Monday, February 28, 2011

All Aboard the Freebie Train?

Promoting product makes for interesting relationships.
The hobby world is no different, where an endless stream of new card releases means there's always something that needs a push to get collectors amped and ready to spend.
What recently hit me, as the parade of sports card posts floated across TweetDeck, was how many different hobby sites and blogs are doing product previews and reviews ahead of release dates.
Generally speaking, it's always been commonplace for the media to get a glimpse or taste test of things before the public does. A preview gets people interested in attending an event or buying something.
In the hobby world, Beckett fits that mold. Despite the longtime, yet sometimes misguided, misconceptions of Beckett's relationship to card manufacturers, it makes sense for what is now the last legitimate hobby publication to see, touch and analyze new card sets before their release.
Things get fuzzy when you talk about everyone else who lays claim to a part of the hobby media simply because they write or produce something that references sports cards.
The thought prompted me to find out what standards are used by the card companies to determine where complimentary product goes.
It took just a couple of hours before Upper Deck's Chris Carlin wrote back.
"You're right, it is pretty remarkable how the emergence of new online communities and bloggers have lead [sic] to more and more requests for sample products," Carlin wrote. "We are pretty selective about who we work with and usually they are higher-traffic sites that provide us advertising in exchange for product, usually in the form of banner ads on their site."
Swaps are about as old an advertising/marketing maneuver as exists. It's not a stretch to say most blogs or hobby sites are making very little money, if any at all. Having Upper Deck throw you a bone is needed to create or maintain some hobby cred by offering timely content.
By the way, Topps and Panini didn't get back to me.
The pothole in all this is professional credibility
and whether those getting access to free product in advance play nice to keep receiving stuff, or if they will give honest opinions which benefit collectors in bigger picture.
Will a blogger really blast what they think is crappy cardboard if it could mean they get dumped from the freebie train? Sure, the card companies know criticism is part of the game, but it doesn't mean the blog and site owners aren't immune from pulling punches.
Even Beckett offers analysis that borders between overly polite and passive-aggressive. Most times, dislike is couched with phrasing such as "this product may not be for everyone."
The December Beckett Sports Card Monthly review of 2010 Topps Chrome baseball rightfully pointed out the severe warping that plagued the set, but dampened any perceived disappointment by quickly praising the design - which, as always mirrors the flagship Topps baseball set - as "strong."
Carlin didn't touch on the possibility reviewers might compromise opinions if they think it'll keep them in good graces - or if they need to. Questions like this dog the hobby, just as the idea that perception outweighs reality.
Collectors are in dire need of strong, dependable sources of information - good or bad - about the hobby. Sure, there's no shortage of criticism floating around the Web, but how it's fashioned and directed has to be considered.
At the same time, manufacturers should maintain strict standards for how they distribute preview product and why they do it - and publish it all to reassure collectors there's no strings attached or undue pressure to make reviewers be kind.
If everyone can't get in the freebie game, let's make sure those who are doing it for the right reasons. Oh, and if you do get the comp product, don't be so obvious about flipping the box hits.

Campana's Corner is written by Dan Campana, a media consultant, former newspaper reporter and longtime collector living in the Chicago suburbs with a sports-minded 6-year-old and an understanding wife.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Million Card Giveaway = $18.82 In The Hole, For Now

Plenty of lead time has never been something that got in the way of good procrastination for me.

With less than two weeks before Topps shuts down its Million Card Giveaway program and site, the order was placed today for portions of my amassed collection.

In nine to 13 business days it'll be time to see if the Master Plan will work.

The Master Plan, conceived during last year's Topps Series 2 case break, involves what we could be considered a vintage catch-and-release process: Take the best conditioned cards from 50s, early 60s and the infamous black-bordered 1971 mega-set and send them back out into the hobby world as graded cardboard.

OK, fine, it's basically flipping. No one is disputing that around here. With very little to risk by trying to hoard early issue cards that would never touch these hands under any circumstance, there seemed like an opportunity to make something out of nothing.

Well, not entirely nothing. Sure, it cost money to buy packs that yielded code cards, to grade and it did set me back $18.82 to have Topps ship the 31 cards determined to be the best candidates for grading. By the way, $19 to ship? I've sent more cards to foreign countries at cheaper USPS rates.

