By Greg Bates
The anticipation built as Leighton Sheldon tore open a 1979 Topps Hockey wax pack.
Sheldon, co-owner of VintageBreaks.com, sat at a table on the main stage in the Rippingwax.com Breakers Pavilion and slowly revealed the 10 cards in the pack to a group of about 50 onlookers at the National Sports Collectors Convention. There were also plenty of other card collectors watching on Breakers.TV online. Everyone wanted to see the coveted Wayne Gretzky rookie card.
The first pack came up empty and the next two packs of tray didn’t produce “The Great One” either, but the collectors relished at the chance to see a $200,000 card appear during the break.
The case breakers pavilion was as lively as ever this year as collectors young and old wanted the opportunity to possibly land a once-in-a-lifetime, piece of cardboard.
At the 2015 National in Chicago, case breaking was just starting to get large. This year, it continued to grow and has made a significant imprint in the industry.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said David Gelfman, who is the owner and president of RippingWax.com and is co-owner of VintageBreaks.com. “If someone would have told me we would have had the foot traffic in the pavilion before the show, I wouldn’t have believed it. It was every bit as crowded in here as it was out there (on the main showroom). From every dealer I’ve spoken to on the main show floor to every case breaking operation that set up in the pavilion, I have not heard one negative comment.”
There were about 25 case break dealers set up – the same as last year – in the 25,000-square-foot pavilion. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights at the National, there were breaks going on until midnight.
“The business is at night time,” Mike Jaspersen said.
Jaspersen, who runs Jaspy’sHobbyland.com and Jaspy’sHockeland.com, set up for the first time at the National in 2014 when case breaking was in its infancy. He has watched case breaking explode since that point.
“Three years ago in Cleveland, it was very small,” Jaspersen said. “There were maybe half a dozen breakers. Nobody in the room knew what we were doing. Very few people walked up to the booth and bought spots, it was all Internet sales. Last year, it got a little better. More people in the show came to the booth and bought spots. This year it’s doubled from last year, at least, as far as on-site purchases.”
Gelfman believes the word has really spread about case breaking.
“People are starting to really understand what it is,” said John Broggi, National Sports Collectors Convention executive director/event operations director. “You say the words case break, and ‘What does that mean?’ But I think more and more people are participating and telling others about it. Now people know what it is.”
“The last few years the questions were, ‘What’s a case break?’ This year the question was, ‘Where’s the case break pavilion?’” said Gelfman, who runs the pavilion. “That’s a lot of hard work and I’m very, very happy to see it actually come to fruition.”
Jason Porter, part owner of TriplePlayBreaks.com, knows clientele differs from those who generally roam the showroom floor at the National.
“I think it’s two completely different customer bases,” Porter said. “The emotion, the exciting side of this, is a little bit different than going into your local sports card shop or coming to a convention like this and trying to build a set or look for that one card, because there’s really more of an element of surprise to this. Some people really, really enjoy it. Some people like to do the more classical collecting. Especially at a convention like this, it’s awesome that there’s plenty of room for both.”
Porter set up for the first time at the National as a breaking operation. The company had only been in existence for a couple months prior to the convention, so Porter knew they had a make a splash.
“This is where everybody is,” Porter said. “It doesn’t matter what business you’re in or what you’re doing or what hobby you have, you always want to go to where the people are. Especially something like this, which is kind of a passion thing for us. We really enjoy it, too, to be around a bunch of people that also enjoy it.”
The main stage was constantly busy throughout the entire National with case breaks. Vendors in the vicinity were breaking product for on-sight collectors as well as those watching on the Internet. The ability to have case breaks online 24 hours a day has certainly revolutionized the card collecting industry.
“It’s a culmination of this sector in the industry just continuing to grow where it’s probably 3-5 percent of new product sales -- where now it’s got to be over 50 maybe even close to 60 percent of new product sales are through case breaking,” Gelfman said. “That’s a big growth in a very short period of time.”
When case breaking first started to become known at the National around 2012, it was driven by modern-era cards. Collectors were in search of pulling Mike Trout rookie autograph cards and relics as well as other big-name current players. This year, VintageBreaks.com allowed collectors with interest in older products to get a shot at scoring high-end cards of Hall of Famers.
“I think what’s happening is you have some people who already like breaking on the modern side and they’re interested in vintage breaks,” Sheldon said. “Then you have some people who collect vintage cards and have been online at PSA all week waiting for their cards to come back, and they want to open vintage packs, but they don’t know anything about breaking. I think you have a third group of people who have never heard of breaking. They’re not necessarily avid collectors, but they like to gamble and they like to take chances. When you’re talking about opening literally a piece of American history as well as sports history and there’s a chance for financial upside, there’s not that many things I’d rather be doing.”
