#TheHobby Life: Will Topps/Fanatics’ decision to weaken retail product backfire?

As someone who loves buying baseball cards at places like Target and Barnes & Noble, I’ve kinda felt like Han Solo in the days after the release of 2023 Topps Series 1 on Feb. 15 as whispers and rumors swirled about the changes to the distribution of “hits” in packs. 

Y’know, “Never tell me the odds.”

But all you C-3POs out there finally got through, and I can’t ignore the odds any more. And, dammit, it’s time to change how I buy baseball cards, at least for now. And it probably should be time to change the way you buy cards, too. Again, at least for now. 

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Let the retail boxes sit on the shelves. It’s going to be tough. Believe me, I know. 

We all remember the days of walking through the Target double doors and glancing up toward the card aisle, over there to the right next to the last row of registers, hoping against hope that you’d actually see cards, and not just the white pegboard glowing in the fluorescent light in a mocking way, as if to say “did you really think there would be anything here?” 

And when you actually saw hangers or blasters on the shelves, you’d make a beeline over there, cutting between the registers and the Starbucks, not wasting the time to walk all the way past the registers like rational shoppers and get there via the main aisle, because those precious seconds wasted with the extra steps might mean someone else would get there first. And then you bought as many as your card budget — or store policy — would allow

It’s hard to resist the urge. But resist, you must.

Why? Well, ignoring my inner Han, I looked at the odds, and now you have to, too. Folks, in Year One of Fanatics being in fully and completely control of an entire year of Topps offerings — the sale/takeover was completed in January 2022, long after planning and production of 2022 Series 1 offerings was underway — your chances of getting anything “good” in retail have taken a major nosedive with 2023 Series 1. Seriously, it’s like they’ve fallen off one of those giant trees on the forest moon of Endor.

Let’s start with the hangers, which have long been a favorite of mine. At roughly $12, the cost is lower than a blaster, but anecdotally, at least, they consistently produced better hits. Certainly a better value. There’s a reason “hangers are bangers” is a phrase in the hobby. 

Let’s compare 2022 Series 1 and 2023 Series 1 hangers. We’re not going to look at every single parallel, but we’ll look at the primary ones, because the truth is, nobody’s buying habits will be impacted because the odds for a Greatest Hits Platinum parallel went from 1:361,360 in 2022 to 1:671,696 in 2022, right? Even though, yeah, that’s a massive change, reflected throughout all the super rare parallels. 

These are the odds per “pack” but in reality, that’s the entire 67-card hanger box, which will generally have six or seven non-base cards each. 

Base Card Parallels 2022 S1 Hangers 2023 S1 Hangers
Rainbow foil 1:2 1:2
Royal Blue 1:3 1:3
Gold (/2022 or /2023) 1:8 1:15
Green foil (/499)  1:32 1:61
Orange foil (/299) 1:54 1:102
Red foil (/199) 1:82 1:154
Vintage stock (/99) 1:165 1:312
Independence Day (/76) 1:209 1:395
Mother’s Day pink (/50) 1:318 1:600
Father’s Day blue (/50) 1:318 1:600
Memorial Day camo (/25) 1:636 1:1,200

That’s quite a bit different. What does it mean? Basically, this: Your chances of finding numbered parallels in hangers has dropped, dramatically, and that’s not a good thing for those of us who enjoy buying retail. 

To be fair, not everything has dropped. The Rainbow Foil and Royal Blue odds are the same. The odds of getting a Home Run Challenge card are the same, at 1:10. And some items actually have better odds. The Baseball Stars autographs, for example. Last year, the odds of a base auto were 1:189 in a hanger. This year, it’s 1:113. So that’s good, I guess, but again, at 1:113 the odds are still long. And for the throwback autos, it’s worse. Last year, the odds of a getting base 1987 Topps design auto were 1:92 and this year, it’s 1:138 for a 1988 design auto.

And because I have decided to go with the Star Wars references — not planned before I started writing, I swear — let’s talk about more retail, the pros and cons of having a good blaster at your side as you head to the self-checkout aisle.

