Card Games

Today’s youth still belts out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” but they sing it in front of the TV while setting up their dream teams in major league baseball games on Playstation 2 and X-box.

Meanwhile, a trend that inspired kids to sing those same lyrics as they rode their bikes to local card shops for decades slowly is dying — in a technology-dominated time, collecting playing cards has lost its luster with kids.

Greg Lawrence, who works at First Base Trading Cards and Comics in Port Orchard, said there are two main areas of interest for playing cards these days: older cards from the 1960s and brand new merchandise of current players.

He said he no longer sees young kids just buying cards to collect them.

“They switched from sports cards to game cards like Pokemon,” he said. “You won’t see involvement from kids until they’re 13 or 14 years old now. It used to be 6 or 7 year olds.”

Bud Holler, owner of Play Ball in Bremerton, said when he opened his store in 1987, the majority of customers were boys between 8 and 15 years old.

“The reason for that is card companies had made their product lean in that direction,” he said, adding that card packs in the 1980s usually were about 50 cents.

Holler said when Upper Deck began producing cards in 1989, he knew times were changing. The suggested price for a pack of cards was 99 cents; about double what collectors were used to paying. But, he said, with the price also came an increase in the cards’ quality.

“When Upper Deck came up, we and other store owners knew that (customers’ interests) would change in a year or two,” he said.

Holler said Upper Deck’s promotions helped it gain quick popularity. The inaugural set featured Ken Griffey Jr. as the No. 1 card in the set and when the former Seattle Mariner gained momentum on the field around the same time, people scrambled to purchase the new cards.

“That made a big difference,” he said. “They were forced to change the quality too.”

Holler said continual increases in card price and quality makes his clientele lean toward adults — males between 25 and 49 years old are the most common customers. He added that he does not think this demographic will change as costs continue to rise.

“The bad side is that we don’t get as many kids,” he said. “I don’t blame parents for not wanting to spend three to five dollars for a pack of cards. That’s the difference between now and 17 years ago — the money aspect took over.”

Holler said he understands collectors’ concern about the price of cards, regardless of the quality. A standard pack of cards costs about $5 today.

“I don’t know if it justifies the price,” he said. “We’re taking the backbone of what the hobby was about — kids. We’ve taken a large section that literally was our customer base and basically said goodbye.

“I think it’s terrible. The people who grew up doing this now are the big spenders. But once they have kids, they’re going to cut back and then where are our collectors going to come from?”

Lawrence disagreed, saying he thinks there is a place for everyone in card collecting, even as technology continues to give kids other outlets for their hobbies.

“They definitely have a price range where kids can afford the packs,” he said.

Devin Stein, a 16-year-old student at Central Kitsap High, said card prices aren’t the only problem, though.

“A pack of cards for $10 doesn’t seem reasonable,” said Stein, who said he collects cards occasionally. “And what’s the odds of getting a card that’s worth $200 or $300 like the pack says? I open the packs and it’s usually guys I’ve never heard of. That’s what keeps me from buying consistently.

Tracy Hackler, who works in the communications division of Donruss, one of the major card brands, said the company is trying to get kids back into the card shops.

“There’s no question that there are fewer and fewer kids in our industry,” he said. “We’ve been attempting to recapture that audience for a while. At the end of the day, a trading card of your favorite player still is as cool as it’s ever been, whether you’re 12 or 72.

“We make products today across any number of points from 99 cents to $150. We try to market to a broad base to get the kids back.”

However, Holler said he does not know if the prices will capture a broad base.

While a box of cards retailed for about $5 two decades ago, he said a “cheap box” now costs an average of $45. His store will be carrying a pack soon with a suggested price of $500.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think it would reach that,” he said.

Prices such as those show that the hobby has changed in many ways, he said.

“I somewhat blame that on the card companies,” Holler said. “They say their research shows this is what the consumer wants, but I haven’t heard it from them.”

Lawrence agreed.

“The change in the quality of cards came from adults who demanded it,” he said. “They wanted scarcer cards. It didn’t change much until Upper Deck. They charged a premium price for a premium card.”

And that, Holler said, is a major problem. When customers do not make strong demands for those top-of-the-line packs, his sales suffer, regardless of higher prices.

“My sales figures are higher but I’m making less,” he said. “Right now, I have to sell twice as much to make the same amount as I did in 1987.”

Holler said another problem with selling cards is that retailers have a hard time knowing what will be a hot seller. He also said a swell in card companies gives customers many options for purchasing cards of specific players, unlike in the 1980s when “customers knew what was going to be on the shelf — Topps, Donruss and Fleer.”

However, some people like the changes.

Alan Lyons, a roofer from Bremerton, said he got back into collecting cards at the end of the 1990s after taking several years off from his hobby.

“I grew up and got a steady job and I was looking for something fun to do,” he said. “The prices are a big jump. I have to put a roof on to buy a box now.”

Regardless, Lyons said he likes some of new additions; especially the autograph and jersey cards sold in new packs.

“I also like that the cards are worth more money,” he said. “Now you’re almost afraid to touch a good card. You have to buy sleeves and hard cases to be able to touch it.

“It’s taken out the kid and it’s gone from fun to serious investments.”

But Lawrence cautioned against collecting cards as an investment.

“Our philosophy is ‘don’t do it for the investment.’ ” he said, adding that people should partake in the activity because they love the hobby or the players. “Be prepared to lose money.”

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