Friday, February 4, 2011

Outside The Promotional Cards, There Is Little Substance To Non-Sport Update Magazine!

The Good: Promotional cards exclusive to magazine, Glossy and pretty to look at.
The Bad: Lacks any substance, Price guides are woefully overinfluenced by eBay, Repetitive and simple.
The Basics: Hardly keeping the non-sports trading card industry in check or even being terribly enlightening or accurate, Non-Sport Update is pretty much a patsy for the manufacturers of trading cards.

When I began collecting trading cards in the early 1990s, there were several different publications related to the collecting of non-sports trading cards. Trading cards from everything from movies to television shows to pop icons in the music industry, even wars (there is a strangely popular, now, "Desert Storm" set of trading cards that tanked when it was originally released) have popped up over the years alongside the traditional sports cards from baseball, football and basketball. Non-Sport Update is the sole surviving trading card magazine for those who are not into sports or sports cards. Yes, the geeks.

The thing is, the more I read Non-Sport Update, the more I wonder why I bother. This is an inoffensive magazine that never risks its precious advertising dollars to write anything hard-hitting about the trading card industry. The result is a placid, glossy magazine that is seldom substantial and if one has any two issues side by side, they will find an obscene amount of repetition. In fact, the only reason I even hunt down the magazine anymore is for the exclusive promotional cards inside.

There are two parts to each issue of Non-Sport Update magazine. This magazine appears every two months and for major conventions, like the San Diego Comicon, the publishers often create a variant cover and/or put alternate promotional cards in the magazine to make it a collectible. Outside that, every two months comes a magazine that is half glossy with articles about non-sport trading cards or the media they are based upon and half a dull price guide of the extensive lists of trading cards available in the secondary market.

To get the second half out of the way first, the price guide is an excellent idea. Having a guide to advise collectors what their cards are worth is a terrific idea and to be honest, Non-Sport Update has some good general numbers. The problem comes with how those who compile the lists come up with their numbers and the list of people making the numbers includes staff from every major non-sport trading card company. One would think, then, that they would attempt to look out for their own interest. This is not the case, though and many of the price lists include prices for trading card common sets that are vastly below the price their own company charges to get the set directly.

The problem here is that a few years back, the trading card market became dominated by a little website called "eBay.” "EBay" is good for many things, connecting the marketplace to buyers, registering changes in value for volatile markets, but mostly it is a place where people who have excess of one thing might dump it at extraordinarily low prices. As a result, cards like common autographs seldom hold their true value. In other words, autographs are used to sell boxes of trading cards these days. If a box has one to three autographs inside, it can make that box of cards more or less expensive. However, while the mystery autograph card in an unopened box of trading cards might drive the price of the box up, opening the box to reveal which autograph card (or cards) was inside might make the product essentially worthless by the standards of eBay and the Non-Sport Update price guide. In other words, the writers of the price guide seldom look to protect investors in their product by suggesting what the value ought to be, instead documenting (usually the cheapest version of) the current going price.

This, then, becomes less of a guide to what the price ought to be and instead is a reflection on what the people blowing out the market are doing. The unfortunate aspect of this is that if one were to calculate the value of a case of most trading cards produced by major manufacturers like Inkworks and Rittenhouse Archives, one would quickly discover that either there is almost no way to make back one's investment on a case or that making money on trading cards depends upon the luck of pulling one of a very few select cards. Non-Sport Update fosters this concept with its price guide by documenting high prices for few cards and dump prices for most of the rest of the contents of a box. This, alas, does not help the honest small businessperson who is trying to get fair value out of their investment. It also sets up unrealistic expectations on the part of buyers as to what they believe they ought to pay. For those who still do business face-to-face, dealers are often forced to attend shows and try to make money on cards sold at internet prices - because of the Non-Sport Update price guide - despite the higher overhead at such events.

The price guide is rather sensibly organized alphabetically by the card series name with listings below of the types of cards and prices. In recent years, the listings have become so long and complicated, that they have broken the key down by decades as well so one might not have to wade through such long alphabetic sections. This is handy and the indexing at the top of the page makes it very easy to use. The only other note on the price guide is that there is a strange persistence of prices listed as "spec." (speculative) even for old products because of the rarity of the cards in question. "Spec." listings tend to be there for cards with great value and also tend to be the cards that buyers and sellers could most often use a fair appraised value of!

