Is the Cost of Cards Worth the Reward?

Money photo by Tracy Olson via Flickr.

Y’all — that means “You All” for the Yankees — the hockey card market is getting out of hand. Normally I’d look at buying a box of Upper Deck Series One or Two to enjoy, save the hits, collect a few of the players I like, and entertain everyone with another Best of the Worst post. This past fall with Series One, I dragged my feet on writing that post because there weren’t a whole lot of crazy photos and I wasn’t super-inspired.

I also wasn’t too crazy about the price I paid for the box vs. the cards that I got out of it. Two out of three boxes didn’t yield a jersey card, and outside of a mildly-rarer Shining Stars Alex Ovechkin and one or two Young Guns that may or may not pan out, it was fairly hitless. I shopped around to buy that box online for $70-75; in a local shop it would have cost me at least $85 to $100! The same goes for Series Two which was released in March. Looking at the list of who is in that set and the likelihood of getting anything of value, I can’t say it’s worth the price of admission. There just isn’t much going on in there.

The disparaging look of the other products out there doesn’t seem to help either. There are a number of high-end products that were created for the idea of selling you a box with one pack of cards that would include some ridiculous hit, some less-than-mediocre hits, and then maybe a base card or two for no one to collect the whole series of. Online, these boxes/packs will run you just around $100 to $300. I was fine with this when it was just UD Black; if you really wanted to gamble with your money, there was an option for you.

But do we need SP Game Used (and SPx isn’t much better, BTW), SP Authentic, Ice, O-Pee-Chee Platinum, Trilogy, Leaf In The Game, good ol’ UD Black, Leaf Ultimate, President’s Choice Blue & White Centennial, and Black Diamond, which has become the KISS of the hockey card world; just because they have diamonds embedded in them doesn’t mean those rocks are worth spit! At least Upper Deck Artifacts sports a healthy amount of cards in a hobby box, but at an average of $85 online, are you getting your money’s worth?

That’s all high-end gambling, and yeah, we’ve had some generational talents roll in with Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Auston Mathews, and some other very good rookies as well. But does it really warrant all these sets? What happens next season when the rookie talent crop is expected to drop off significantly?

If Upper Deck Series One and Two are the bar that all other products are compared to, what comes in below them are few and fall off fast: a couple of unlicensed Leaf products, O-Pee-Chee’s usual 1980s-esque base set, and an ever-disappointing MVP box.  

Now I know what you’re probably asking, “But Jim ‘Not The Goalie’ Howard, where are the fabulous Panini cards?” The answer is “probably keeping the frigid embers of Hell a-light whilst Lucifer continues to chew Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.” Really, they just didn’t produce any this year.

Now, thanks to Upper Deck’s e-Pack concept, the already-low value of 99% of the cards has fallen dramatically. If base cards are worth less than a cent, why would you want to pay north of $70 plus shipping for a whole box of them? They have pretty much the same value as a post-World War I Deutsche Mark, except we don’t heat houses with fires and little kids don’t make kites to fly so they serve less of a purpose.

With E-packs, those cards don’t even exist, but you just paid for them. And if you don’t want them, they never get printed, but still exist online, dragging the value down. The card company just took your money and gave you NOTHING!

What these companies are selling you is potential. You MIGHT get a McDavid autograph. You MIGHT get an Austin Mathews material card featuring a piece of his game-used sock. Hey, you’re a winner if you do! You MIGHT get a Strome or a Puljuarvi, in which case you break even.  

Or your big hit ends up being Shawn Hunwick* — Cue The Price Is Right Loser Horn™.  You don’t know until you pay the piper and get to rippin’, but on the offhand chance that you get that case hit, the value of that box just dropped tremendously; there’s no longer a mystery, there’s no longer potential, there’s no longer speculation of what lies within.

Maybe in these crazy card years, it’s better to buy these boxes (preferably on sale) but never open them, then sell them years later down the road. After all, we’ve seen this before during Sid and Ovi’s rookie card years.  Those boxes still hold a good value to this day, selling on eBay for over $100. From a fiduciary standpoint, you are far better off just going online to eBay, Sports Cards Direct, or any online shop to acquire the cards you want for a fraction of what you’d pay to take a chance on a hobby box.

As far as 2016-17 stands, Upper Deck is the monopoly of hockey trading cards who has no real competition but themselves to dictate price or quality of product. And it shows. But you and I DO have a choice of how we spend our hard-earned dollars. Hobby collectibles are only worth what people are willing to pay for them, and if you don’t like the price you see now, just wait and eventually you will likely see it drop later. 

Granted, these companies plan these products long in advance, so I don’t hold much hope that my words will do much for their 2017-18 hockey cards, but I would like to see higher-end hobby box wealth humbled a little and see some more mid and lower-tier boxes do better. And please, make Series One and Two worth the buck I pay again; each and every box. 

*NOTE: Shawn Hunwick is a national treasure!  His hockey card is not.

Jim Howard is a Carolina Hurricanes fan and reformed baseball card collector who is trying to keep the hockey collection from becoming overwhelming. And while he wishes he could give Crosby the business with his mitt, he is in fact NOT the goalie for the Red Wings.



Author: Jim Howard

Hockey enthusiast who pays the bills as a traveling geologist. More of a lover than a fighter, he's a fairly cheap date; just ask his wife. He'd prefer to be outside in the rain that stuck in the office on a beautiful day.