Master Plan expectations are mellow. There's not going to be any 9 or 10 grades, but with low or no BGS populations - the only free pop reports out there - for some our guys, even a mid-grade might be a worthy venture.

Or, the whole thing might explain why there's not a lot of vintage adventures in this collector's history.

Campana's Corner is written by Dan Campana, a media consultant, former newspaper reporter and longtime collector living in the Chicago suburbs with a sports-minded 6-year-old and an understanding wife.

The Archives: Volume 3 - When Good Cards Go Bad

A good one from Tuff Stuff relating to the concept of accountability, or perceived lack of, in the hobby.

When Good Cards Go Bad

A Duke Snider autographed relic card numbered to just 10 copies - surely a nice hit most collectors would be happy to pull from a high-end product.

Then you see two tear marks near Snider’s name.

Noticing the damage to this 2009 Topps Sterling card set off what turned into a frustrating chase for a replacement card - a situation prolonged when another damaged card was sent to satisfy the original problem.

This scenario played out for a customer at More Fun Sportscards in Dyer, Indiana, during a time when Topps touted the ease of its missing hit and damaged card replacement program.

“It doesn’t seem like they care,” Darren Bala, an employee at More Fun, said recently.

Bala’s frustration comes from what he calls repeated troubling experiences with substandard cards from higher-end sets. In particular, he’s still upset over a damaged 2009 Topps Tribute Tony Gwynn dual patch card that he says was replaced by a card with similar problems, just with a different serial number.

“I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had someone tell me they tried to send something back to Topps,” Bala offered. “If (the Snider) had been mine, I probably wouldn’t have sent it in.”

Bala’s experiences, along with other stories of damaged card woes, indicate unhappiness exists among collectors tired of feeling they’re getting the run around.

Manufacturers have clearly stated guidelines available on their respective Web sites. The process ranges from Press Pass requesting just the card and a letter of explanation to Topps asking, but not always requiring, different types of proofs of purchase to accompany a damaged card.

As with any retail operation, complaints and criticism are easy to find when it comes to customer service within the hobby world. None of the four manufacturers contacted - Panini, Press Pass, Topps and Upper Deck - provided statistics as to the number of damaged card reports received in 2009.

Collectors are quick to offer prolific stories of long waits and apple-to-oranges compensation that paint a picture of a system not set up to benefit collectors. At the same time, company representatives defend their best practices and downplay how widespread of troublesome the replacement process really can be.

Don Hoover, a collector from Pennsylvania, spent more than a month looking for a solution to a damaged box of 2009/10 The Cup.

“The corners were all bent on the upper right side. To make things worse, the Mark Messier Stanley Cup signature is completely scratched and there (are) parts of the card where the foil background is completely rubbed off,” Hoover wrote to Upper Deck in October.

Upper Deck requires collectors begin the process by emailing their quality assurance staff to open a “case,” which then generates return instructions. That first step takes up to six business days to be completed, and matches how long it took before Hoover received an email from a customer service representative.

In the response, Upper Deck asked for scans and Hoover’s address. The next day, Hoover got another messaged which indicated “some complimentary” product would be sent to him to compensate. While no timeline for his replacement items was given, Hoover was also told the quality assurance department would decide what to send him. A month later, he received only a Marty Turco quad patch to account for his damage pack.

“If this situation was handled correctly and in a timely manner, I would have bought several more packs of The Cup by now,” Hoover wrote in November.

Upper Deck declined comment for this story, according to a spokesman.

Bala praised his replacement experience with Upper Deck after he pulled a damaged Exquisite Lance Briggs card. Unable to give him an exact replacement for the Briggs, Upper Deck reached out to Bala.

“They actually took the time to call and see what would work for me,” Bala said, adding he received a nice Matt Forte UD Black card in place of the Briggs.

Admitting he has less faith in Topps, Bala - in the interest of good customer service - did try to exchange the damaged Snider for the collector who pulled it at More Fun.