As for the substance of the main magazine, there is very little. Non-Sport Update is a remarkable piece of fluff "journalism" for the industry and having spoken with people who work on the magazine at conventions, they pretty much live in fear of losing the advertising dollars of the trading card companies. I find this laughable because it's not like there are any other specialized publications they would be able to advertise in! Still, the writers of Non-Sport Update use this as an excuse to not write anything hard-hitting on the state of the trading card industry. As collectors have to consider selling off their collections and as dealers lose their houses because the hobby no longer supports their business, Non-Sport Update rotely presented the same blasé articles it always did.

Even more bothersome is that there is no other publication that should be charged with keeping the trading card companies honest and to their word. One of my favorite trading card companies was built upon the idea that card collecting had become insanely difficult, needed transparency (in the actual odds of completing sets) and needed to be made fun again. It was a great philosophy and for years, they held to a very strict set of standards to uphold that. Still, despite selling out all of their most popular lines consistently, they mortgaged those standards and when called to task about it on their own message boards . . . they simply rewrote their FAQ to reflect their new standards and altered wording to fit their new models. Non-Sport Update did not comment and when I had an opportunity to talk with writers for the magazine, they followed my trail of evidence from old printed standard sheets to new ones and then shrugged and told me they never wrote a feature on it because that company was one of their biggest advertisers.

The point here is that Non-Sport Update masquerades as the industry paper for collectors, but it simply rolls over and never challenges the industry to be better. Instead, what the magazine does every two months is make general comments on the industry, feature a few forthcoming sets or the source material they are based upon, often they have an article on a past set, a general article on collecting in general and then a series of quick columns about how boxes they opened broke down.

This might sound wonderful, but Non-Sport Update is hardly presenting new information. Their articles read often like the sell sheets to major card company's products with additional quotes from the manufacturers of the cards or the producers of the media they are based upon. The result, to cite an example, would be something like an article on the second season of Lost in preparation of the Lost Season Two trading card set. The article would discuss in general terms (no spoilers) the events of the second season of Lost, getting a quote perhaps from one of the producers. The manufacturer provides a quote about how strong the license is and how enthusiastic the company is and how much people loved the first set of cards before the magazine begins going through the anticipated cards in the set in remarkably general terms. Again, it reads like a sell-sheet.

Even more irksome then is what usually follows in the next month's issue. If the current month (to continue this example) had a feature on the Lost Season Two trading cards, next month would have a column that had how the Non-Sport Update box of those cards actually broke down. There is a great deal of repeated information in the magazine issue to issue as a result.

Moreover, I've yet to meet a single customer whose mind was turned to collecting something they were not already predisposed toward by reading an article about it in Non-Sport Update. So, for example, the magazine is good at informing collectors what is coming out (they even have a little box at the back of the magazine that does just that). I've had customers come up at conventions and say, "I read about this set in NSU, do you have it?" I've never had one come up and say, "I've never seen Lost but the article in NSU really made me want the Season Two trading cards, do you have them?" In other words, much of Non-Sport Update is preaching to the choir, selling the product to people who pretty much just need to be informed of its existence to want to buy it.

How, then, does the magazine escape an "avoid it" from me? Simple; promotional cards. Each issue comes with an envelope with one to five promotional cards exclusive to the magazine that are provided by the trading card manufacturers. These cards are needed to complete master sets and sometimes they are actually very nice cards.

Unfortunately, subscribers have to pay extra to insure that the cards arrive intact. The standard subscription price of Non-Sport Update is almost doubled to have the magazine delivered via first class mail, which is pretty much the only way to insure it will not be rolled up or stuffed inside one's mailbox, thus destroying the promotional cards.

In the end, Non-Sport Update is too insubstantial to subscribe to and I tend to recommend only the issues that have promotional cards one needs to complete one of their sets. The rest is pretty much just a waste of paper.

For other magazine reviews, please visit my takes on:
The X-Files Magazine
Montana Outdoors


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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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