“I would say the biggest difference is with modern you know what the best case hits or product hits are going to be in advance,” Gelfman said. “So if it’s a basketball product, you know an RPA (rookie patch auto) of Karl Anthony Towns is the best card you can hit. In vintage, you know what cards (are) in the checklist, but coming out of a sealed pack, so these cards have not been in circulation, so your best chance of getting a card that’s going to grade out very, very well out of a sealed pack, the sky’s the limit. ... I would say the top-side reward is crazy in vintage or knowing what you’re going to get or possibility of getting in modern.”
Along with breaking the 1979 Topps Hockey wax pack tray, VintageBreaks.com offered customers the chance to buy in for a 1962 Topps Baseball PSA slabbed cello pack. Each entry got one of the 12 cards in the pack. It gave collectors a shot at pulling cards of greats such as Sandy Koufax, Roger Maris and Roberto Clemente, which can range from $10,000-$50,000 in near-mint to gem-mint condition.
“A lot of people can never afford the notion of buying a whole pack for thousands of dollars, but now you can buy one card as a spot,” Sheldon said. “That’s really exciting.”
VintageBreaks.com is also trying to fill the slots to open a 1986-87 Fleer basketball sealed wax box. There are 36 lots to purchase and each spot is $2,000 for one pack. The grand prize in the set, of course, is the Michael Jordan rookie, which a gem mint 10 can go for over $20,000. During the National, 19 spots had sold, so VintageBreaks.com is waiting until all 36 packs are purchased before cracking the box.
An activity for all ages
Case breaking has always been popular with young collectors. But it’s starting to take a shift and latch onto some long-time collectors in the industry.
Ron “JJ” Graham, who has attended “eight or nine” Nationals, was walking around the showroom floor at the convention when he stepped into the Case Breaking Pavilion to inquire what was going on. Graham had heard of case breaking, but he had never taken part in the activity. That was until Day 4 of the National. The 62-year-old signed up for a break with LiveCaseBreak.com.
“I thought they were just going to do one box, and I bought the (Texas) Rangers team,” said Graham, who resides in San Angelo, Texas. “I said, ‘$35 for one box? I’m not going to do that.’ And he said, ‘No, it’s about 16 boxes.’ So, I just want to see what it’s like.”
Graham had a lot of fun during the break. But he still prefers collecting vintage cards and autographs of Hall of Fame baseball players. Along with the case break, he bought a slot in a 1933 Goudey Baseball break for $37.50 through VintageBreaks.com.
“I’m not big into the new product, I like the older cards,” Graham said. “I like the Allen & Ginter.”
Graham might not like the modern-era cards as much, but he certainly enjoyed the rush of taking part in the break.
“You might get a couple common cards, you might get a hit,” Graham said. “What do you got to lose?”
For John Case, he’s only been doing case breaks online for four to five months, but he’s already fallen in love with doing it.
“It has really took me by the collar,” said Case, who was attending his third National.
The 38-year-old from Floyd County, Kentucky, said he’ll do up to 10 or 11 case breaks in a week when he’s back home.
“It’s big-time addicting,” joked Case. “It will break you.”
Case makes sure he pays only $50 to $100 per break. He recently took part in a 2017 Panini Gold Standard Football break and struck it big, scoring a 1/1 triple relic autograph of Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt. Case later sold the card for $455.
In just the short time Case has been involved with case breaking, he’s really enjoyed the industry’s latest phenomena.
“It’s just like if you’re a gambler, if you like going to Vegas and stuff -- especially if you love cards,” Case said. “I’m going to take my money and spend them on cards anyway, why shouldn’t I surpass the middle man and just win the cards straight out?”
Those involved in the industry hope case breaking continues its steady growth. Case believes word of mouth will help the craze get even bigger. Sheldon agrees.
“By more awareness from all of the collectors,” Sheldon said. “So it’s up to the case breaking pavilion. It’s up to Vintage Breaks. It’s up to the corporate sponsors out there – folks like PSA and Beckett, etc. – to make everyone understand that breaking is safe, that there’s a great number of companies that offer a safe way to do it and because vintage is coming, it’s going to be exciting.”
Porter feels case breaking is going to change how card companies manufacture their products.
“I think you’re going to see more and more products from the companies come out specific to breaking,” Porter said. “I think you’ve seen a little bit of a shift in that already. Topps II, we just did some of that. I think that’s more for like a traditional set builder. But some of the newer products come out, there’s definite premium on hits, on-card autos, patches. God bless ’em. We hope they keep pumping out more and more of that stuff.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.