship have wound up actually devaluing just about everything else.  It’s now gotten to the point where the Flagship has become so overstuffed with “value” it’s now become impossible to try and collect it all, and more collectors have done what I did this year and are not even bothering to try.  I think it speaks volumes to the problems of Topps’ Flagship that you can now purchase a Hobby box of 2012 Topps Series One for under $40 – that’s about $4 under dealer cost.  So much for “added value,” huh?

All of which leads us to the bloated mess that has been the Topps Flagship of the last few years; but how does the 2013 edition compare?  Unfortunately, the structure of 2013 Topps is pretty much a cut-and-paste job.  Same 330 card base set, meaningless parallels, boring inserts, stupid manufactured “Relics,” and a near worthless hit in every box.  This year’s “value” addition are the Desert Camouflage and Pink parallels – which judging by the mock-ups on the sell-sheet, are going to be some of the ugliest cards ever produced. 


Who the fuck thought of this?

Moving on, once again the insert program revolves around a unified theme, but unlike the last few years where we’ve had Diamonds and Gold and Reprints jammed down our throats, this year’s theme of “The Chase” is a little more subtle.  (I was expecting a gimmick card of Giorgio Moroder and a 10-card tribute insert to Chase Utley, but alas, there are none.)  There’s the die-cut Cut to the Chase, Chasing the Dream, and Chasing History, but there are three other inserts that don’t seem to have anything to do with the Chase theme: Calling Cards, The Greats (which remind me of the old Topps Sterling brand), and a new batch of mini cards, this time with the psychedelic 1972 Topps design replacing last year’s 1987s and 2011’s Kimball’s.

Yes, there are the much-maligned manu-Relics, this year with fake award trophies and ersatz coins.  However, there are noticeably fewer manu-Relics this year, and you kind of have the feeling that the concept is slowing beginning to jump the shark.  It hasn’t quite yet, but Fonzie just stepped into his water skis and the boat is about to pull out to sea.  I doubt we’ll see the return of these cards beyond  2014.

Once again you’ll get one hit in every Hobby box, and each HTA box will yield an autograph and two “Relics.” (I put the term “Relic” in scare-quotes because Topps actually counts the manu-Relics as a real Relic.)  Of course, all the low-numbered autographs, auto-relics, and patches are prominently displayed on multiple pages of the sell-sheet, but you’re more than likely to pull a single-swatch Relic or a sticker autograph of a marginal prospect or middle-inning reliever.  In other words, your one-per-box hit will be another $0.99 eBay special.

So that’s that.  2013 Topps Baseball Series One is nothing more than a re-hash of a product in need of a major overhaul.  Looking beyond 2013 and into the long-run (something that is sadly lacking in this industry) Topps needs to ask some serious questions regarding their annual Flagship.  Does a product like this really, really, even need a hit in a box?  If the stated goal is to deliver “value,” wouldn’t making the Relics and autographs tougher to pull make sense?  With another year of mini-sized reprints, how many times can they keep going to the same well with a concept some collectors are starting to tire of?  Is it possible to release their Flagship that’s more than 330 cards per series and without foil stamping and gloss on each card?

With that all said, 2013 Topps Baseball looks good and I might actually collect it.  I’ll probably wait until next summer to buy a box, which by that time it should be selling around dealer cost.  Then again, I had the same feelings about 2012 Topps around this time last year, until Topps decided to ruin it with gimmicks.   

They’ll probably fuck it up again with gimmicks, but that’s for another column.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Notes and Observations from the 2012 NSCC

The National Sports Collectors Convention was this past weekend in Baltimore and I attended the show this past Saturday. Since the last Baltimore NSCC two years ago, much has changed both in The Hobby and in my personal life – not the least of which is my current economic situation. I had no plans on attending this year’s show mainly due to the fact that I lacked the funds to go.

I wasn’t going to go until Chris Thomas (whom you probably know as my Baseball Card Pedia collaborator) essentially ordered me to go and subsidized most of my trip. He pretty much paid for everything the entire weekend, and for that I’m forever grateful.