Although easy was the theme of Topps’ recent video on the replacement process, it isn’t what Bala or More Fun’s customer experienced. Six different phone calls to Topps customer service led to unreturned voice mails and dead ends after getting transferred around. Finally, Bala resorted to a Facebook post on Topps’ page in hopes of getting a response.

A week into the process, a Topps representative contacted More Fun, according to Bala. The Snider was sent directly to the same Topps employee. On Oct. 19, three days short of a month after the first call, a replacement Reggie Jackson arrived - damaged, with a split running down the card’s right side. Bala’s customer didn’t want it.

Mark Sapir, Topps marketing vice president, didn’t know specifics of the Snider card, but found it a disappointing scenario.

“I can’t defend that. I take responsibility for that,” Sapir said in an interview. “Clearly it’s not acceptable.”
In a hobby defined heavily these days by card grading, Sapir indicates there is “debate” over what is considered damaged.

“Nothing is ever perfectly clean, nothing is guaranteed mint,” he said, speaking generally about card condition.
Topps has a multi-layer approach to quality control, Sapir explained, that stretches from the time vendors are selected through the collation and pack-out.

“In total, we put out quality product and have many processes in place to assure it,” Sapir added.

In what Sapir calls “isolated” instances when something isn’t up to par, he says the company is available to collectors in many ways - by phone, email, social media - to discuss the problem.

Topps wants collectors to send wrappers, box UPCs and purchase receipts - which are sometimes difficult to obtain if a pack or box was bought at a show - along with a damaged card, although the company appears to honor swaps where not all items are available.

“Our job is to make people happy, we don’t hide,” Sapir said. “We’re going to make good on it.”

As with Press Pass, Panini offers simple direction for getting a replacement. Panini has you fill out an online request form to generate a packing slip for factory damaged cards.

Although its customer support Web site indicates the replacement wait can take up to three months, Hobby Marketing Manager Tracy Hackler estimates it at more like four to six week, with sequentially numbered cards taking longer. If the exact replacement can’t be made, Panini will send a “comparable card of equal value,” according to the Web site.
Hackler said the approach to replacements “is more a company philosophy, trying to make the customer happy.
“Ultimately, we want the consumer to be satisfied,” he added.

Panini’s current process has been in place since 2006, using a vast library of cards on hand for situations when a replacement might be needed. An experience production team and quality assurance group have helped minimize problems that can occur in what Hackler acknowledges is a “human process.”

In general, Panini takes a “case-by-case” look at how best to fix the problem, even when scarce, low-numbered cards are involved.

“We just try to make it right,” Hackler explained.

Collector Steven Schaffer attests to that. Disappointed to pull a damaged 2010 Donruss Classics Tim Tebow autograph numbered to 25, he contacted Panini to find out they couldn’t match the low number in a replacement.

Instead, within two weeks of his call, he received a “perfect” Tebow autographed card numbered to 249, as well as Colt McCoy and Sean Lee autos, each numbered to 499. SCM

Dan Campana is a freelance writer and media consultant in the Chicago suburbs. He can be reached at

Campana's Corner is written by Dan Campana, a media consultant, former newspaper reporter and longtime collector living in the Chicago suburbs with a sports-minded 6-year-old and an understanding wife.

The Archives: Volume 2 - Kevin Durant

Another feature from Tuff Stuff and Sports Collectors Daily. Would have been nice to get the man himself for this piece, but it is far too rare when you'll see any athlete quoted in a story about his cards.

Kevin Durant Raising The Bar in The Hobby

He doesn’t have a trademark nickname or go simply by one name.

He doesn’t play on either coast where the media crafts a star.

He doesn’t draw attention from the paparazzi or TMZ.

All Kevin Durant has done since being selected No. 2 in the 2007 NBA Draft is emerge as the league’s top young player.

In just three seasons, he’s been chosen NBA Rookie of the Year, became the youngest scoring champion in league history - averaging 30.1 points per game for Oklahoma City in 2009/10 season - and finished second in MVP voting behind LeBron James last season.

Now, bookend his brief NBA career with a sensational freshman season at Texas that earned him Big 12 Player of the Year honors for the 2006/07 campaign and leading the United States to gold this summer in the FIBA World Championship and it’s easy to see why he’s quickly reached superstar status.

