Hobby Musings: Inside the World of a Case Breaker – For many people who collect cards, it’s a dream to be able to open the sheer amount of wax that case breakers do. While it’s certainly fun to bust boxes and pull big hits, it also involves a lot of work that is often unseen by collectors. For Brent Williams, known to many hobbyists by his Twitter account @brentandbecca, it has been a labor of love. Opening hundreds of cases of baseball cards per year, he has been able to help fill collections and needs for several hobbyists. To find out more about his start and experiences in the card world, I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Williams. The following interview was conducted via email.
KS: Brent, how did you get started in the hobby?
BW: I mostly started by collecting non-sports cards at 5 years old. Star Wars Trading Cards (Return of the Jedi) and later Garbage Pail Kids. I did have some baseball cards from 1983-1986, but they did not become my hobby until 1987 when I had made new friends at school who also collected and we would love to trade at school.
KS: Why did you decide to start selling cards?
BW: Debt. Cards began to get more expensive in the 90s. And since I was making my own money by age 14 (1992), I was spending more. Eventually this would go from buying packs at a time to buying boxes. Sure, I had bought many boxes of cards prior, like in 1988, my parents bought me dozens of boxes that year of Topps, Donruss, Score, and Fleer at Wal-Mart…they used to have entire pallets of sports cards boxes in the middle of the aisle. I believe the Donruss packs said 33 cents, but I think Wal-Mart sold them like 4 for $1. But the boxes in the 90s that began with products like Leaf, Bowman, Upper Deck and Finest were becoming more expensive. In my college years (1997-2001), I was not only buying boxes, but I also tried my first cases and even began collecting memorabilia (thanks to the internet). I would buy and trade on the internet (mostly on Beckett and then later on eBay) starting in 1996, but around 1999 I began selling some of my own stuff. It became a necessity since people seemed to be trading less and less and my collecting habits had gotten quite expensive. I had begun to accrue debt, so I need to make some major changes. I decided to start parting with cards that I really didn’t need or want to collect that I had gotten from the boxes I was opening.
BW: I have opened over 500 cases each year for the past seven years now. In 2017 I cut back a little and did 521 cases, of which 246 were from Topps Flagship (Series 1, 2, & Update). That used to be a crazy amount, but I suspect most all major group breakers do double that amount. The hobby has definitely been changing in that direction. The cases I open tend to have a lot of boxes, a lot of packs, and a truck full of cards to scan, list, sort and ship.
KS: Did you ever imagine your business would get to this big in volume?
BW: Definitely not. I have had to put a cap on it, as it can get out of hand sometimes when releases come back-to-back. But I always base each product’s case order off of customer demand and how many cases I will need to fulfill my direct customer orders, plus usually an additional 15-20% so that I have some left for eBay and new customers. So every product is different. I don’t blindly order or say, hey I want to open X amount. For example, if I do 95 cases of Topps Update, that is not a random number. If it was, I would have just went for 100 cases even if that makes sense. There are several products I only do 1-2 cases now, because the demand isn’t there, or I simply don’t have time due to the release schedule or other products that are coming around the same time.
KS: I have a hard enough time keeping track of my own collection. How do you manage to keep all of it straight?
BW: It’s actually not too hard. For some reason I remember the cards I hit when I see them, they like lock into my brain or something. I know what people are looking for over time. There are a lot of cards and I keep set inventory on spreadsheets but the singles and whatnot all get uploaded in Turbolister (a listing software tool for eBay). Direct orders are done through email and Twitter and I keep a spreadsheet of all those, and of course, eBay keeps all the records of the orders there. The only time I tend to have issues are when a direct customer will pre-order some sets or whatever, then later want to add some other cards after I have begun to open the cases. If I don’t update my spreadsheet right then, I may forgot and have to do two shipments. I receive 100s of emails (and even more tweets, DMs, PMs, phone calls, texts) once a big product like Heritage or base Topps is out, and that can be tough as I am trying to open, scan and list while answering everyone’s requests, and often there are many requests for the same card or team, and yet I still have so much more to open and sort and look through. I find it fun and I love helping people find cards they want for their collection. The administration definitely takes a huge bulk of time.
KS: There are still a couple of baseball releases left on the 2018 calendar year. That being said, which baseball product do you think performed the best this year from what you saw?
BW: Remembering that I don’t mess with high-end stuff, Topps Heritage was my product of the year. A lot of big rookies this year that had strong demand from the get-go, and of course, Ohtani’s first cards (outside of Bowman Mega the previous year). There were several great releases, but as the year went on, it was tougher as a case breaker due to rising production levels and that some of the rookies were not performing or playing for one reason or another. The rookie demand usually does slide as the year goes on and more releases arrive, unless it’s new rookie cards, like we saw with Acuna, Torres and later Soto.
KS: Who would you say is the most popular player in baseball cards today?
