House of Cards: Can Competition Harm Consumers?

March 18, 2010

- See all 763 of my articles

First, I’d like to welcome the new readers who came here via The Digerati Life. Hang around for a while, explore the archives, and consider becoming a subscriber. We’ve been pretty sports-heavy in the last week – if you look through the archives, you’ll see that we’re usually a lot more eclectic.

Second, I am happy to announce the release of my new eBook – Selling Yourself Short – An Introduction to Short Story Writing. Selling Yourself Short is a 2500 word introduction to the process of short story writing – from creating your writing environment to developing the plot. In an effort to keep this handy guide affordable to all of our readers, the everyday price is just $1.49. However, for the next week, the price is just 99 cents. Don’t like it? There’s a money back guarantee! Buy it today at the Hyrax Publications store.


In 1981, buoyed by a court case against Topps, Fleer re-entered the baseball card market for the first time in two decades.  They were joined by newcomer Donruss.  Suddenly, consumers had a choice of which brand of baseball card to buy.

For several years, competition made the industry better.  Each company attempted to make their brand the most attractive.  By 1988, there were four mainstream brands, with Score also in the mix.  A pack of 15-16 cards (Score had 1 more card than everyone else) went for 50 cents.  It was a great time.  I spent much time trying to compile complete sets, or at least sets for my favorite team.

In the 1990s, the game began to change.  A new brand, Upper Deck, pushed the industry into the direction of premium brands in 1989 when they debuted with hologram-enhanced cards.  By the mid 1990s, each company had several brands, from high end to the base line.

I’ll admit that I took advantage of the situation.  Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the flashy “insert” cards that had begun to drive the industry.  In 1993, by random chance, I had absurdly good luck getting redemption cards for Topps’ Black Gold sets in packs.  I was pulling these at a much higher rate than the published odds.

I took these cards (redeemable for either 11, 22, or 44 cards in the high end Black Gold set) and immediately traded them to my friend Justin – for unopened packs of Topps cards.  Within those unopened packs, I would routinely find another Black Gold winner, which would restart the cycle.  I completed two sets of 1993 Topps cards at almost no expense.

In the late 90s, the base set of cards began to become an afterthought as everyone chased after the rare cards that were randomly inserted.  Instead of cherishing a card of one of their heroes, people would be disappointed that they hadn’t pulled a card featuring someone’s autograph.  It had become a case of the tail wagging the dog.

In an effort to fulfill demand, the industry began to create ever increasing volumes of rare card.  Each specific example was quite limited – but there were hundreds, if not thousands, of different varieties of “limited” cards.  In some sets, nearly every pack had some sort of “rare” card.

Not surprisingly, the fact that each set contained more “special” cards allowed manufacturers to slowly raise the price of cards.  No longer could you spend 50 cents on a pack of 15 cards.  Now it was $2, $3, or even $5 for just a handful of cards.

That’s the point at which I bailed out of the card market.  It no longer made financial sense to put together complete sets.  With the base cards now just a necessary by-product of the specialty cards, the value dropped through the floor.  It was easier just to pick up a set the next year at a bargain basement price.

Years later, I still just buy a couple of packs of new cards a year.  When I buy cards, I buy things from other collectors or shops.  Sometimes these are newer cards of my favorite players, but more often, I buy cards from bygone eras.  Over the winter, I made a very pleasurable purchase, picking up a T-206 baseball card of Lefty Leifeld for $15.  For the same price as a few packs of 2010 cards, I could have a 100 year old card that was rare by chance of fate rather than by design of the manufacturer.

If the card manufacturers still consistently produced a base set of cards at a decent price, I would probably buy them and put together complete sets.  I always enjoyed the thrill of the hunt – trying vainly to find the last nine cards you needed to complete the entire 792 card Topps set.  Alas, the companies have lost their focus on what was their core product, and in the process, lost a lot of potential customers – people who were kids in the 80s and 90s and are now achieving financial success.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Squeaky
    Mar 18, 2010 @ 10:44:10

    Interesting history with this Kosmo. It’s interesting to hear how the market opened up and the companies tried to squeeze more money out of the collectors. Did that impact the value of the cards you had been collecting?

    I haven’t ever been a card collector (other than the original Star Wars cards back in the late 70s.) I loved that and would trade with friends every chance I got. I’m assuming you were the same way with B-Ball cards but on a much more serious level.

    Glad to hear you’re saving your money and investing in some good quality coffee beans, microbrews or whatever your liking.

    Have a great one.



  2. Brad
    Mar 18, 2010 @ 10:55:50

    If I were collecting today, it’d be Allen and Ginter…nice looking cards.


  3. kosmo
    Mar 18, 2010 @ 12:11:32

    @ Squeaky – yeah, the market for 80s/90s cards is pretty bad. I recently picked up several complete sets fopr $5-$7 each. They probably retailed for $25-$30 at the time.


  4. Squeaky
    Mar 18, 2010 @ 15:42:05

    YIKES Kosmo. That stinks! You can share the cards with your kids. Possibly in time the values will rebound.


Leave a Reply