“Putting Team USA on his back and carrying his country to a championship at the Worlds in Turkey in an incredibly hostile environment … all of that has taken Durant to another level,” Marc Stein, longtime NBA analyst for ESPN, said. “Not just confidence-wise on the floor, but also marketability off the floor. His game and array of achievements at such a young age transcend market size, exposure, all that stuff. He’s simply one of the top five must-see guys in the league right now.”

Added K.C. Johnson, who covers the Chicago Bulls for the Chicago Tribune, “From a basketball standpoint, he’s virtually unguardable. He just creates matchup havoc.”

All of that makes a watertight case for why Durant has earned respect from his peers, the media and NBA fans who have made his jersey a top-10 seller.

Durant’s talent and on-court growth makes him equally, if not more, popular in hobby circles. For all the stats that prove Durant’s skills, there’s these numbers to back up his cardboard credibility:

- $2,001 - the final selling price for a 2007/08 Exquisite auto-patch Durant rookie card numbered to 99.
- $2,500 - the final selling price for a 2007/08 Exquisite Year One autographed rookie card numbered to 10.
- $2,800 - the final selling price for another 07/08 Exquisite auto-patch rookie numbered to 99 with a high grade.

What’s more amazing is those three auctions all ended on the same October day, nearly a month before the NBA season started. Collectors and sellers are clearly hot for Durant, but even his quick rise to NBA stardom will make the $200,000 asking price for another high-grade Exquisite rookie card hard to fathom.

Still, there’s no denying Durant is outpacing even Miami’s Big Three.

“He single-handedly brought basketball back for us,” Tattoo Thomas, manager of S & S Sports Cards in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, said. “We used to keep a pretty limited selection. Basketball was kind of non-existent with OU (Oklahoma Football) being the main thing here.”

Basketball planted pro roots in the area thanks to Chris Paul during the New Orleans Hornets brief stint calling Oklahoma City home, and former Sooner standout Blake Griffin helped draw interest in roundball collectibles.
The gradual rise of Durant on the court mirrored the increase in local hobby love.

“It’s hard to keep Durant in stock, it doesn‘t matter what it is as long as it has Durant,” Thomas said, adding the backlash against King James and Co. only proved to bolster interest in Durant.

While Durant’s on-court skills are what most people admire, Thomas says the young star’s low-key style and dedication have local fans and collectors even more interested. Thomas talked about camps attended by Durant and his willingness to sign autographs before and after games.

“It’s the little things that don’t get reported. It’s really about his demeanor,” Thomas explained.

Johnson agrees, citing the assessments of current Bulls assistant coach Ron Adams, who previously worked in Oklahoma City, as well as other league sources.

“They speak to him being completely genuine. His popularity will transcend into all areas because he does things the right way,” Johnson said.

In a recent column, Darnell Mayberry, Thunder beat writer for The Oklahoman, summed Durant up this way:

“This, Durant’s fourth NBA season, projects to be the Thunder star’s most superb year yet. Fans, like scientists studying a solar eclipse, could be in for a rare treat - only it will be much easier to enjoy Durant’s exploits.”
Collectors certainly hope Durant cards and memorabilia follow a similar meteoric rise.
Campana's Corner is written by Dan Campana, a media consultant, former newspaper reporter and longtime collector living in the Chicago suburbs with a sports-minded 6-year-old and an understanding wife.

The Archives: Volume 1

Trying to get all my recent hobby writing into one place. This originally appeared in Tuff Stuff in November and online at

Making Sports Card Shows Relevant Again

The July 1993 sports card magazine found in the garage felt like a time machine in my hands. Flipping through page after page of stories and color photos from the hobby’s glory days would make almost any collector sentimental for those simpler, if not overproduced, days.

Then, the shock set in. Twenty-four pages of show listings.

Illinois boasted 138, the majority of which were held in Chicago and its suburbs. One glorious Sunday had 25 shows, some of them blocks away from each other. Incredibly, guys ran shows every night of week.

Fast forward to July 2010 and you’ll be lucky to find three pages of show listings to cover the United States and Canada. The 14 events for Illinois represent a rotation of shows run by a handful of promoters.

