Trading cards and kids. It seems like a natural combination. After all, virtually every adult collector began their involvement with trading cards when they were kids. And give many of today's kids a pack of cards and they'll eagerly tear it open, frantically searching for a card that will generate oohs and aahs among their friends.
It's not that today's kids aren't still interested in trading cards, but a smaller percentage of kids are actively collecting cards than they have in the past. Unfortunately, it's a trend that has been consistent for more than a decade.
Catering To Adults
Is the trading card industry to blame? In some ways, yes. The "boom years" of the 1980s and early 1990s were largely triggered by sales of cards to adults, not kids. As more companies entered the market, and those companies each began to offer multiple brands, the trend was to expand via higher-priced offerings aimed at experienced buyers.
There has long been a belief that kids have been "priced out" of the new card market. That's not entirely true; there have always been a variety of low-priced brands that kids or any entry-level collector could afford to purchase.
But for the better part of the last 20 years, the focus of the hobby has been on premium brands with higher price points. Rare autograph cards, 1-of-1 memorabilia offerings, short-print rookie autographs have all been great tools for creating a buzz around specific products, but rarely has there been any buzz surrounding something that came from a 99-cent pack.
Kids have their own ideas about what's cool, and what's been cool in the sports card market for the past few years has been the stuff coming out of packs sporting $5, $10 or $20 pack prices. Kids haven't been able to be active participants in that segment of the market.
While the industry is at fault for putting its focus more on adults in recent years than kids, a variety of other outside factors have played into the reasons fewer kids are involved with cards. The boom in entertainment options, particularly high-tech toys, has been a far tougher challenge for the hobby to overcome than simply adjusting its price points.
Video games, the Internet, cell phones, digital music players are all hot areas of interest with youngsters. But it hasn't just been high-tech toys that have taken money away from the card hobby. The popularity of collectible card games - Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and the like - not only took a lot of money out of the sports card market, it frustrated many manufacturers and licensors as they watched kids spending hundreds of millions of dollars on products that were no more high-tech than sports cards. But instead, the games featured the kind of interactivity and peer acceptance that cards had enjoyed years earlier.
A New Focus
For several years, manufacturers and licensors have talked about the need to get more kids interested in the hobby and have put various programs in place to expose kids to trading cards.
While some of those programs have had sporadic success, they basically focused on the same premise: Product sampling. Get some free cards into the hands of kids, and hope they'd come back for more.
This year, the efforts put forth to bring kids back into the marketplace by Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association, Topps and Upper Deck have been far more comprehensive. Not only is the multi-million dollar financial investment significant, but so is the breadth of the efforts.
In-stadium giveaways and signage, television and print advertising, Internet sites with games and contests specific to how to build collections, the National Baseball Card Day store promotion, marketing alliances with video game manufacturers, showing Boy Scout troops how to earn a merit badge by building a specific collection of baseball cards and other efforts have created a multi-pronged approach to not only get kids to consider buying a pack of cards, but also to build interaction with cards.
Judy Heeter, director of licensing for the MLBPA, said one of the differences with this year's efforts is to educate kids about cards. "One of the problems with our efforts in the past was we could get cards into kids hands, but then they didn't know what to do next," Heeter said. "Nobody ever really explained to kids the different ways to collect - collect all the cards from one team, players who shared your same first name - how to trade, that kind of thing. So education is key."
As an example of how some of this year's marketing efforts are aimed at the educational aspect, Upper Deck's in-stadium card giveaways this season don't just feature a pack of cards. Instead, they feature a mini-album with a starter set of cards and photos of the cards the kids still need to obtain to complete their set.
Meanwhile, the MLBPA has created a website (www.bbcards.com) whereby kids can enter to win prizes by completing specific themed collections of cards.
"Everyone told us that the best way to reach kids online would be to associate baseball cards with games," said Evan Kaplan, the MLBPA's category director of trading cards and collectibles.
Still A Viable Market
Is the card industry fighting a losing battle? Are cards too low tech for today's kids?
Marketing expert Sid Good doesn't think so. The president of Cleveland-based Good Marketing, Inc., addressed the industry at its 2006 Hawaii Trade Conference to offer feedback on how the sports card industry can better market its products to kids and gave examples of industries that have managed to make their products "cool."
Good said all indicators are that sports cards have a great chance for success in their marketing efforts because kids surveyed by his agency said sports cards are a fixture "and will be around forever." Just as importantly, he said parents like their kids collecting cards, especially compared to many of today's entertainment options. "Parents love the fact that their kids collect sports cards," he said. "Cards have educational value."
Good said sports cards could take a lesson from the bowling industry, which non-observers might not have noticed has marketed to kids with "cosmic bowling," "rock and roll bowling" and promotion of events like birthday parties to become the No. 1 sports/leisure activity among kids 6 years old and older.
He said the most important thing to remember is that kids don't have the same motivations or desires as adults. "Clearly kids have a different frame of reference," Good said. "We have to look at the world through their eyes."
Good also stressed the need for advertising to children, and said you can't start too soon. He said children begin to develop brand awareness as early as 2 years old. "If you've ever driven in a car with a 2-year-old going past McDonald's, you understand the point," Good said. "And the 'tween' market, which is kind of the core of the audience you're looking at (8-12), they learn about 'cool stuff' mainly through advertising and through peers."
The fact that kids still find cards entertaining was underlined by the results of a recent survey of several hundred kids and their attitudes towards the hobby. The results survey (at right), were analyzed by Professor Kim Beason of the University of Mississippi.
Beason repeated the need for the industry to educate kids about cards. Simply giving away free cards is not enough, he said, using the example of giving kids a soccer ball to play with. Simply giving them the ball will entertain them for a while, he said, but giving them the ball with some instruction on how to play and stressing the enjoyment of the sport will likely result in them playing the game longer and enjoying it even more.
Beason also stressed the importance of educating parents about the hobby, noting that youngsters who are currently collecting are three times as likely to ha ve parents who are also collecting than those whose parents are not familiar with the hobby.
A hobby shop is a perfect place for kids to learn about the hobby because it offers a wide selection of cards and (presumably) a store owner who is willing to explain the nuances of the hobby to youngsters.
A number of hobby retailers have put programs in place to attract kids to their stores. They agree that kids need to be walked through the various aspects of collecting, but stressed that those efforts can pay long-term rewards.
"I think dealers are more like educators than we realize," said John Arcand, who along with his wife own Big John and Little Debby's, a card store in Chicago. "We have to educate them on the products in order to sell the products. Some of these kids spend hours at our shop. We have tables set up for them, we have computers set up. They want to open packs, they want to trade, they want to play games, they want to be entertained. In an industry that is competing for entertainment dollars, we must first be entertaining. But we also have a responsibility to be educators."
Jim Bernardini, owner of Lefty's Sports Cards in San Bruno, Calif., said dealers must be willing to treat kids differently than regular customers.
"We're imposing to kids, so I get out from behind the counter and, sometimes, get down on my knees and talk to them," Bernardini said. "You have to treat kids like they'll be your customers for the future. Do something to make them feel important. Kids like to feel important."
The era of kids putting cards in their bike spokes, playing flipping games and ignoring any and all aspects of a card's potential value is likely over. But the notion that kids have completely outgrown cards is not accurate, either. In today's high-tech world, getting the message out about the fun of collecting is as important as ever. The industry is learning the way it delivers that message has to keep up with the times.