The first thing I noticed with the first 2023 blaster I opened was the packaging. In its first full year in charge, Fanatics is doing a much better job of selling the potential hits to would-be buyers who pick up the box. Last year, the right side panel on Series 1 was just a logo for the Home Run Challenge cards. This year, it’s a breakdown of the colored parallels, inserts and short prints potentially inside. And when you open the box, the top flap, another breakdown of the rare parallels potentially inside. There’s even a pic of a green foil parallel Adley Rutschman showing, but, folks, you probably aren’t getting that one here. 

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What they don’t tell you on the box is that your chances of getting a green foil card from the 2023 blasters — yes, Fanatics is calling them “value” boxes this year, but they’ll always be “blasters” to collectors, so that’s what we’re going with — are significantly worse than out of 2022 blasters. How much worse? In 2022, the odds were 1:153. This year: 1:403. Yikes. 

Now, for the side-by-side odds comparison. First, remember, these odds are per pack, not per blaster, so it’s a bit different than the hangers. Both 2022 and 2023 blasters come with seven packs each, 14 cards per pack. That’s 99 cards per blaster, an average of two non-base cards per pack, with one manufactured relic per box.  

Base Card Parallels 2022 S1 Blasters 2023 S1 Blasters
Rainbow foil 1:10 1:10
Royal Blue 1:10 1:10
Gold (/2022 or /2023) 1:38 1:99
Green foil (/499)  1:153 1:403
Orange foil (/299) 1:257 1:679
Red foil (/199) 1:391 1:1,033
Vintage stock (/99) 1:789 1:2,087
Independence Day (/76) 1:1,000 1:2,654
Mother’s Day pink (/50) 1:1,519 1:4,024
Father’s Day blue (/50) 1:1,519 1:4,024
Memorial Day camo (/25) 1:3,039 1:8,048

It’s the same thing. You’re just not nearly as likely to get anything good this year. Think about it this way: If you went to a local card shop today and bought both a 2022 Series 1 blaster and a 2023 Series 1 blaster, you’d have a better chance of getting a 2022 Independence Day parallel numbered to /76 (odds 1:1,000) than you would getting a 2023 Red Foil parallel numbered to /199 (odds 1:1,033).

Why? Fanatics has completely rewritten the equation, and as I see it — or, as I argued with a buddy via text for most of the day Saturday — there are only a couple possible explanations. 

The first one, the most likely in my book, is this: The way numbered parallels and other “hits” are distributed has changed, drastically. Topps still made 499 of each of the Green Foil parallels, right? But if — completely speculating on numbers here, just as an example — last year 250 of those were in hobby/jumbo boxes and 249 were in retail offerings, maybe this year it’s 325 in hobby/jumbo and 174 in retail. And that percentage pattern shift changed, all the way down the line. That would easily account for the shift in odds.

The other option? The distribution of hits — the percentage — remained the same between hobby and retail, but the quantities printed changed. In that scenario, Topps/Fanatics hit the multiplier on the amount of base cards produced for hangers/blasters/fat packs to be sold in retail outlets. Remember, with Fanatics now in charge and places like Fanatics-owned Lids stores in malls selling cards now — that’s just one of many new outlets — more retail product is needed.

Another factor: Remember all the craziness of 2021, when the hobby caused so many problems for retailers and distributors that Target stopped sales for a couple months? Maybe Target and Walmart said — again, speculation — if you want to keep selling, you need to guarantee we have enough product so that doesn’t happen ever again. Printing more base cards for retail outlets would mean more blasters/hangers/etc, and if the number of “hits” stayed static, the odds would drop. 

Whatever the cause, things are different. Very different.

And I’m sure you’ve heard this by now, but the jumbo boxes are loaded. Like, incredibly jam-packed with the goodies. 

Base Card Parallels 2022 S1 Jumbo 2023 S1 Jumbo
Rainbow foil 1:2 1:2
Gold foil 1:2 1:2
Gold (/2022 or /2023) 1:12 1:4
Green foil (/499) 1:47 1:14
Orange foil (/299) 1:79 1:22
Red foil (/199) 1:119 1:35
Vintage stock (/99) 1:241 1:70
Black (/72) 1:59 1:80
Independence Day (/76) 1:305 1:89
Mother’s Day pink (/50) 1:463 1:134
Father’s Day blue (/50) 1:463 1:134
Memorial Day camo (/25) 1:926 1:268

There’s a reason that jumbo boxes, originally listed for $150 on the Topps and Fanatics websites, and generally available at $170 or under at local card shops across the country on Release Day, disappeared from stock almost immediately. And now, if you can find them, they’re generally above $200. Auctions on eBay are regularly going for $220-plus. 

