Breaking was on a smooth path to becoming a giant segment in the trading card industry.
When the pandemic struck and businesses started shutting down in the United States in March 2020, people were stuck inside with time on their hands and money in their pockets. Collectors wanted to get their trading card fix, and many jumped into breaking. Breaking operations began popping up overnight in the basements of dealers and new collectors were eager to try out something different, something a little riskier with a gambling aspect to it.
The pandemic and the rise in popularity of breaking is what David Gelfman considers a black swan event. The uptick in breaking would have happened anyway, it just happened much quicker during the pandemic.
“I am seeing a significant increase in every facet,” said Gelfman, who owns RippingWax.com. “So, I’m seeing more kids getting involved. I have kids in this local community that were like friends of friends of ours that contacted me because they know I’m in the business. I’m helping these kids, teaching them how to livestream, how to case break, what products to offer, how to price it. Now you have middle school, high school kids that are doing mini breaking operations for their friends and their communities at schools.”
That leads us into what is sure to be an insane Ripping Wax Case Breaking Pavilion at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention. Making its debut at The National in 2014, breaking has grown leaps and bounds since.
Gelfman, who runs the 27,500-square-foot pavilion at The National, believes the breaking area at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center will be swarming with new and old collectors to that segment of the hobby.
“The most exciting thing is to have the first National post-COVID after the expansion that we’ve seen to really have an opportunity for all these companies that were pretty much limited to digital and social media and cyber to actually be able to meet customers face to face, for people to transact in person,” Gelfman said. “It’s just great to get everyone back under the same roof again.
It’s been two years and we’ve all, obviously, gone through a tremendous amount of anguish. Our industry has done very, very well at that time, but it would be great to have everyone getting back to normal.”
Gelfman said the pavilion will feature about 50 booths, with some operations splitting booths. In all, there will be roughly 65 breaking businesses in Chicago.
“This year has been by far the largest demand,” Gelfman said. “But based on venues and what’s going on in that particular year and the space that I have to work with — we’re confined by space; we’re not confined by demand — I could have sold this pavilion out three times over.”
With breaking booming during the pandemic and new breaking operations popping up, Gelfman heard from plenty of companies wanting to get into the Case Break Pavilion for The National. However, the available space wouldn’t allow for many new operations to be on site at the convention.
“Unfortunately, I was not able to service all of the newer operations that hadn’t really set up in the past to get them in there directly, because with priority points and people that have already been in the pavilion, they have the right of first refusal and they all took their space,” Gelfman said.
At The National in 2019 in Chicago, the Case Breaking Pavilion was constantly busy. It will be much of the same this year, Gelfman noted.
“You almost couldn’t see the floor because almost every spot on the floor was covered with foot traffic,” Gelfman said. “That was two years ago before the whole COVID expansion of the industry. So, I expect it to be quite a sight to behold.”
BREAKING HAS COME A LONG WAY
When Gelfman founded his company in 2011, breaking was in its infancy. Gelfman was a trailblazer. There were only a handful of breakers running on YouTube and websites a decade ago. Now, the number of breaking operations have ballooned into the hundreds.
“It’s kind of crazy, because it’s really difficult to have a pulse on all that’s going on in the case-breaking world, because whether it would be private Facebook groups, whether it would be Instagram breakers, whether it would be people that are doing it the traditional way with a website and YouTube, there’s so much activity going on in so many different places. It’s not like the days of Breakers.TV where everyone was there,” he said.
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VintageBreaks.com owner Leighton Sheldon has reaped the rewards of the breaking insanity.
“With breaking, it’s been very strong,” Sheldon said. “Obviously, there’s more people at home, which means potentially more time on their hands. If you have a good show, good content, then people will flock to that. It’s been wild for us. We’ve seen a huge increase in business.”
VintageBreaks.com is a private company, but Sheldon is happy to leak a few figures about the uptick in business.
“Versus where we were 12 to 24 months ago, yeah, you’re talking about anywhere from a 150 to 300 percent increase, if not more,” said Sheldon, who also owns Just Collect.
But Gelfman said the breaking segment hasn’t just exploded overnight because of the pandemic.
“I’ve seen a steady increase since 2011,” Gelfman said. “I’ve seen an increase from 2011 to ’12, ’12 to ’13. I think once we got towards the 2017-18 timeframes, that’s when you started to get the beginning of that kind of next level of parabolic move of sports card values and breaking operations. I can’t even tell you how many former customers that we’ve had that have turned into breaking operations.”
PICKING A REPUTABLE BREAKER
With so many breaking companies in the hobby, it can make it difficult for collectors to narrow down which site to use. Most collectors just want to have a fun experience and not get swindled. There have been some breaking videos on YouTube that have gone viral for all the wrong reasons.
One such video surfaced in mid-January 2021. During a group break on Facebook of 2020 Panini Playbook Football, the host was breaking with the product off camera. Using just a cellphone to shoot, he could see the next card, but the customers in the break could not.
