Thursday, January 6, 2005

34. Commercialism spoiled hobby

In late August I used to stay up late waiting for my mom to come home from the convenience store she managed back in the late 1970s. With her she would bring all the packs of football and baseball cards my couple of dollars could buy. Back then, about ten cents a pack, each dollar got me ten packs and my first practical use of long division. My friends and I would bring our cards to school, and on sleepovers, to negotiate trades and compare collections. We would stay up all night working on that blockbuster deal.

I completed my first football set 1978 and my first baseball set in 1980- Topps, of course, for they were the only company that made sports cards back then. Soon after, Donruss and Fleer starting making awful imitations, and shortly after that, a slew of other companies and brands entered the market in the 1990s.

I collected nearly every set, by hand (not buying the complete set), until around 1989. In around 1989, I put a couple of extra sets that I collected up for sale at my parents' small business. The rapid sale and, furthermore, the customer inquires into these sets and other sets quickly lit a light bulb above my young head. Buying and selling cards might be a profitable little business. I started slowly, using only profits to buy additional products; but I worked hard, and hustled, doing card shows and flea markets. My best friend and I drove everywhere and anywhere to get a good deal on cards, destined for resale. What was once an enthusiastic, although sometimes obsessive, hobby, was now a full-fledged small business.

Baseball cards especially, and sport cards in general, became zealously popular in the late eighties and early nineties. Hobbyists, like myself, found out that there was value to their collections and quickly "sold out" and pursued sport cards as an investment, rather than for the enjoyment. Quickly, money and greed ruined, at least for me, the hobby I once thoroughly enjoyed.

Nearly all markets can easily be defined through supply and demand. The pattern of events that led to, in my opinion, the destruction of this traditional hobby outlines a trend that is now easily recognized throughout other hobbies and fads. My stomach turns ill when I see other innocent endeavors fall (or are about to fall) victim to the greed of both companies and consumers wanting to make a quick profit.

Here, in my opinion, is how it happens:

Step 1: Something that used to be in short supply, or at least in equilibrium, becomes overtly popular- quickly raising demand. This popularity usually comes about through some sort of media attention.

Step 2: When demand dramatically exceeds supply, prices suddenly rise.

Step 3: Rising prices do two things. Those who have the product in demand begin to sell the product for a sizeable profit (and tells everyone what kind of profit they made); and other companies begin producing the product with the hope of capturing some of the market share.

Step 4: The flooding of the market frustrates both customers/investors as now supply exceeds demand- driving down prices. .

Step 5: Companies desperately fight for market share and seek to create artificial demand by cutting production runs. These shortened production runs are usually distributed randomly so that one has to be "lucky" to get "one out of only 500 produced." The entire hobby turns into a lottery. While, at the same time, collectors/investors spend so much money keeping up with the recent trends/products that there is little money left to spend on the original product, for which, ironically, is truly in short supply. In this manner, companies do a great job of distracting consumers from the falling value of their inventories/investments.

I thought my modest sport card business would pay for my college, and although it helped, I waited a bit too long. As the supply increased, investors focused on the limited edition cards- those purposely created in short supply. This act drove down the prices of thousands upon thousands of "common cards." In addition, those who had purchased cards as an investment panicked and further flooded the market. Suddenly everyone was a dealer, and nobody was a collector. Even cards at garage sales had sellers pulling out their price guides to get the latest value.

I sold my collection in 1993 and never again bought a single pack of cards. It was like giving up an addiction "cold turkey." I have noticed on occasion the cost of the cards I used to get 15 to a pack for 10 cents. Now the cost is upwards of a couple of dollars for a pack of 5 cards. In my opinion, hobbyists, like me, sold out and ruined what used to provide hours of pleasure. In fact, due to my obsessive tendencies and guilty conscience, I have refrained from collecting anything since then.

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