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I’m genuinely curious what Fanatics will list them at if/when they’re available again.

So let’s step back and think about what this revolution means for collectors. 

If you’re a collector who wants to chase rare cards — either to sell or to keep — there is no debate. Don’t spend a single cent on retail products, and buy only jumbo boxes. There’s real value in Series 1 jumbo boxes, even at $200-plus per box. Not every box will bring that type of return, of course, but a lot of them will. They’re clearly the best option.

We won’t do the hobby box breakdown, but hobby boxes are … fine. They weren’t ransacked like retail products, and they weren’t inflated like jumbo boxes. Just know that, when you’re promised “one autograph or relic card” per box, this could be your guaranteed “hit.”

But what if you’re a collector who likes to buy cards with the chance of getting a hit at $12 to $25 bucks a time, not $200 bucks a time? It’s a tough time to be in that window. 

In one way, I get why Fanatics would like it. Because of the price point, the jumbo boxes are for the more serious collector. That’s not new. It’s been that way for a long time. And, as a company, if you’re going to create excitement around a product, why not create something that will cause your $150 product to fly off the shelves — and off your website — instead of around your $25 product? It does make sense.  

If you’re a casual collector who wants to open a few packs, see the new cards, maybe complete a set and get plenty of the base inserts — the Stars of MLB insert design is fun again — then retail is the way to go. With the jump in price last year — Series 1 blasters were $20, but that was bumped to $25 for Series 2 and Update, and it’s the same for 2023 — it’s a bit pricey, considering the massive cutback on chase cards, though. 

The good news for the casuals, though? As more and more people figure out that hits in retail products are sparse, they should have no problem finding boxes on shelves. These days, there are lots and lots of products on the shelves. The days of empty trading aisles are pretty much gone, a result largely of the price increases by both Topps and Panini — $30 for a blaster of Mosiac baseball that has only 36 cards in it? C’mon, Panini — and other factors, including massive print runs for newer products. 

Collectors are balking. How many times have you walked down a card aisle, seen the shelves mostly full, looked at the offerings and thought, “nah.” That won’t change with this news.

And that’s not a good look for the card companies. As frustrating as it was for collectors during the days when retail products were like gold — it’s crazy to think that in 2021 Target had to stop selling trading cards for months because the intense demand for those products was leading to actual, physical violence — it was great for Topps and Panini. Their brands became synonymous with exclusivity. Now, as products sit on shelves for weeks and months at a time, the opposite effect is happening. And when clearance stickers start showing up on products that have gathered dust? Well, it’s not a good look. 

Want a silver lining? At least Topps and Panini solved the scourge of flippers. Not sure that dazzling combo of higher prices and worse products is a long-term solution, but that’s just me. 

Is this the new normal? Who knows? If you can buy Series 1 blasters at Target in September for $15 each in the clearance aisle, chances are Fanatics will notice and make changes. This is, after all, its first foray into the hobby. The company is allowed a few growing pains. 

And, look, it’s not that you can’t walk into Walmart tomorrow and get a good card in a retail box. They’re still in there, just much more rare. I did pull a Shohei Ohtani Home Field Advantage from a retail pack as part of my pre-order from Target. Getting that card was part of the reason I ignored the “retail packs suck now” crowd for so long. But the other blasters and hangers I’ve opened, well, let’s just say the stated odds seem pretty accurate, even with my small sample size. 

I’m not saying “never buy retail” because opening packs is fun. The hobby should be fun. Heck, when I went out looking for 2023 Topps Series 1 retail boxes on Sunday for the purpose of taking a photo to run with this story, I talked myself into buying a hanger or two. I do love opening packs. I couldn’t find any, though, at five different spots, so clearly the word on the much-worse odds hasn’t reached every collector. 

So if you do choose to buy retail boxes, I feel obligated to let you know your chances of finding a rare card numbered to /50 in a blaster (1:4,024) are roughly the same as, let’s say, successfully navigating an asteroid field (1:3,720).

Don’t everyone thank me at once. 

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