Jul 19, 2017
The Great 2017 Baseball Card Price-out: A Commentary
I feel like a majority of collectors are being priced out of the market for new releases. Today, would normally be a day for celebration and reveling since it is the release of the Allen & Ginter brand. This is a set of which I have bought at least one box every year since 2007 when I found my way back to the hobby (including of the X brands from 2015 and 2016). This year, for the first time, I am considering not buying a box. There is one simple reason and that is cost.
A hobby box of Allen & Ginter is hovering between $115-$135/box from what I've seen while searching over the last couple days. This is $20 more than I've ever paid for a hobby box of this brand over the past 10 years. This price spike happened just before release day. Initial pre-sales did start in the $88-$98 range when the brand release date was first made known, so the initial cost from factory was definitely not that high.
This is a phenomenon which has become endemic across the entire 2017 baseball card product lineup. (Note: the following comparisons are estimated based on my memory and current listings at major online retailers) Bowman-$100/box over initial offering, Bowman Platinum-$45/box over initial offering, Topps Archives-$60/box over initial offering, Finest-$75/box over initial offering, Gypsy Queen-$80/box over initial offering, Topps Heritage-$100/box over initial offering, Topps Series 1-$30/box over initial offering, Stadium Club-$30/box over initial offering.
Rookie crazes have generally driven price increases in the past, but not this extent, with such drastic increases so soon after lunch. It seems like every year there is a rookie that the hobby is clamoring for, but it usually takes time for the box prices to climb after supply has dried up. As far as I can tell, supply is still being replenished for many of the 2017 brands (especially those that were launched this month). Demand can still outstrip supply even in these cases, but as collectors, must we all rise for the Judge?
I am just thinking back to the can't miss prospects of the past few years when the present rookie craze really took hold. In 2010, Stephen Strasburg sent 2010 Bowman boxes to approximately $200/box. In 2011, Bryce Harper impacted Bowman branded products (Mike Trout was not recognized until the end of 2012). In 2012, Bryce Harper came back with a Yu Darvish buddy, but even Topps Chrome was affordable for a time. In 2013, Yasiel Puig became the face of that year's sets; there were some steep rises until Puig cards were available in all sets. In 2014, Jose Abreu set the world on fire for half a season, and George Springer and Kyle Schwarber also became prominent. In 2015, Kris Bryant was the rookie to chase and Carlos Correa joined the fray, but even then prices didn't rise to the stratosphere until a year later. In 2016, Corey Seager hit the forefront of the hobby consciousness, and Gary Sanchez and Andrew Benintendi soon followed.
As you can see from this brief survey, there's always the next shiny thing to chase in this hobby, and it hasn't impacted the overall market like this until 2017. Before as supply dried up and people realized that prices were rising, certain sets really caught the imagination at much later dates compared to release such as 2011 Topps Update (Trout, Altuve), 2008 Topps Update (Kershaw), 2008 Bowman Draft (Posey), 2009 Bowman Draft (Trout), 2011 Bowman Draft (many), 2015 Topps Heritage High (Bryant, Correa), 2015 Topps Chrome (Bryant), etc.
There were just a few sets that I remember that rose in price almost immediately over the years. The most prominent were 2011 Gypsy Queen (supply issue) and 2014 Topps Archives (Major League, the movie, autos). These seemed to be isolated cases and did not cause all sets around them to rise in price in their wake.
This year, however, has no wake, instead, nearly every set has been caught in the rising tide. Every set is seen as a boom or mega boom proposition when this is clearly not the case. At these present price points, if you don't hit a mega star or Aaron Judge auto, the value of the box will likely not come close to matching what you paid.
As a collector, value is not my primary concern when ripping open a hobby box, but I also don't want to feel like I was getting shorted because of market forces. Buying a box of a set like National Treasures or Museum Collection or Dynasty is a completely different bundle of circumstances because those brands are meant to be high risk, high reward. The problem with the current state of the market is that everything becomes high risk, instead of only collectible, and it is hard to justify a box purchase from a brand from 2017. I am a so-called "first world" collector, and I am unwilling to take on that risk.
It was once well understood that there existed such a thing as low-end, mid-end, high-end, and higher than high-end. Box price ranges for each level were generally gauged to be $35-50, $65-95, $120-$250, and $250+, respectively. Each level offered a certain expectation for what you would get for that price point. Now that expectation is muddled as the mid-end (where I would assume most "first-world" card collectors including myself feel comfortable for the majority of their purchases) has moved into the high-end and as a consequence, the stable of products in the high-end has increased, leaving many collectors behind to not be able to buy their favorite products to which they've developed loyalty and affinity over the years.
I have found alternate routes to satisfy my new card buying wants and needs. I have bought the complete set of 2017 Allen & Ginter because the set cost more than 50% less than a box. I will buy a few retail packs to round out the collection; I do like to get a sampling of the minis and for the first time in a while, I am forced to forgo collecting all the full-size inserts from this year's offering. Stadium Club is another clear example where retail packs are the only affordable option.
Retail is good for casual collectors, those without access to a hobby retailer, and for sampling a brand, but it does not replace being able to rip open a hobby box of your favorite brand. The expectation and the results vary greatly from hobby to retail with respect to guaranteed "hits", insert odds, and cards per pack or cards per box.
And so here I sit lamenting the state of the current hobby because I am invested in it. It is an infinite quest to find and discover. It is a journey to connect to the present, past, and future. It is an accumulation of knowledge of baseball and its players.
I am not leaving the hobby, but because of the Great Baseball Card Price-out, my parameters for what I may want to collect in a given year have changed. I am no longer a frequent customer of current product. Instead, there is a sense that I am adrift and I would like to be tethered back to this hobby in the same way, which has been a part of most of my life, again.