“You mean people actually read these things?” – Bringing back the back.
When I collected as a kid, I had a selection of maybe five games to watch each weekend and the internet was still largely science fiction. I was actually excited for the two years that my parents got the Dallas Morning News because it meant that I could read recaps of every game. Despite these handicaps, I knew EVERYTHING about the NFL during those years. Why? Because I had my cards – with all the commentary, biographical information, and statistics I could want. I knew all of Jake Plummer’s college stats. I knew how many yards Napolean Kaufman rushed for against AFC West teams. I knew why Troy Aikman transferred from Oklahoma to UCLA. All because I studied the backs of my cards as a nerdy 12 year old. In fact, as far as I was concerned, the front of the card was just a picture – the back of the card held the real value. If the player was a rookie, I could see their statistics for all four years (five if they red-shirted) of college, see where they went to high school, read what scouts thought of them, and maybe even find out if they had a hidden talent. For twelve-year veterans, sometimes they would forgo any text at all and just give you their stats for all twelve years. Of course, they would make sure to note which categories they led the league in for each year. Even if the card design prohibited large text boxes, card companies still got creative and gave collectors valuable information – how the player did against division rivals, how their stats compared to the league average or against an older team legend, etc. It was great.
Compare those with something like recent versions of Topps Prime and you’ll see a huge difference:
The backs of these cards have the same feel as blank index cards. No photo. Plain white background. Two sentences of player info. A single year’s worth of stats. A tiny team logo graphic at the bottom. Now I am not saying that companies have completely given up, but their efforts have noticeably lagged. This is largely because, whether we have slowly been conditioned by the companies Illumanti-style or we have brought it upon ourselves, collectors have largely come to see cards as one-sided pieces of cardboard. As long as the front looks good, some collectors never even flip their card over unless it’s to check for a serial number (and with more and more cards putting the serial number on the front, even this is slowing down). On one hand, putting all the focus on the front of the card makes it simpler to scan cards ad sell/trade them online, but it robs them of a valuable element.
What is most concerning is how the proliferation of patches and autographs have shifted the focus so far to the front of the card that some companies have actually given up on putting anything of worth on the back. Seemingly half the auto/relic cards today come with little more than “Congratulations. You have received an authentic…” and even that claim is often dubious. I have had fortune cookies tell me more than most of the autographed cards I own. Especially egregious are sticker-autographed cards in this vein. It almost excusable for a hard-signed card to devote its back to telling the collector about the rigorous, in-person authentication steps taken by the company (yes, I’m laughing while I type this) to ensure the authenticity of the autograph, but it is truly pathetic to waste those precious 8.75 square inches of cardboard on the reverse just to tell me that I have received an “authentic autograph” (notice how they cannot say “authentic autographed card”) on a sticker that they have no way of verifying.
It saddens me that, whereas I spent more time looking at the backs of my cards than the fronts as a child, the most valuable cards being chased each year now have virtually nothing on the back. I do realize that with the advent of Twitter and 24/7 coverage by companies like ESPN that today’s fan can get 1000x as much information just by checking their smart phone. I also realize that the rise of fantasy football has led many serious fans (and gamblers, sigh) to study statistics to a greater depth than any sports card could provide. Yet it still feels as though the hobby has lost something. Even if companies can’t compete with the information provided by other sources, they can use their creativity to put their own spin on information the average fan might not hear about. Even surface-level research turns up personal stories about the players that may not be sensational enough to end up on ESPN or give someone an edge in placing their next fantasy wager, but can go a long way towards restoring the human element of the game. It was through sports cards that I learned that Michael Irvin grew up with 16 other siblings, that Jerry Rice helped his father lay bricks as a child, and that Troy Aikman developed his crooked smile as a child trying to hide a front tooth he had cracked. In an era which many players don’t even put an effort into signing the autographs that drive collectors crazy, it would be nice if the companies would that extra mile and bring a little more of the human element back to their cards.
- The Frenzy