Sunday, February 26, 2012


Good intentions pave the road to hell -- and the road to the landfill.

Every trading-card set proposed to us by a stone-cold sober Sy Berger wannabe contained flashes of nobility. Even baseball cards in cans.

(Of course, no one ever came up to us and said, “We want to do a parody set called Pukey-Mon.” Because we would have rapped him in the beezer.)

Take for example Skybox-neè-Impel U.S. Olympicards from 1992.

SkyBox: noble cardmaker. Well-intentioned company dripping with talent: Frank O’Connell, Bill Bordegon, Scott McCauley, Sherry Wallace, Allan Caplan, Keith Wood, Ken Baroff, Doug Drotman, George White, Martha Modlin, et many al. They made wonderful trading cards, and just because most of their cards currently lack monetary value does not diminish their accomplishments one whitlet.

The Olympics: noble sporting event ... blood doping, drug use, cheating, hermaphroditic polymorphism, racism, nationalistic jingoism, and terrorist acts notwithstanding. In the pantheon of sport, basically noble.

So, noble people from a noble company made a noble set for a noble sport. They negotiated countless individual deals with estates of athletes and licensing firms whose valuations of their clients’ worth ranged from mildly inflated to Hindenburgian. They set a not unsubstantial pile of cash in front of the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose altruistic taste for not unsubstantial piles of cash knows few bounds. If Caligula ever worked for a non-profit, it would have been the U.S. Olympic Committee.

And, of course, nobody bought the cards.

With the 2012 London Olympics fast approaching and a summer of drug use, cheating, hermaphroditic polymorphism, and Topps Olympic trading cards staring us in the face -- just your typical Lindsay Lohan summer -- I thought it might be useful to delve into the curriculum of the George Santayana School of Marketing and revisit a lesson from the past people (people who work for Topps, especially) have mindfully ignored.

If it ain’t one of the Big Four sports, and you’re not willing to make bupkis on the deal, don’t bother.

In retrospect, the 1992 U.S. Olympic set was about as good as non-Big-Four sports cards could get. The 90-card Hall of Fame set spotlighted über-worthy all-time greats like Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, with room at the inn for Bruce Jenner Kardashian. The 110-card Hopefuls set included the one-and-only-original Dream Team as well as a young bike racer named Lance Armstrong. There was silver foil, and full-color backs, and some rudimentary chase – in short, everything it took to sell a trading-card set in 1992, except for: baseball, hockey, football, and basketball.

Okay, there was some basketball -- a one-in-10 chance of getting an accept-no-substitutes, one-and-only-original Dream Team card. (Four years later, SkyBox almost made back its USOC nut on Dream Team sets and subsets. Almost.) There were no baseball players in the SkyBox U.S. Olympics set. Topps had Team USA, Barry Larkin, Jim Abbott and the gang, an honor that cost the Sy Berger Bunch a different not-unsubstantial pile of cash set before the U.S. Baseball Congress or some other tangentially involved licensing body. There were no football players in the Olympics set (except for Jim Thorpe), for obvious reasons.

So no football, no baseball, no basketball, and no hockey; instead, swimming, gymnastics, and track and field, with epee and dressage and a whole bunch of past and future Wide World of Sports commentators thrown in gratis. Want to again express surprise that these cards didn’t sell?

Should they have sold? Sure. Was it unfair? Sorta kinda. It’s unfair to the extent that American Idol or America’s Got Talent is unfair. Was Clay Aiken really the most talented undiscovered singer in America the second season of American Idol? We would like to believe not with every atom in our protoplasm, but America put Clay Aiken over the top, and America is never wrong. Ask Rick Santorum.

In retrospect, Aiken’s win was the result of the segment of society that has turned the internet into a forest of LOLcats getting all gushy over someone who, let’s face it, is a LOLcat with opposable thumbs. But if we produced a Kelly Clarkson every year America would be awash in women bellowing in Camrys with Chris Berman and singing the national anthem in muumuus. And we couldn’t have that. God, no. Anything but that.

So things have not turned out all right for SkyBox U.S. Olympics cards. They’re largely forgotten and basically valueless outside of Armstrong and the Dream Team, though if you’re looking for a Mark Spitz rookie, here you go. It’s even hard to imagine a scenario where they might experience a renaissance. All the current athletes are no longer current (except for Armstrong, who is busily examining the Pete Rose career path). And the all-time greats? Jesse Owens is long gone; the fact that he stood up to Hitler is only going to get less important with time, and the fact that he spent many of his latter years racing thoroughbreds at county fairs, fascinating as that may be, is going to fade from the public consciousness (though it would make a hell of a trading card).

Figuring out what would sell in the trading-card biz was always a crapshoot. Fleer Flair had the low press run and the funky foil and the flip-top pack, but Topps Finest sold. Stadium Club had nothing but some perceived scarcity and Leaf had all the attributes (and the lower press run), but Leaf was sent home.

However, it was never a crapshoot figuring out what wouldn’t sell. Swimmers wouldn’t sell. People on horses wouldn’t sell. Pole-vaulters, high-jumpers and discus-throwers wouldn’t sell. Decathletes. Divers. Sprinters. Hurdlers. Yachtsmen. The Berenstain Bears. And they were all collected in the 1988 SkyBox U.S. Olympic set – all except the Berenstain Bears, who would have been in the set if the USOC had found a way to fit a couple of two-dimensional, manners-crazy grizzlies into double-breasted blazers and ice-cream pants.

I was reading the other day that Kodak pumped millions and millions into the U.S. Olympic Committee and in return got bankruptcy. And a handsome plaque. SkyBox didn’t pump in quite as much money and didn’t quite go bankrupt. Upper Deck was the next to fling the coin, and they didn't go bankrupt either, thanks to the marvels of movie-studio bookkeeping. And now it's Topps.

I know enough about fiscal policy during the Great Depression to see the echoes in contemporary "the way to make up for a lack of spending is to spend less" rhetoric. And I see a lot of SkyBox in what Topps is  trying to accomplish with Olympic cards.

In the end, it's amazing what a not-unsubstantial pile of cash can get you. All the javelin throwers you can eat. And a handsome plaque.

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