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A Comparison of Basketball Cards: 1992 and the Present

Basketball cards are forever installed in today's hobby, but that wasn't always the case. True rookie cards didn't take off until David Robinson. And when it comes to numbers of cards per pack today compared to 1992, well, it really isn't a comparison at all.

(Editor’s Note: The following comes from – one of the most popular collecting websites the Internet has to offer.)

Many people credit Michael Jordan with popularizing the sport of basketball in the U.S., and he was certainly a major player in popularizing the basketball card collecting hobby as well. But two players, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal, were arguably more central to the hobby expansion. Before 1989, basketball card collecting was not a significant hobby in the U.S. Until then, there had never been more than one professionally licensed set of basketball cards produced in a year, and as recently as 1982, there were none made at all.

The catalyst was Robinson’s 1989-90 Hoops rookie card, a shocking innovation in that it was the first rookie card to be produced during the player’s rookie year. Prior to that, collectors had to wait until a player’s sophomore season to obtain an NBA-licensed card of his. The Hoops Robinson was the first basketball card that everyone had to have, causing collectors of other sports to branch into basketball for the first time. That year, two NBA-licensed sets were produced for the first time ever, and that number grew to three in 1990, four in 1991, and seven in 1992.

In 1992, the hobby received another jolt with Shaquille O’Neal’s professional debut. Historically, the modus operandi in card collecting was the completion of large base sets, but Shaq was headed for big things and everyone knew it. The manufacturers were inspired to create the most desirable (and expensive) Shaq card possible, and they competed with each other for the title. That year, Topps won with its Stadium Club Beam Team card, but the next year and every following year, the fight would begin anew.

More than 16 years later, everyone knows the hobby has grown, but I thought of a way to measure exactly how much. I recently counted the number of rookie cards there are for every No. 1 draft choice since the inception of the modern concept of rookie cards. We can assume the No. 1 draft choice will have at least one rookie card in every product, since the manufacturers want to make the best products possible, and before each season begins we always assume the No. 1 draft choice will be one of the best in his class, even when this doesn’t always happen. The sidebar below shows the results, sorted in chronological order, with each player’s number of rookie cards listed after his name.

The data indicates that, with the exception of 2003 as the rookie year of LeBron James (who was received in much the same caliber as Robinson and O’Neal), the number of products has actually decreased over the past five years. This is likely due to Upper Deck’s buying out of the now-defunct Fleer Corp., as Fleer was notoriously over-productive between 1999-2004, and Upper Deck retained only a small number of Fleer brands.

Another way to measure the growth of the hobby is to examine the change in average prices of all products produced within a year. According to data collected from Upper Deck and Dave & Adam’s Card World, the average price per standard hobby box of the 31 different basketball products produced during the 2007-08 season was $127.30. This is an increase of 354 percent over the average price per box of the seven products produced (each in two series) during the 1992-93 season of $28 per standard hobby box. However, the average numbers of cards per pack, packs per box and cards per box have also vastly decreased, causing the average price per card to skyrocket (see second sidebar below).

In other words, when you buy a basketball hobby box today, you will pay an average of 3.5 times as much for it as you would have paid 15 years ago, you will get 6.1 times fewer cards, and you will pay almost 26 times as much for each card in the box.

On top of that, serial numbered cards, game-used memorabilia cards and autographed cards have all been devalued at a rate rivaling that of the U.S. dollar due to massive overproduction. The sad truth is the hobby has grown too much, too fast, and too out of control for the same reason that a drug addict keeps needing more and more of the drug to get high: we, the collectors, have built up a tolerance, and we are forever craving another fix.

1989 - David Robinson: 1
Only RC: Hoops #138

1990 - Derrick Coleman: 3
Best RC: SkyBox #362

1991 - Larry Johnson: 4
Best RC: Upper Deck #2

1992 - Shaquille O’Neal: 7
Best RC: Upper Deck #1

1993 - Chris Webber: 11
Best RC: Finest #212

1994 - Glenn Robinson: 14
Best RC: Finest #166

1995 - Joe Smith: 15
Best RC: Finest #111

1996 - Allen Iverson: 16
Best RC: Topps Chrome #171

1997 - Tim Duncan: 18
Best RC: Topps Chrome #115

1998 - Michael Olowokandi: 18
Best RC: SP Authentic #91 (/3500)

1999 - Elton Brand: 37
Best RC: SP Authentic #91 (/1500)

2000 - Kenyon Martin: 43
Best RC: SP Authentic #91 (/500)

2001 - Kwame Brown: 46
Best RC: Ultimate Collection #90 (/250)

2002 - Yao Ming: 40
Best RC: Ultimate Collection #79 (/250)

2003 - LeBron James: 61
Best RC: Exquisite Collection #78 (/99)

2004 - Dwight Howard: 42
Best RC: Exquisite Collection #90 (/99)

2005 - Andrew Bogut: 30
Best RC: Exquisite Collection #43 (/99)

2006 - Andrea Bargnani: 34
Best RC: Exquisite Collection #43 (/99)

2007 - Greg Oden: 31
Best RC: Exquisite Collection #112 (/99)

More Choices But Less Value
Average Packs Per Box: 36
Average Cards Per Pack: 14.6
Average Cards Per Box: 481.7
Average Price Per Card: $0.06

Average Packs Per Box: 11.8
(67.2% decrease)
Average Cards Per Pack: 6.1
(58.2% decrease)
Average Cards Per Box: 78.9
(83.6% decrease)
Average Price Per Card: $1.61
(2,583% increase)

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