When you look for innovations that have had a significant and lasting impact on the history of trading cards, the list is fairly short.
Full-color photography, the switch to the 21/2-by-31/2-inch format, the use of thicker and glossier card stocks and computer graphics technology have all played a role in setting the standard for modern trading card products.
Another of those innovations is marking its 10th year in the hobby and, like the others, will likely become a permanent part of the marketplace.
Game-used memorabilia cards made their debut in 1996, at a time when card companies (and there were far more around than there are today) were looking for any way possible to differentiate their products from the competition.
Gone were the days when card designs alone were the key difference maker between various companies. As more brands started to hit the market, more bells and whistles had to be added to products in order to for them to succeed. Foil stamping, glossy coatings, multi-colored foil backgrounds, die-cut designs, insert cards, parallel sets, 3-D designs, motion cards and more were all used to help products stand out from the competition and entice collectors.
After a few years of dazzling the hobby with every new printing technology available, the wow factor was turning more into a ho-hum factor, so something else was needed to capture the attention of collectors. Scarcity became a key selling factor and helped boost sales among speculators, but simply producing a card or set in lower numbers than your competitors wasn't the smartest move for a company's bottom line.
Autograph cards were one of most successful in-pack promotions that attracted collectors. People had been asking players to sign trading cards for years, so offering a signed card within a pack was (and still is) considered a natural premium.
It didn't take a lot of creativity to add autographs to packs, so everyone jumped on board. Meanwhile, the competition to create the "next big thing" remained.
Memorabilia cards debut
In 1996, Upper Deck and Press Pass each issued products with event-used materials affixed to randomly inserted cards. Upper Deck Football featured game-used jersey cards. Press Pass Racing featured inserts with pieces of race-used tires.
Although some in the hobby viewed them as nothing more than gimmicks, the cards were well received, but it wasn't clear if their popularity was due to their relative scarcity (Upper Deck's first game-used cards were inserted only 1:2,500 packs) or if collectors were truly enthralled with owning a tiny piece of material that once had a connection to the athlete depicted.
Card companies were betting on the latter, and quickly looked at jumping into the game-used marketplace. But there were some challenges.
Press Pass rolled out three different game-used/race-used inserts in three of its 1996 brands. Press Pass Racing featured Burning Rubber inserts with pieces of race-used tires, M-Force featured Metallic Force insert cards that contained a piece of sheet metal from an actual race car, and VIP racing featured pieces of a firesuit worn by Dale Earnhardt.
But the cards were not easy to create. In fact, Press Pass' memorabilia cards had been in development for three years, primarily because the technology required to produce the cards created some new challenges.
"The first reaction when we approached a printer was always a scratch of the head," recalled Victor Shaffer, who was the founder of Press Pass and worked for several years to develop his company's race-used materials cards. "We'd always hear something about how they weren't sure if they could do something like this."
With the sheet-metal cards, for instance, Press Pass had to figure out a way to incorporate the metal pieces into cards so that collectors wouldn't cut themselves. When creating the first firesuit cards, Press Pass realized the suit might start to fray over time.
But it didn't take long for companies to figure out the mechanics of building memorabilia cards, and soon just about every company was adding cards with swatches of this or that into their products.
As companies began experimenting with memorabilia on cards, they tested the boundaries for what collectors wanted to see on cards. So besides jerseys, bats, balls and other traditional items of equipment, companies tried things such as swatches of artificial turf, pieces of basketball courts, hockey rink dasher boards, end-zone pylons, baseball foul poles, goal posts, hockey and basketball nets and more.
For the most part, collectors never attached a premium to those items. "The more removed you get from the item the player actually uses, the less collectors seem interested," said Scott Prusha, marketing director for Donruss/Playoff.
Not everyone in the hobby was enthralled with the concept of game-used memorabilia cards. Ten years later, there are still a number of collectors whose attitudes towards game-used cards falls somewhere between apathy and contempt.
Some can't understand why a tiny piece of jersey or bat enhances a card so much in the eyes of others. Others hate the card companies for being so eager to cut up pieces of historic memorabilia and dangle them as a carrot to entice potential customers.
Donruss was the target of critics in 2003 when it purchased a Babe Ruth jersey for $132,000 at an auction and then cut it up for use in various products.
Topps recently angered some hobbyists when it purchased a Josh Gibson bat, reportedly one of only two known to exist, and cut it up for use on cards.
The card companies say they are sensitive to the idea of what is "too rare" to be put onto a card.
"That's one thing that's a misperception," said Prusha, regarding the belief there's nothing off limits for companies to cut. "We make that decision a lot. In the case of the Ruth jersey, his daughter told us there was more Ruth material donated to the Hall of Fame by the family than it could display. So we knew there was enough material out there in terms of a Ruth jerseys for us to put on cards.
"On the other side of that, we purchased a Burleigh Grimes jersey with the hope of using it on cards and the Hall of Fame contacted us and told us they didn't have any Grimes items, so we made a deal with them to get them the jersey."
Clay Luraschi, manager of public relations for Topps, agreed.
"There are pieces out there that obviously should be in the Hall of Fame, or shouldn't be cut up," he said. "With the Gibson bat, it was a thin line, but we wanted to offer that card to the hobby because there had never been one before. You also have to consider that when you're talking about truly rare, Hall-of-Fame types of products, they are so expensive that you often can't afford to put it into a product."