What’s happened over 17 years is no mystery, but the demise of shows has been largely overshadowed by the disappearance of local card shops.

Neither is a good thing, and the reasons for both appear to be nearly identical – time and money investments, as well as online sales.

It’s time for a revival, one that requires a surrendering of old-school standards. Here are five ways to make shows relevant again:

1. Taking The Shop On The Road
Most store owners don’t leave their home base for a day-long or weekend show because the costs don’t make sense. Fair enough. It’s time for that notion to become the exception, not the rule.

Carve a few bucks from your monthly budget to do it at least one show a year. The exposure does mean something, and it will challenge you to get out from behind the safety of your store counter.

The hobby is at its greatest when we are meeting people and talking cards. Putting your face to your store name will resonate with collectors of all levels. If you do it right, you’ll see some of those people in the store down the road.

2. Don’t Act Like You’ve Been There Before
Visit a local show on consecutive weeks or months and look around. Do it again in six months, and if things look the same it’s because they probably are.

Guys grab the same table positions, arrange the table the same way and, usually, fill the display with the same merchandise from previous shows.

This disappointing phenomenon stretched to the hobby’s Super Bowl in Baltimore this summer, where even longtime enthusiasts described a familiar scene of monotony and mundane.

It’s hard to argue with routine, but most collectors eventually recognize your pattern. When they do, it means less or no time at your table.

Switch things up, leave the box of common 2002 Topps at home and, for the love of The Mick, don’t ever answer “Nothing, really” when a collector asks “What’s new?”

3. Look At The Calendar Not The Clock
The FansEdge show in Chicago had the unfortunate timing of landing just a few weeks before the National in Baltimore. It kept some larger dealers from making the trip, which should have opened the door for some others to capture the crowd’s attention.

Instead, some dealers opted to check out of the three-day event four hours before closing time on Sunday. Beating traffic appeared to have more value than potential sales to customers paying $10 a ticket to attend, especially with many autograph seekers milling around for hours while they waited for signings to start.

Instead of watching the clock, check the calendar to see what might be a relevant theme or item to sell. FansEdge hit the Chicago area some six weeks after the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, yet the general look of the show floor would make you think hockey was still dead around those parts.

No one took full advantage of the biggest sports story in Chicago. A five-year-old shouldn’t have struggled to find a way to spend $10 on Hawks cards.

Be relevant and now where you’re selling and load up, instead of counting the minutes until packing up.

4. Don’t Just Sit There
Now that you’ve been convinced to stick around, make the most of your time.

Engage customers based on what you see them doing. If a guy in a Washington Nationals jersey is lingering near the 2010 Bowman singles, you can probably strike up a conversation about the Stephen Strasburg hobby revolution – or fade, depending on his shoulder.

Don’t be pushy, but don’t be ignorant of people around your table. Passiveness can be taken as disinterest.

Remember, your table is the “store” at a show. Would you ignore someone who walks in the door?

And, when it comes to kids, remember their impressions today will go a long way toward whether they grow up collectors. Show them it’s OK to ask questions and remind them the hobby, at one time, was based on fun.

5. Oh Yeah, Have Some Fun
Just as no one will argue about the chances 1991 Fleer Baseball will ever increase in value, few people will dispute the hobby’s bottom line is dollars and cents.

That’s not to say money precludes anything else from motivating or creating a successful show. Without being hokey, sellers at a show are all there because, at some time in their life, cards were fun and had an intrinsic value beyond book.

We can go back-and-forth about hobby finances all day. Instead, let’s focus on simplicity. Plan your margins and show goals before you get there, and then revisit them after the show ends.

In between, you know, during the show, channel your hobby roots. Look at the awesomeness of a Wayne Gretzky-Mario Lemieux dual auto for the hockey history it represents, not the price tag. Chances are good the person across the display case from you is thinking that way.

This story originally appeared in Tuff Stuff and is re-printed with permission.

Campana's Corner is written by Dan Campana, a media consultant, former newspaper reporter and longtime collector living in the Chicago suburbs with a sports-minded 6-year-old and an understanding wife.