When I first started collecting baseball cards back in 1987, the trading card industry was on the cusp of a watershed moment. Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, sports cards of all kinds—mainly, baseball, basketball, football and hockey cards—would be bought and sold at a historic clip, turning trading cards into a billion-dollar industry and making a lot of amateur businessmen very rich, very quickly. Card shops and shows, where collectors could buy boxes and packs of cards, as well as individual star cards (or “singles”), mushroomed up all over the country, including right here in the Capital Region. I became a frequent customer at The Vault on Caroline Street in Saratoga Springs and remember going to card shows at the Saratoga Springs City Center, the Polish Community Center in Albany and a number of hotel lobbies up and down the Northway.
And then, amidst a sea of overproduction by card companies and waning interest among collectors, plus the 1994-95 baseball strike, the card collecting economy went belly up. Big time. Speculators, who had bought box after box after box of cards—thousands of copies of the same player even—assuming that they would be equal in value to bank bonds or gold bars, almost overnight found that their stashes were worthless. In fact, collectors lovingly refer to the ’80s and ’90s as the “junk wax era,” during which card producers like Topps, Score, Donruss and Upper Deck overproduced cards—many in wax-paper packages—most of which nowadays have a value of next to nothing. (Of course, there are a few exceptions to that rule, but choice few.)
If you’re like me and never got over the thrill of ripping that first pack open and finding your favorite player inside it, you’ve seen, over the past two decades, a dramatic uptick in interest in the hobby again. For example, Topps, which now is the lone card company with a license to use Major League Baseball logos, realized in the early 2000s that what it needed to do to succeed was cut down on production and in doing so, manufacture rarity. It also became savvy in the ways of its competitors, who had begun inserting special “chase” cards—ones with autographs or serial numbers or little pieces of game-worn jerseys affixed to them—into packs at an astronomical ratio per pack, in a sense, reimagining card collecting as gambling, shifting interest away from kids to adults. Nowadays, mostly adult card collectors pay a premium for packs that might provide an opportunity to land a major “hit,” or one of these perceived-to-be-rare cards. Each pack now has a list of stated odds on the back in fine print, so a collector knows just how rare it is to score one such card. (I recently pulled an autographed refractor card of Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace, Walker Buehler, from a pack of 2015 Bowman Draft, a product produced by Topps, which depending on whom you ask, could be worth as much as $300.)
This new era of pricey hits and drastically reduced print runs also coincided with feverish interest in what is known as professional authentication or grading. (This had actually been around since the early ’90s, but didn’t really catch on like wildfire until the 2000s.) Take that Buehler card I pulled, for example. I could put it in a safe place and maybe someday sell it for about $300 (likely, a lot less). Or I could pay to have it sent in to one of a number of professional grading services, such as PSA, SGC or BGS, and get the card back with a high grade and be able to potentially sell it for a lot more than $300 (twice or three times as much, maybe).
In turn, the ability to grade cards and sell them at a premium got the attention of national auction houses, and in recent history, a number of newer, high-grade cards have gone for absolutely bonkers prices. Take the 2009 Bowman Draft Picks Chrome Prospects rookie card of Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim superstar Mike Trout, which was produced by Topps. The card features Trout’s autograph on it, and like the golden ticket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Topps inserted an ultra-rare variation of which just one was made. That card, graded 9 out of 10 by BGS (and its autograph, 10 out of 10—that costs extra to get graded), was sold by Goldin Auctions for $3.84 million dollars this past August, making it the priciest baseball card ever sold at auction. Just this past December 13, Heritage Auctions sold a gem-mint Wayne Gretzky rookie card, produced by Topps’ bygone Canadian distributor, O-Pee-Chee, in 1979, for $1.29 million, the most ever paid for a single hockey card. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This perfect storm of interest in collecting—and speculating—recently collided head on with the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of collectors around the world suddenly found themselves stuck inside with nothing better to do than buy boxes, packs and singles, to help pass the time (me included). And once again, the industry has found itself exploding with popularity, taking on a second life that most MBAs are probably scratching their heads at.
One of the card market’s newest innovations, which was sparked by the online video revolution of the 2010s and is making a major dent in the industry, is the “live break.” If you’re familiar with the unboxing craze of the not-so-distant past, it’s that but for boxes and packs of trading cards, with a gambling element thrown in for good measure. A live breaker will set up a live video feed—whether it be on YouTube or Facebook Live—and physically open packs and boxes, uncovering each card to a live audience. Before the break, the breaker sells each card in the break—so, maybe, a single card from a pack or all the cards from a specific team. Each spot in a break costs either a fixed amount of money or a varying one, depending on interest in a specific team.
To better explain what a live break is, back in 2018, Vintage Breaks, a New Jersey–based company known for live-breaking rare, expensive packs from particularly sought-after years and sets, opened up a 1955 Bowman pack live at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland. (Back in ’55, Bowman and Topps were competitors, by the way; Topps now owns the rights to the name.) The buy-in was $500 per each of the nine cards in the pack, and one of the cards uncovered featured New York Yankees Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. The man who was awarded the card later got it graded by PSA, and it came back a 9 out of 10. He then sold it for more than $35,000.
