The Changing Face of Non-Sport Card Collecting is Here

With this week's release of Rittenhouse Archives' Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the reality of non-sport cards entering a new era became a reality. While 5finity, Breygent, Cult Stuff and some independent manufacturers have been doing premium packs for a while now, they've mostly all revolved around sketch cards. The only exception that I can think of is Breygent's Paranormal Activity, but the print run seems to be so small that it was almost top secret. Panini's Americana and Leaf's Pop Century sets should also be considered premium sets, although they are not fully licensed.

But now it's all about to change. Rittenhouse has a big slate of premium card releases coming this year. Breygent is moving in the same direction with non-sketch sets, even tweaking their format in response to collector feedback. The 36- and 24-pack box might not be disappearing altogether, but the $50 pack of cards looks like it's going to be a big part of the new non-sport hobby reality.

For the past past decade, the base set has been in decline. Overshadowed by the promise of one autograph per box, then one autograph and one memorabilia card, then any mix of as many as six hits per box, base cards largely became filler. As more collectors shifted to box buying over packs, these sets, usually falling about two per box plus lots of extras, piled up. Supply quickly outpaced demand and now most base sets can be had for a couple of dollars. I still see base sets as the cornerstone of the hobby, but with an ever-increasing number of boxes filled with base cards, I'm very much open to having less base cards floating around.

The idea behind the premium pack is getting the same number of cards you would in a box minus the base cards at a lower price point. For example, with Spartacus, a six-card pack has two autographs, two inserts (numbered /350) and two base cards (numbered /250). This is pretty much exactly what a traditional $60-70 Rittenhouse box would offer save for about 200 base cards. The cost? Packs can be found online for about $50 including shipping.

Breygent has been taking a similar approach with their past couple of sets. Although they offered factory sets of base cards, in response to feedback, their changing their format further. Rather than including only a couple of base cards in a pack, beginning with The Tudors, they're going to include an entire base set along with nine inserts, one autograph and one costume or prop card. Not really a pack, not really a box, this seems more like a package.

For my collecting habits, there's pros and cons to each of these. With a premium pack like Rittenhouse's, shipping becomes less of a factor. I don't have any hobby shops nearby that carry non-sport cards except for some dusty leftover boxes of Indiana Jones Heritage still priced as they were when they came out. Therefore, if I want to buy a box, I normally need to factor in an additional $15-20 just to get it to me in the mail. With a pack, that shipping cost drops dramatically. But then it's tough to build a base set, something I'm not willing to give up on.

Breygent's approach definitely appeals to the set collector in me, but with the larger number of cards, the shipping factor is going to come into play once again.

There's also the fact that dropping $50 is a lot different than $3-5 on a pack. Looking at what's available for Spartacus, I think I might be more inclined to pick up a couple of autographs singles than a pack. The big drawback there is that there's joy found in ripping packs, even when it's only base cards. Sliding them through your fingers, looking at the photography, struggling with sticky foil, discovering the pack with the autograph - much of that is out the window with the premium pack. It's one and done in seconds. You know you're getting your hits. Much of the surprise is gone. But if you can spring for it, the value's definitely there.

Perhaps most importantly, this new format is enabling manufacturers to make sets that might not otherwise see the hobby light. But even some hobby heavyweights are heading in that direction. Rittenhouse's next set, Lost Relics will have one autograph and three memorabilia cards in every pack. Although the show might not be on the air any more, it's still got a devoted following. In this instance, I think it's a good way to breath new life into a license that has been covered. Prior to Relics, Lost has had a great run of six full-on sets between both Inkworks and Rittenhouse Archives. How much more can be done with base cards?

Non-sport licenses don't have the luxury of sports licenses. Take baseball as one example. There's about a set per month, many of which have their own angle and price point. You can get set-focused releases for a couple dollars a pack, luxury sets priced at several hundreds of dollars per pack and everything in between. There really is something for everyone.

With non-sport cards, that can't be done as easily. There might be slight variations in price points for some of the legacy brands like Star Wars and Star Trek, but nothing like sports. This is making this evolution for some non-sport collectors tough. It has long been a hobby of tradition - perhaps, at times, to a fault.

In a perfect world, we would be able to find sets that would, in theory, make everyone happy. With my experiences in the different areas of trading cards, this is never the case. People are going to find reasons not to like anything. Premium packs are no different. For me, I'm not changing things up much. While I do have an itch to go out and order a pack of Spartacus just to try them, it isn't a set I would've normally bought. But that's largely because I'm only a casual fan of the show, not because of the way the packs are distributed and produced.

It's a new world for non-sport cards. The sky isn't falling. The hobby's only changing, not ending. While $50 packs might make things a little less spontaneous for many, the reality is that spontaneous single-pack purchases aren't really an option for the majority of card collectors starved for a local hobby shop. We've been buying by the box for years and piling up the base sets along the way.

Ultimately, it comes down to choice. Some collectors I believe will walk away from the hobby because of this movement. Maybe not right away but when the first premium James Bond, Star Wars or Marvel Comics set comes along, I fully expect a vocal lot to come forward. But what about the other side? What about those that aren't interested in the base cards and inserts but love the autographs and sketch cards? These fancy packs might bring folks into non-sport cards. Sports collectors are long used to these sorts of packs. The attraction of a big-name celebrity autograph could certainly push collectors into the non-sport direction.

Right now, premium packs are an experiment -- a work in progress. Many collectors have felt the economic pinch. So have the manufacturers. They're doing what they can to survive and still make cards. The format will change, likely from set to set and license to license. Personally, I think it's freshening up the hobby in many ways. I also get discouraged when I hear people slam it before even seeing how it works out. Even if you can't go after a premium pack, they're built in such a way that singles can be purchased at reasonable prices. Even base cards seem to have some value, judging by what Spartacus singles and sets are listed for.

In the words of Bob Dylan, "The times, they are a-changin'."

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