After pulling the third of four cards, the host started to get nervous and shaky. Before grabbing the next card — which was presumably a big-time hit — you can hear him opening up a new box off camera. He then claimed that someone was at his shop’s door. Viewers could see a reflection of the door in the video, and clearly nobody was at the door. The host is then heard opening a pack and pulling a new hit. Once back on camera 30 seconds later, he said, “They went away,” about the “person” who was supposedly at the door. The host shows the final cut of the break, a booklet of the Tennessee Titans’ Darrynton Evans, all the while being extremely jittery.
The breaking community called out the host on his blatant scam, and the next day he deleted his Facebook page and email address.
No collector wants to fall victim to a stunt like that.
Sports Collectors Digest reached out to some respected breakers in the hobby for their thoughts on what customers should keep in mind in picking a good breaking company to spend their hard-earned money with and to ensure a good online experience.
One big thing Gelfman wants to see from a breaking company is a camera on the host’s face.
“If I was walking into a store and I was talking to a shop owner or somebody that works at a store, I get to look at them,” Gelfman said. “I’d like to have the same experience online. I’d like to look at them.
“I’d like nothing to ever leave the field of view. Everything’s on the up and up. It’s well organized. It’s well run. It’s random. It’s prepared and ready to go. We’re not wasting time getting things together.”
Along those same lines, Sheldon said trust is one of the most important aspects for him when it comes to breaking.
“You’ve got to pretend that you don’t know anyone and you’re out to earn every single person’s trust, whether they know you or not,” Sheldon said. “Do your best to keep every single thing on camera in front of you. To be fair, some breakers — and I wouldn’t pick on them — they don’t want to show their face. Great. Me, personally, I think you should show your face.
“I think it’s about what you’re comfortable with as far as being a breaker. But I think if you want to make your community comfortable first and foremost … you can’t, for example, take the plastic off of a box off camera and then bring it back on camera. You have to do it for everyone in a transparent fashion and pretend that if you were in their shoes and you didn’t know better, that you’d feel comfortable to participate in a break, whether it would be for $3, $300 or $3,000.”
Sheldon calls breakers and customers part of a community. It is still a relatively small, niche market where a lot of people know one another. Sheldon wants people watching his breaks to feel comfortable, not feel pressured to spend money and above all have an enjoyable experience.
“I think the most important thing for me if I was chatting with a whole group of people that were considering space is understand — I hear it in life all the time — ‘first impression is everything.’ But it really is, especially in the breaking world,” Sheldon said.
Building a good reputation in the breaking community is huge. When Tom Kulczewski started Real Breaks in 2016, he made a concerted effort to make everyone feel welcome and keep it family-friendly where swearing isn’t tolerated during breaks. The company achieved its goals and was named the Industry Summit Breaker of the Year in 2019 and ’20 — the only two years those awards have been handed out.
Kulczewski wants his company’s breaking experiences to be similar to buddies spending time together in a friend’s basement. “Get that feel of who you want to hang out with,” Kulczewski said.
Kulczewski has six points for collectors to consider when choosing a breaker. Reputation is first, followed by personality. Real Breaks has five break hosts and everyone is different in how they talk and run their break. “We told our other break host that we hired, ‘Just be yourself,’” Kulczewski said.
Another key point for Kulczewski is how breaks are filled. Real Breaks announces in advance on its Facebook page what product(s) it will break and at what time. Some breaking companies can be vague about details.
A fourth point is how do collectors pay for spots in a break.
“When going through breakers, when you pay as a customer, the only way you’re protected is if you pay by credit card or PayPal Goods & Services,” Kulczewski said. “When you’re going in and the breaker doesn’t accept either one of those, that’s a red flag. If all their payments are PayPal Friends & Family or cash app only or Venmo only, you have no protection as a customer.”
The fifth point is how fast the breaking company ships out cards following a break. Some breakers might break so much product it can get backed up on shipping and cards could be sent out a month after the break. For customers wanting to flip cards they won on breaks, time is of the essence in receiving a shipment.
“On new releases, the price on stuff fluctuates big time,” Kulczewski said. “Typically, you want your cards back right away.”
Kulczewski’s final point is that breakers should be knowledgeable about sports and the cards they are breaking. It doesn’t leave a very good impression if a breaker is hacking a player’s name or asking viewers if a player is any good.
Kulczewski makes it a point to be honest with his customers and he loves it when they hit a big card.
“There’s a lot of case hits in products that are pretty easy to weigh and tell,” Kulczewski said. “If you’re watching this breaker and they’re constantly doing mixers with [a certain product] and they never hit a booklet or they never hit a gold frame, you think, ‘Well, there’s clearly something going on here.’ We get that a lot and we’ll hit one and people are shocked.”
Sheldon is always looking out for breakers and is happy to dish out friendly advice.
“The first thing I would tell you is, ‘Educate yourself,’” Sheldon said. “There’s legitimately good deals in breaking like there is if you go to a card show, but you have to know the market.”