I’m also forever grateful to that anonymous dumb schmuck who dropped $60 in cash on the floor of the Baltimore Convention Center. I had exactly zero dollars to spend on cards going in. With that $60 ground score, I was able to do something I haven’t done in months: spend money on baseball cards. I had no intention on buying anything, but with a little walking-around money in my pocket I was able to walk away with about $40 worth of 90s and early-2000s inserts.

When my found money was spent, I was able to do some observing. Here’s what I found.

1. The Hobby ain’t dead.

No, the crowds were as large as the Saturday of the 2010 National, but the econoomy being what it is, it was still a pretty decent sized crowd. Steady business and not a whole lot of downtime at the tables. Too bad Armen Keteyian and Dave Jamison weren’t around to see this side of The Hobby.

2. You really, really, don’t need a ticket to ride the Baltimore Light Rail.

Technically, you do have to purchase a ticket. But they don’t bother checking it. If they don’t bother, why should you?

3. I am the most hated person at Topps.

I don’t want to get into too much detail, but … there was an incident between myself and a certain Topps employee at a water fountain. He/she knows who he/she is and that’s all I got to say about that.

4. Speaking of Topps, their corporate booth wasn’t really all that busy.

In the four or five times I walked past or gawked at the Topps corporate booth, I counted more Topps employees than collectors. Granted, Topps’ NSCC redemption program was only available during a certain time of day, and I guess I must have missed that. But (and this is only my personal opinion), I got the impression that Topps really, really, didn’t want to be there, and by the looks in the faces of those staffing the booth, it showed.

5. Nobody gives a shit about Topps Mini Baseball.

The much ballyhooed website-and-NSCC-exclusive mini-sized parallel went over like a giant diarrhea turd in a punchbowl. You’d think that a low-production (only 8400 waxboxes produced) product that delivers six inserts, five low-numbered parallels serial-numbered to 61 or less, and a BIG MOJO HIT! for $50 a box would sell like hotcakes, right?

And you would be wrong. I have no idea exactly how many of those 8400 waxboxes they brought to Baltimore, and have no idea how many boxes were allocated for sale on Saturday, but I sure as hell didn’t see a whole lot of collectors actually buying minis. In fact, every one of those times I passed the Topps booth, their display counter was packed to the gills with Mini boxes.

The guys over at Freedom Cardboard said they bought a dozen boxes – although that probably had to do more with providing content for their live webcast than anything else – and I only saw one dealer selling singles. Other than that, I did not observe a single collector opening a pack of Topps Mini Baseball in the six hours I was on the floor.

6. Topps Minis wasn’t the only new “anonymous” baseball product.

Just like with Topps Minis, I could not find a single dealer selling boxes or singles of 2012 SP Signature Edition. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough, but I didn’t even notice it at the Upper Deck booth. Not even an empty display box.

7. The price of a gallon of unleaded may have doubled in price since the last Baltimore National, but the price of "street water" has not been affected.

It’s still ice cold, and still only a buck.

8. You can get anything you want at The NSCC … Except late-90s wax.

The initials NSCC do not stand for “National Sports CARD Convention.” There was a lot of memorabilia for sale (and in some cases, not for sale). And there were a lot of vintage cards for sale as well. There was new and recent wax available, and junkwax by the pallet load. But if you’re looking for wax from 1994-2000, you’re out of luck.

9. Football memorabilia is completely undervalued.

I’ve never seen game-used (and in some cases World Cup-used) football kits at an American card show before. I was actually able to touch the Argentina shirt Lionel Messi – the greatest athlete in any team sport in the world, right now -- wore against South Korea in the 2010 World Cup. I also saw some pretty sweet game-used shirts from the likes of Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Charlton, and even a Santos shirt worn by Pele himself. Best of all, you can probably pick-up one of these for less than $10,000.

10. Suzy Lulgjuraj has no idea who Diego Maradona is.

You'd think the new editor of Beckett Football would know who Diego Maradona is, am i right? Well that's what I thought. But as it turns out, Beckett Football has nothing to do with football. Somehow, it's a magazine about handegg cards.

11. If you've never been to the NSCC, what's your excuse?

If you call yourself a card collector and haven't been to the NSCC, then you're not really a card collector. This is our Mecca. If you're reading this, start planning your hajj to Rosemont next Summer.