The live break craze has even made its way to the Capital Region. Saratoga Springs High School graduate Scott Santelli, who co-owns the Cohoes-based Locker Room 78 with his wife, Krista Peterson, has been hosting live breaks on Facebook Live since 2017. Locker Room 78 started off as one in a sea of trading card shops in the Capital Region, but has since blossomed into a lucrative live breaking business, on top of the sales regular customers bring Santelli and his wife from as far off as Massachusetts.
Growing up poor in the Capital Region, Santelli says he started collecting in the mid-’80s, turning in empty cans and bottles to help bankroll his newfound hobby. “It was an affordable toy,” he says. “Even though we were very, very poor, this was something that we could go [and buy] on our own.” Once he moved to Saratoga in the eighth grade, he began frequenting The Vault and got a job at the McDonald’s on South Broadway, which helped him invest in more expensive wares. He eventually wound up working for the state for 20 years, collecting the entire time and joking to friends that he would someday retire and open a card shop. One thing led to another and in 2017, Santelli went all in on his dream.
He didn’t immediately strike gold, though. In fact, 2018 was a particularly tough year for the small business owner. “Probably four times that year I said I was going to quit, retire and go back to the state,” says Santelli. But he kept a level head, despite having trouble coaxing customers to Cohoes. (I ventured to Santelli’s shop that first year and purchased a few cards for good measure, and two years later, ran into Santelli and his wife at a card show in Cohoes.) Then in September 2019, out of the blue, a customer came in and dropped a small fortune on cards and basically, saved Santelli’s business. Ever the savvy businessman, Santelli immediately invested the money in his business, spending more than $20,000 on social media and collector website advertising and boom! Suddenly, his Facebook page had 23,000 followers, and he was doing a swift business. “I’ve realized that you can’t just build it, and they’re going to come,” he says, echoing the famous line from baseball movie Field of Dreams. “In this industry, I’m up against stiff competition in the Capital Region; everybody thinks that they’re going to be a breaker and hobby store owner, and some of these guys have been in business for 20 years. They’re [customers are] not thinking about looking outside of the box. They may be comfortable where they’re shopping.”
Santelli says that it was his wife, Krista, who initially turned him onto live breaking three years ago. He chalks that up to their age difference: She’s 10 years younger than he is, and in his opinion, was just more wired into what was the latest digital or social media trend at the time. Soon, Santelli began researching other breakers on social media and YouTube and wrapping his head around the business. And although it took his live breaking business awhile to gain momentum, it’s brought him a massive financial windfall. In April of this year, Santelli says he had his best month ever, hauling in $159,000 in gross sales, and for the year, he’s racked up a staggering $1.3 million in total sales so far. But it’s not just about the Benjamins. “Breaking is wonderful, because I have customers as far away as South Korea,” says Santelli, “that in no other way, shape or form would I have ever met. I have active military members that are stationed in Germany that break with me. I have customers in the UK, Canada, South America, Puerto Rico and France. I’ve grown beyond my wildest dreams.”
So what’s in it for collectors? Santelli says that breaking comes down to simple economics: supply and demand in the hobby, as well as the quality of the products being offered. Most amateur card collectors can’t really afford the super-premium products—the $800 boxes, the $80 packs—so, the way Santelli sees it, a break is a cost-effective way of getting in on the fun at a lower price-point. It’s the trading card equivalent of horse racing ownership groups, where a number of people own “shares” in a horse, and if it wins, they get a percentage of its winnings. The only difference between that and a break is, if you buy into a break, you actually get to own the physical products after the fact, and they could turn out to be a great investment, as was the case with that Mantle card. Nowadays, Santelli sets up a break in two basic ways: Say that $800 box is full of football cards. He divides that number by 32, or the number of teams in the National Football League, and offers breakers the option of buying all of the cards from a specific team. A spot in one of those breaks for Cincinnati Bengals fans, for example, costs about $200, he says, because the Bengals have a highly touted rookie quarterback in Joe Burrow, who, though injured and out for the season, has a number of 2020 cards that are selling at a premium. (Santelli’s also not just breaking a single box; he’s opening up multiple boxes at one time to give buyers more bang for their buck.) The other type of break is a random team break, where anyone can get any card from any team (those spots run more like $50 a pop). Streaming his breaks live on his Facebook page, Santelli delicately opens each pack onscreen, making sure to keep the cards that come out of it in tip-top condition. After all, he’s uncovering someone else’s property.
While COVID has certainly decimated many businesses in the Capital Region, Santelli says that Locker Room 78 has been making money hand over fist since lockdown in mid-March. He thanks the perfect storm of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stay-at-home order, those initial government assistance checks (which will be coming back soon) and the Michael Jordan docu-series, The Last Dance, which began airing this past July, for the bull market. Of course, that’s translated into a heck of a lot of work, too. Santelli says he’s been doing seven breaks a night, which makes for some long, arduous workdays. “When the camera goes off, my job is really just beginning,” he says. He and his wife have to sort through all of the cards he’s just opened, put them in protective sleeves and plastic cases, bubble-wrap them and get them ready to ship around the world. “The post office picks up from us seven days a week,” he says. Like most collectors-turned-businessmen, Santelli is happy that the sports cards hobby is back in a big way. But it seems different this time around. “There’s a lot of value in this,” he says. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely crushing it right now. “We’re trying to put the Capital Region and Cohoes, NY, on the map, when it comes to sports cards,” he says. Mission accomplished.