There have been some other controversial game-used cards over the years, but perhaps none more than the Manny Ramirez bat card created by Pacific in 2000. The card was inserted in Pacific's Invincible Baseball product, but when some collectors pulled the card out of packs, they found cork on pieces of the bat attached to the card.
Pacific said it bought the bat from a long-time Seattle-area dealer and that dealer said he had bought the bat from a walk-in customer while exhibiting at the 1998 National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.
Ramirez denied he had ever corked his bats and the MLB Players Association said the there was no evidence the bat came directly from the player.
The cor ked bat cards raised questions in the hobby as to how card companies were obtaining the countless numbers of items they needed each year and what, if any, safeguards were being put into place by licensing organizations.
Since that incident, manufacturers say the licensing bodies have tightened the procedures for obtaining memorabilia items used on cards. Most current items of memorabilia are obtained direct from players, agents, teams or leagues. Vintage items usually are obtained from a list of league-approved sources.
Today, there are fewer questions and concerns raised when card companies come looking for items to slice and dice. But card companies are getting more particular about what they are buying.
"Companies are being more particular about whose items they are purchasing, as opposed to buying a bulk lot of jerseys and putting all of those items into products," Prusha said.
Rising prices, values
Today, the search for memorabilia remains constant, yet more refined. The major card companies have departments devoted to memorabilia acquisition for their products, with most of the purchases based on specific requests for players from the product development teams at those companies. While none of the companies would divulge how much they spend on obtaining material, industry sources tell SCD it's in the low seven-figure range for most manufacturers.
The cost of incorporating memorabilia items into packs has had a dramatic impact on the economics of the industry. The expenses involved in obtaining memorabilia for products put a significant crimp on the profitability of card companies in recent years. The rise in the number of super-premium card products, with pack prices of $20, $50, $100 or more, is generally a reflection on the ability of card companies to offer higher-priced memoraiblia offerings in those products.
The demand from card manufacturers for jerseys and bats has also had a significant impact on the secondary market values for those items. "We've seen the costs increase significantly on the football and basketball side as more companies compete for those items," said Tom Farrell, director of sales and marketing for RC2 Corporation, the parent company of Press Pass. "But it's not just the card companies who are buying these items today. Other memorabilia companies and fans have become more active in searching for game-used items."
While prices for newer game-used material have increased, there is plenty of current material available. As the various leagues have become more aware of the needs of card companies for memorabilia, they've helped the manufacturers maintain avenues for obtaining the items they need for products.
When it comes to vintage material, however, the supply of items isn't necessarily keeping up with demand. "The vintage stuff is drying up," Luraschi said. "There are only so many jerseys that were worn back then, and there are some players whose uniforms you just don't see on the market anymore."
Prusha said the scarcity of vintage jerseys has become more pronounced in recent years. "I know that older baseball is getting tough to find, and older football is really tough, as well," he said. "When we had our exclusive with Sandy Koufax, we'd look through all of the auction catalogs with the hope of trying to find a Koufax jersey to buy. I can only remember seeing one in the six years I've been with the company. When you see one pop up, you want to secure it, but you also know everyone else is going to be bidding on that item."
With fewer jerseys on the market, card companies have turned their attention to game-used bats. "Bats are so common that they've become important for us to obtain," said Joe Fallon, director of product development for Upper Deck. "Collectors have shown they want items connected directly to players, and a bat is a natural connection to a baseball player."
On the racing side, Farrell says Press Pass deals with scarcity for vintage and modern material. "In a lot of sports, a player will wear a new jersey every game," he said. "In racing, a guy will wear the same firesuit for most of the season. Quite frankly, there isn't that much available to us each year."
After 10 years of game-used cards, some believe the novelty of these cards has started to diminish. As the supply in the marketplace has grown over the past decade, secondary market prices for some of cards have declined dramatically. There are hundreds of memorabilia cards for sale at any given time on eBay, some of which only generate a couple of bucks each.
To maintain the appeal of the cards, manufacturers are striving to make the cards as special as possible. With today's uniforms, card companies often incorporate pieces of league or team logo patches, jersey numbers or lettering as a way to make the cards more of a premium item with collectors. "One NBA jersey might yield several hundred cards, but you can only get one card from that jersey with the NBA logo patch," Fallon explained. "So that makes that card more unique and more valuable."
There are also efforts to combine autographs with memorabilia on cards, or to offer multiple items from multiple players on a card.
Luraschi said that for the majority of card releases, memorabilia cards have to be a highlight of a product, but not its focus. "We've tried to make the entire product collectible and valuable, and not let the Relic cards determine the product's success," he said. "If Relics are the focus, you have to live to a standard, and the expectations are higher than what you can deliver."
But that hasn't stopped many collectors from judging a product purely on the number of "hits" (the total number of autographs and memorabilia cards) per box, and deeming a product a success only if the value of the hits exceeds the suggested retail price of the box.
"We appreciate where that customer's coming from," Fallon said. "But even if we could put an Albert Pujols jersey card in every box, those cards wouldn't end up being worth 50 cents. If we give you that every time, you'll be disenfranchised."
While memorabilia cards will have to continue to evolve to maintain their appeal, none of the manufacturers are expecting the interest in the cards to diminish - let alone disappear - anytime soon.
"The whole phenomonen is based on the fact that these cards truly do bring you closer to the player," Luraschi said. "People will always want that."