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.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Draft, As In Daft

Quick – how many football-draft-pick card sets can you name? Offhand, I remember these quasi-companies that either drank the hemlock or thought hard about it: Star Pics, run by Bob Rylko out of the Detroit area; Ultimate, out of Las Vegas; Maxx (or was it Traks?), the good ol’ NASCAR-card boys out of Mooresville, N.C. (or was it Mocksville?); Classic of course, out of a shopping channel near you; Signature Rookies, out of nowhere; SAGE Rookies, who came late to the party and did all right for a few minutes; Press Pass, who resorted to draft-pick sets in a moment of weakness; Courtside, who Tom Mortenson had to remember for me; Broders and all the other unlicensed sets, though “unlicensed” in this context means zip; Star Company, meant to be confused with Star Pics; and many others, I’m sure.

If you’re thinking, “Man; that’s a whole lot of cards of people who have a one-in-five chance of actually sticking on a roster,” you’re catching on. With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror and the NFL sitting back regally picking its teeth like Thomas Nast’s rendition of Boss Tweed, I thought it’d be fun to look back on one of the more ludicrous lines of reasoning that came out of the high HOL-y days.

The reasoning (God, I hate calling it that) went like this: If we make a draft-pick set the leagues will see how great our cards are, and they’ll have to give us a license! They’ll have no choice! They’ll be drowned in the groundswell! People will make 34-story-tall human pyramids and bang on the boardroom windows until they give in!

True, this reasoning is too simplistic for Phineas & Ferb; it’s borderline for Big Time Rush (though it’s just right for Two Kings). Yet I know this is what many of these boyos were thinking, because I heard it come out of their mouths more than once.

I won’t even say these were logical people caught in a moment of weakness because I have no evidence of that, though I do have a picture of Classic’s Ken Goldin being held horizontally, Madonna-style, by Eric Lindros, Russell Maryland, Brien Taylor, and Larry Johnson – the No. 1 overall draft picks in their respective sports in 1991. The only reasonable conclusion is that many of these so-called brains behind these sets were genuinely wacked, like LMFAO without the conceit.

The number of big-league trading-card licensees that got their start making draft-pick cards is zero. Not give-or-take zero, not rounded-down zero, but just plain zero. It never happened. Ever. The closest anyone ever got was Pacific, who went from minor-league baseball to NFL football at a time when the NFL was giving out card licenses to itinerant window-washers and filing cabinets. But that never stopped the Bob Rylkos of the world from believing their ball-bordered, fuzzy-photoed cards would be the ones to prove the skeptics dead wrong and reach licensed-collectible Valhalla.

For that to happen, it would have been like the bicycle-powered 12-winged airplane being the one that flew, making chumps out of all those hoity-toity inventors with their motors and propellers and – don’t make me laugh – ailerons.

Let’s be nice for a second. Not all these sets were blatant attempts to milk collectors and bamboozle licensors. Some were 12-winged airplanes that their inventors were honest-to-gosh convinced would fly. And they had autographs.

Autographs were the wind beneath the wings of draft-pick cards. The right autograph could bump the needle on a set from 50 cases sold to 5,000, so the more well-heeled of the draft-pick gang dropped benjamins like they were POGs to lock down the exclusive autograph rights of the top draft picks. Of course Lindros, Maryland, Taylor, and Johnson were ready to peel Ken Goldin a grape. For the amount of ching they were getting for signing their names they were more than willing to throw in a couple of skinless concords.

(You could argue that the cardmakers’ penchant for stuffing their sets full of autographed cards can be traced back to draft-pick sets proving that autographs can sell cards. You’re probably right. But draft-pick sets made you shovel a whole bunch of manure before you got to the pony.)

Autographs almost made up for the near-universal mediocrity of these sets. Granted, they were behind the eight-ball from the starting line because their subjects were restricted by definition to anyone reasonably considered draftable. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal in football-draft-pick sets, what with 30 teams and seven rounds and all, but these sets welcomed offensive linemen and D-backs into their ranks as eagerly as Brett Favre embraced Aaron Rodgers. Given a choice, Signature Rookies would have taken the 27-card Browning Nagle career-highlights set a thousand times over a single card of Ted Washington.

Then they were restricted by exclusive arrangements – and there were many. Then there was photo availability, which ranged from reasonable for the fifth-year seniors from major programs to impossible for juco transfers and Division III superstars. Then people had to think of something hopeful to say about Mark Dingle and Bobby Olive.

The heyday for draft-pick sets paralleled the peak of the Handful O’Landfill madness – 1989-95, roughly. As the ‘90s hit their midway point, the legitimate licensors came to a startling realization: Draft-pick sets thrive in a very narrow window between the draft and training camp. Take away the window and you take away the sets – and all the money that went there now goes here.

The result was the Rookie Photo Shoot in football, and similar events in basketball. Bowman Baseball shifted its release date to better cover draft picks, and hockey … well, no one cared what happened to hockey draft picks, not even the teams that drafted them.

(With that said, one is reminded of the furor that resulted when Upper Deck released a card of Eric Lindros that showed him in action in a Philadelphia Flyers uniform, even though there had never been a game or practice or scrimmage when he had worn said uniform. Upon further questioning Upper Deck disclosed that yes, it digitally inserted Lindros’ head on someone else’s body. For most of us, it was the first time we heard the word “Photoshop.”)

It’s fun to look back at draft-pick sets and think – wait; scratch that. It’s no fun to look back at draft-pick sets. They’re the Tucker Torpedos of the trading-card business, the place where better ideas went to die. Only there were no better ideas, just a bunch of bicycle-powered, 12-winged flying machines. With autographs.