Thursday, June 14, 2007

Here's Where I'm Coming From . . .

For you to understand my reasoning when I review different products, it would be very helpful if you had an explanation of what my priorities are and what kind of collector I am. For that reason, in today's blog post I'll categorize myself in a few different ways so you know where I'm coming from.

By Sport

In the 1980s and 1990s I was almost exclusively a baseball collector. I had very little in the way of cards or other collectibles of NBA, NFL or NHL players or teams. At that time I was not a toy collector; about all that was available was Starting Lineup and those figures were never good enough for me to be interested in. I stepped away from collecting for several years, returning to the fold in 2005. What brought me back was the McFarlane NFL Sports Picks. They were so cool and so accurate that I got motivated to return to collecting just so I could get them.

The accuracy, relatively now price point and cool factor of the Sports Picks brought me back, and I've been a rabid collector ever since. I collect 90% football, 8% baseball and 2% hockey right now, give or take a few points on each. The non-football figures just aren't accurate enough for me, they haven't been able to get the faces right. The exceptions to that are the hockey goalies, and I have a decent assortment of goalie figures because they are very well done. I also have some baseball figures of players I really like, mostly the Cooperstown figures, even though the faces just quite there.

All that's to say, I'll cover the hockey and basketball figures but won't have the detailed opinions of them because I'm not a big fan of either sport. I know quite a bit about baseball and I have some of those figures, so I probably will be inclined to address them periodically. NFL is the big deal for me and I'll focus on them quite a bit.

Investor vs. Collector

This categorization is the one that separates me from most collectors and will probably piss off the most readers. It affects my views in many ways.

I am completely a collector. In my closet are about 70,000 baseball cards that frequently remind me not to view sports action figures as investments. I have star and rookie cards, errors, wax packs and rack packs, all cloistered away in boxes where they're safe and ready to subsidize my retirement. I keep watching for their value to rise on Ebay so I can cash in and traipse off to Bermuda for my golden years. My investment scheme isn't working out, however. That must-have Pete Incaviglia card from 1986, the Sandy Alomar rookies that were going to put my son through college . . . they just never really panned out.

That just isn't a hobby to me. If I want to focus on their investment value, wouldn't I be better served by putting the money into stocks or something more reliable?

Sports action figures are collectible toys. I believe in buying them for fun, as a way of deriving some enjoyment as I separate myself from my disposable income. Not as investments.

Because I'm a collector and not an investor, I really don't care about "value" other than how it affects what I pay for a figure, or how it helps or hurts me in getting the figures I really want. I'm going on the assumption that the new chase that costs $40 on Ebay right now will probably not be worth near that amount in 10 years. Look at most of the chases and how they sell on Ebay. They go up higher, then after several months they tend to drop in price and stay there. There are some exceptions, but that's the general rule you can expect. So value means very little to me because it's 98% hype with only 2% historical precedent.

Likewise, I really don't give a damn about exclusives or limited edition figures - I don't define the success of my collection by whether or not I have things that others can't have. For that reason, I don't like exclusives, small edition sizes or chase figures in their current implementation.

That's why Upper Decks black edition figures irritate the hell out of me. They only produce 250 of each one, and then 233 of those end up in the hands of dealers and scalpers who will just jack up the price and hawk them at Ebay. I think there's a difference between free market trade and shameless opportunism, you know? If you're going to do an event exclusive, at least produce enough so that they won't cost an arm and a leg three days after they're released. McFarlane produces 3000 event exclusives - that is too many for a figure priced at $100, but there should be more than just 250. With a larger edition size I don't have that much of a problem with event exclusives, but I'd prefer a collector club or website-only exclusive instead so that they're available to the most avid collectors at all locations.

I'd prefer larger edition sizes on the regular All-Star Vinyls as well. Right now they have 1500 home and 500 away figures at $50 each. If they doubled that to 3000 / 1000 figures they could sell them for $25 or $30 each. Right now the figures are selling out in three hours or less - doubling the edition size and dropping the price wouldn't cause the figures to be left on the shelves gathering dust, I believe.

It sounds as though I'm picking on Upper Deck but McFarlane isn't blameless here. The limited number of chase figures means that store employees or flea market dealers will grab 90% of them before they make it to store shelves, and then off to Ebay they scamper to jack up the prices artificially. I don't think that serves the hobby, ultimately. I love the idea of having alternate versions of figures, but they're under-produced. McFarlane could sell more figures by creating home and away versions in closer to a 50/50 split - maybe 75/25 or 60/40. A lot of people would buy both versions in this scenario, rather than just buying one and getting irritated because some Hot Wheels dealer paid a clerk to hoard the chase version for him to sell online. That means fewer regular edition peg-warmers ending up in clearance bins, and that's a good thing for the line.

Along those lines, super chases mean nothing to me. I like how McFarlane does them though; they make the super chase different in a way that isn't too significant. It's not like making the only version of a player's figure a super chase. Leaving off a helmet, putting snow on the ground, coloring a glove gold, those are inconsequential differences that still offer something different to the guys who still believe these figures will have enduring monetary value. In this way McFarlane caters to exclusionary collectors ("I only want it if you can't have one too") and the hobbyist collectors as well. Thumbs up to McFarlane for the way they handle super chase figures.

Two more aspects of being a collector vs. an investor bear mentioning.

First, I have little interest in variants. (Not to be confused with chases - read this article for an explanation of the difference between variants and chases.) I don't care if Tiki Barber's socks are red or blue, or whether Vinitieri's face mask has two bars or three. I'll take either one and be happy with it.

Second, I'm an opener, as opposed to the MOMC collector (who leaves the figures in packages, and considers the condition of the package when evaluating the worth of a figure itself). If you collect as an investor, you can't be an opener - you are "devaluing" the figures by 50 - 75% if you remove them from their packaging. That would be like winning a gold medal and having it bronzed - kinda self-defeating.

I collect figures, not boxes or clamshell packages. Many of the figures are unassembled in their packaging, so you can't even enjoy looking at those figures without removing them from their clamshells. In most cases I think MOMC fans just squirrel away the majority of their figures in boxes to keep the packing in pristine condition; what's the point of that? Some MOMC fans hang their figures up. Personally, I don't think the packaged figures display well - hang them up around the room and your display looks like an aisle at Toys R Us. I love how they look, on display as they were designed to be displayed, outside of the packages. I love to go into my room and see the rows of figures all lined up, it's very cool.

Upper Deck has created packaging that displays well. You can also take a figure out and put it back without destroying the packaging, so Upper Deck wins out in this category. McFarlane has issued a few of their figures in boxes and those look ok. Some of them, like the Mickey Mantle Collector Edition, isn't assembled; that defeats the purpose, to me. McFarlane has also changed their clamshells such that they have built-in bases so they stand up well on a shelf. I thought that was very, very smart even though it didn't appeal to me personally.

The whole opener issue has been tough for me. Every time I open a figure I know I'm reducing its value. When I've paid $50 or more for a figure off Ebay, that can be tough to do! I made a conscious decision when I started collecting again in 2005 that I would NOT get caught up in the hype or the investment mania, and I force myself to do it. I do understand the thinking of people who don't open their figures; I just try to stick with my original mandate of being a hobbyist, and enjoying the figures as much as I can. That means I liberate the little guys from of their plastic prisons and let 'em breathe!

Anyway, that's where I'm coming from. . . Chances are, you're going to disagree with some or all of the points I made here. That's cool - it just means you are a different kind of collector than I am. You don't have to agree with me . . . but it does help if you understand my way of thinking so you recognize what I base my reviews and opinions on.

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