11 thoughts on “Is the Cost of Cards Worth the Reward?”

  1. Agree competely. I don’t buy much high end, and since that’s all that’s “hot” now, Upper Deck (and all the other exclusive companies in their respective sports) will ignore all the other product types.

    I haven’t bought any significant hockey for the last five years or so. And O-Pee-Chee is about the only set I like since it’s usually without total rookie saturation or short prints.

  2. For me, ePack is a welcome change. It actually makes it more fun. There are a lot of different things I can do with them and for me, it actually makes the commons worth something.

  3. I’ve been back collecting cards for just over a year. ePack, breaks, boxes, shows and have come to realize I have wasted a bunch of time and money. What’s best for me is wait it out on the new products and cherry pick what I do want. I like the older cards anyway.

    I’d set collect if it wasn’t for the over saturation of worthless inserts and parallels. Upper Deck is getting there money but it’s just burning out the collectors.

    1. I think you’re right Kirk, but I don’t have any answers for what to do with UD; They pretty much run the table on products and will swallow any real competition that should arise.

      Maybe we message or email them and let them know what it is that we the collectors want in a product?

  4. Jimmy was on the button on this one. I haven’t bought any card this year at all because I either couldn’t get my hands on a box or I wasn’t stupid enough to pay well over $120 for a box of Series 1 or 2. The commons are totally worthless now (You could have traded physical cards into some dealers who buy in bulk and would at least pay you 3 cards for a penny or sold off large heaps of commons for something, but good luck with the e-version) and frankly I feel like buying an electronic box or pack is the same as getting a lottery ticket. And funny I should suggest that as here as there is strong similarities to Ontario here where OLG has made strides in online gambling which feels like an easier way (you can gamble 24/7 as long as you have money) for someone to hand over their paycheck in their underwear from the privacy of their own home as opposed to at least having to make the trek to the casino. Not saying they are the same, but then isn’t it?
    But the lack of value really bothers me. I’ll never just simply pay someone to not give me anything concrete of value in return (outside of the government that is). I just can’t justify spending on a box or pack with the hope of getting something of actual value while I’ll never materially get my hands on a base card. I don’t like that. Plus there simply isn’t the fun of opening a pack in your hands.
    I don’t get it – Sure it is easier to trade e-cards and is more attractive to some of us younger folks, but other than that, what’s the point and what’s stopping UD from printing as many as they want and flooding the market? At least with physical cards your limited to as much as they can literally print until the next product is released. Not good. I was also told by my local dealer they couldn’t get their hands on as much product this year because it was short printed. They told me that it appears UD wants to shift people off physical and onto the e-pack format and they’ll simply make it impossible to get physical stuff in order to do it. The worst part is that likely chokes off the LHS and card dealers – meaning that in 5 to 10 year we could have a lot less than we do now. That in itself is reason enough to not like this.
    As much as I would love a Matthews rookie or a Matt Murray rookie, I’ll likely shift more to vintage where the values are steady and likely to continue to go up instead of spending my budget on new product that I don’t see as being valuable moving forward.

    1. I looked around this weekend to see if there were any products I felt like buying and I’m in the same boat as you. It’s prohibitively expensive. And in line with your comments about the lottery or gambling, you probably have a better chance at breaking even doing one of those than you do with buying a box of cards. Probably a much better chance.

      I’m sure an economics professor could explain it better than me, but there are parallels you can draw between the sport cards and the finance of some third world countries who print or burn money on a whim to control it’s value and keep things unstable. Which is the reason why more than 50% of the US’s physical money is located outside the US; its cheaper than gold so they can acquire it but a lot more stable than most of the world’s cash. I think you’re right about the short supply at least initially. I think they constrict the number of boxes that go out in the first few printings because it causes a stir, boosts sales and value initially, but if the demand is there they’ll print more. There maybe fewer of those premium rookies to be found but what does it cost for them to print a box really? Especially if they aren’t doing anything complicated like making a material card.

      What’s an Austin Mathews rookie going for in a shop up there these days?

      1. Great website! A lot of fun reading the articles. Enjoy the articles in the Hockey News as well.

        Don’t understand the ePack craze. Half the fun is ripping open packs and touching the cards. Then again, I’m in my mid 40’s and a bit old school. Still have a newspaper subscription and buy music in the physical format.

        A Patrick Laine sold in Winnipeg for $175, tax not included. Thought the lady was going to have a heart attack when told of the price.

        I ended up walking out of the card shop with a 53/54 Topps Elwin ‘Al’ Rollins card.

        1. Hi Dennis, and welcome to Puck Junk. Thank you for your compliments on this website, as well as my articles in The Hockey News. I agree with what you said — I too want to open cards, look at them, flip through them, read them…and I can’t do that satisfactorily with a cell phone.

      2. I totally hear you on the economics parallels regarding US cash and frankly, I feel the same way about holding US cash (in addition to gold/silver).

        As for a Matthews, I have seen the prices all over the place. Initial pricing was $100 but the last one I have seen was pushing $250-275. I didn’t make it to the Toronto show 2 weeks ago, so I am not 100% on the Toronto market (I am betting it could be going for a lot more). Here in Ottawa, your probably closing in on $300 if you can find it. Definitely in the Crosby RC sphere, however I am feeling more buzz about it – probably because Matthews is a Leaf.

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