BW: The rookies come and go too quick it seems. Starting with Series 1 it was Devers, Hoskins, Robles, Albies, & Andujar among the top and that quickly moved to Ohtani with Heritage, which quickly moved to Torres and Acuna, which quickly moved to Soto, then back to Acuna. And next it may be one of those guys, but most collectors are already talking about Guerrero Jr. So, the answer is very clear to me…Mike Trout! Not even close. Judge is still popular for sure and has high demand so he might get an honorable mention but the injury and other factors slowed him a little this summer.
KS: What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the hobby since you started collecting?
BW: Four big changes. The internet. The rise and value of graded cards. Prospecting to new levels. Group breaking.
KS: From a selling perspective, what changes for better and worse have you noticed in recent years?
BW: Better: The growth of the hobby. I love it. The hobby is not dead! Far from it…I see it expanding exponentially right now. A lot of people and money coming in (collectors, investors, breakers,) and old collectors returning. I get more requests every year and my direct and eBay customer lists have grown more in the past year than the previous four combined.
Worse: The growth of the hobby. There are more products each year. Production and cost increases on almost all releases too. Plus more competition. Also more people looking to scam since the market is stronger now. Overall it’s all for the better I feel.
KS: As we sit today, what do you think is the biggest challenge in doing what you do with selling?
BW: Three challenges I think. Least challenging: Keeping up with it all. So many releases, sometimes at the same time. Products begin to cannibalize one another as a result.
Challenging: The fact that a very large group of collectors or people buying into group breaks have become sellers themselves. That brings more competition, which is fine in business, but often most people selling aren’t in it for business or full-time, like almost no one, so many people may not have the same goals for selling their cards or even care what their cards do sell for, so the competition is rampant, but not all come from same place; meaning, someone who joins a break for $25 and hits a big card vs. someone who opens a box and hits one vs. someone like me doing it day-in-day out…we all have different goals and expectations.
Most challenging: Rising costs of breaking and collecting. I have had to slow down my personal collecting the past year due to rising costs. From personal taxes to now sales taxes to shipping costs to selling fees to case costs and allocations that reduce the number cases one can order. The list goes on. It will continue to get tougher to be able to collect it all with the number of releases and rising costs, so it will in turn become tougher for a case/box breaker to turn a consistent, albeit small, profit to keep going. There are products now that my margins that once were there are now gone due to changes to the product, it’s demand, and the rising costs. I still open them (in smaller quantity) because I enjoy them myself (I see value in that) and have customers asking for them, but at times it’s at a loss and many, many weeks of work time.
BW: Less products. Less production of certain products. But right now, that is not going to happen and can not really happen. The demand is there for most things coming out. Plus there are expectations from MLB/MLBPA and royalty costs etc. that must be factored in. As for what I open most, I would love to see something new in flagship Topps to replace the manufactured relics (the hobby ones only). Recently on Twitter I have suggested going back to a continuity set in place of that hit, such as several of the past that included stamp/coin dual relic cards, to Strata patch autos, to Topps Laser, etc. There are plenty of new and old ideas/sets that can come to life this way and create a demand that once was there for the manufactured pieces that just isn’t now.
KS: In your opinion, what is the biggest positive and negative in the hobby today?
BW: The people are the biggest positive. So many great collectors, traders, buyers, sellers, breakers out there. I know it sounds corny and some may not believe it, but I have continued doing what I do because of people. The relationships. The joy of helping others get cards for their collections. I still collect, and I love the chase, so I enjoy helping others in their chase.
Negative also has to be people. It’s a small amount, very small, but there are some who live to scam others in a variety of ways. Always has been. It puts a bad light on the hobby and turns some people off of it completely. You are going to have that in all things in life to a certain degree, so I guess it isn’t surprising, but it’s sad and frustrating to see nonetheless. Also, at times there are those who only live to tear down the hobby, or say it’s dead, or say to people what they collect isn’t worthy of collecting because they don’t like it or whatever. I wish all that would go away. Constructive criticism is fine, whether fact or opinion based, but tearing down the hobby, the card companies, the collectors, just to do so or because you disagree…I’m not a fan.
KS: What would say is the overall state/health of the trading card industry?
BW: The strongest it’s been since I began selling. The bubble may burst as there is a lot going on, but right now I don’t see it. There are more breakers, graders, collectors, investors, etc., etc. than I recall. More products, higher production, etc., etc. A lot of growth. I’m not saying everyone is winning or that everyone breaking or selling is making money…not at all, it’s not about that to most but there is a growing passion, excitement about the players and their cards.
KS: I’ll get you out of here on this question. Going forward, what do you think is the key for the hobby card industry to survive and stay vibrant?
BW: Tough question. I don’t have a good answer. We need the economy to stay strong for starters, haha. For group breaking to continue to grow. Some consistency year to year and product to product while adding some new things here and there. For there to continue to be great young players coming up that get people excited about cards. And we need our passionate collectors to stay while others join in.
I do think there will come a time when the volume of products and the production levels will have to get in check somewhat. It always seems to cycle and we see those numbers decline, but we have been in a good and growing hobby environment for quite some time now. There continues to be hot prospects and high demand for product, and usually that cycles more quickly, but right now the curve is continuing upward.