Saturday, June 7, 2008

How to Build a Better Set

In the midst of all this uproar about gimmick cards and not enough value for the money, there have been many suggestions on how to change this, about the collectors boycotting certain products and the blogs refusing to cover certain brands. However, I don't think anyone has given a true break down on how to change things. Ben Henry has given the suggestion that I feel is probably the suggestion that the majority of collectors would agree upon: make your base set better. His his blog post, Mr. Henry doesn't answer how we do that, but says to make every card fun. Okay, that's great but how do the manufacturers accomplish this? What do they need to do in order to make every card fun? I believe this can be accomplished with five things. I have taken a look at my favorite set of the past 20 years that's a flagship set (A flagship set is defined as a company's base set that is often put out in two or more series and is often only called by the company name and then the series number) for the manufacturer and based my reasoning on what makes this set different from the ones today. The set I am basing my rationale on is 1993 Upper Deck. Not only is this probably my favorite modern card set, but it is a favorite of many collectors.

1. Card Design
Card companies now seem to think more is more when in actuality, most collectors probably would agree that often times less is more. The base card in 1993 Upper Deck (93UD) was clean, simplistic and stylish. The Upper Deck logo appeared nowhere on the front of the card although the words "Upper Deck" did appear horizontally across the top of the card. Often times, the words were relegated to the background of the photo and often having the player(s) in the foreground covering part of the words "Upper Deck". This subtle move focused the collector on the photograph and not on the trademark. The white borders framed the photographs well. The player's name was written in an elegant gold script that was not foil, but had a shimmer to it. The band behind the player's name was in team colors and was unobtrusive. The team name was simple and sublime, yet was easily noticeable. The back was also a standout in terms of design. There was another photograph that took up about 2/3 of the card and was different from the front photograph. The player's name and position were repeated in block lettering under the photograph. There were amended stats for only the five previous seasons, but the photograph more than made up for it. Today, there are big, gaudy team names across the top of cards, gratuitous uses of foil or foil that can't be read. There's often more border than photograph and the company logo often draws attention to itself an d away from the photograph. In this year's Topps design, I find my eyes immediately going to the team name or to the Topps logo which is smack in the middle of the photo. The backs are uninteresting and are plainer than white bread. The companies need to see that less IS more and that a design that focuses the collectors eyes on the
photograph is more appealing than all the foil in the world.

2. Photographs
Even when there weren't thirty sets a year being produced by each company, you could see a different photograph for a particular player in every set. Now, photographs are often used multiple times by the manufacturer and are often from the year before the set came out. To me, this just says that the manufacturers are lazy. Okay, I take that back, Topps is lazy. Their photographs are boring. There's no action and they don't draw me in. There's no photos of turning a double play or sliding into home, trying to beat a throw. They're mostly posed photos and those taken in the game seem to be of players waiting on a pitch or standing on base during a time out by the opposing team. While there are a few exceptions to this, this seems to be the norm for Topps. Upper Deck has and does have superior photography on its cards. The photos draw you in, there's action and even when there's not action you like looking at the card. In 93UD, every card was full of action. Even the portrait shots drew you in. Some of this, I believe, has to do with whatever filter they put the photographs through to make the colors pop like they did, but even without the color filters, the shots were impressive. And having two different photos on each card gave you twice the action. Now many cards have only one photo or if there is more than one, it's usually a reproduction of the same photo that is on the front. The reuse of photos bugs the heck out of me. Surely the photographers didn't only take one photo of some of the biggest stars of the game. Everything is computerized today and I'm sure the companies have a database of photos. It shouldn't be that hard to open up a new file and stick that photo on the card instead of the same photo that was used for your 5 previous sets. UD has always used great photography on their cards. Topps HAD great photography (look at Stadium Club) and they need to get it back.

3. Subsets
The manufacturers need to make subsets exciting again. Today, subsets are often created by having slight tweaks to the base design using different wording or logos. In 93UD, every subset looked completely different. And they were all exciting. The Team Stars subset (maybe the greatest subset ever created), paired together the big stars of each team, gave them a nickname and had them in great poses even sometimes with props. The Peter Gammons subset, I mean really anything done by Gammons dealing with baseball has to be good.
The Star Rookie subset which had a sleek design and great info on the back. The Community Heroes subset which gave another look at what some of the heroes of baseball do outside of the game. Each subset was unique, fun and exciting. Every time I got one of these sub
set cards, I felt like I was getting an insert, even though it was part of the base set. They made me say "Wow! This is a cool card!" and not because it was limited to 100 copies or was a refractor. It was cool because it featured great players, it helped me learn about new ones and showed that baseball players cared about people. The subsets of today are often award winners and season highlights and that's it. If I wanted to know that stuff, I can go to Wikipedia or whatever an look it up. Give me something inside, something that makes me go "Wow!" Show me players having fun together, in goofy poses, something out of the ordinary. Make them so different from the base set that there's no guessing if it's a subset or not and make the collector be as excited to get these cards as they would be to get any insert.

4. Inserts
If you're going to have inserts, make them quality inserts. 1993 Upper Deck had a lot of inserts, but they focused on the player or the photography and not the gimmick or a swatch or autograph. Sure there was the Baseball Heroes autograph of Willie Mays you could potentially pull, but it was so hard to pull one out of a pack due to low numbers of cards and high quantity of product. But the Iooss Collection focused on the photography. Future Heroes focused on what young stars could potentially become while Then and Now showed where some of the older stars had been and introduced young collectors to some of their favorite players in a way they might not have seen before when they were young stars. Then and Now also used one of the most tasteful applications of a hologram maybe ever. On Deck allowed the collector to get to know the players a bit better with personal questions answered on the back of the card. I know that every box can't contain an A-Rod autograph, but if I'm spending $80 for a box of flagship set cards, I want some value out of that. If I pay for a box of Topps Sterling, I know I'm at least getting a card of a star. The box of flagship set could contain a swatch of jersey from someone who's out of MLB or an autograph of a nobody. How do you remedy this?
Do you go back to the early days of inserts to where there were very few inserts and the chance to get a big one was almost non-existent or do you make tons of sets and dilute the quality of inserts but make sure that everyone gets inserts at a decent ratio? Personally, I think you do away with inserts like the Generation Now or others like that which are often filler. Keep certain historical ones like the World War II or Presidential Elections. Have other certain inserts which are cool and have the "Wow!" factor much like the mini All-Star jerseys in 2008 Topps Series 1. As for the Autos and Game-Used inserts, what I'd like to see is more quality of the player selection and maybe insert ratios which make them harder to get. Maybe one every other box instead of every box. Maybe put out an ultra low-end product where you can put all the autos of rookies and game-used swatches of relief pitchers and utility infielders. This, out of all of the issues, will be the hardest to remedy.

5. Price
When I have to pay $60-$80 for a box of the flagship set and not get a complete set, I feel something is wrong. $1.50-$2.00 per pack should be right in the wheelhouse for this kind of set. And it also says something about the hobby when the stores have to mark product up so much to keep themselves in business.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, I feel that it is a step that is in the right direction of what a set should be and what it could be if both Upper Deck and Topps got their act together. Especially Topps.

1 comment:

dayf said...

'93 UD is one of the great sets. I think Topps was doing ok with their base set already, there was room for improvement but the insert sets were fantastic this year. That damn #661 is just killing me though.......... Doesn't matter, cause '08 UD is their best base set in years.