A quick history of basketball and major basketball card releases (ignoring early tobacco and candy/food releases); In 1947 the BAA (Basketball Association of America) was founded. In 1949 the BAA joined with the NBL (National Basketball League) and the NBA was formed. This piece is connected to another post that I have planned for later today connected to the NBA Draft.
The Early Years 1947-1982
In 1957 Topps decided to create basketball cards in addition to baseball cards but it was a one and done deal. In 1961 Fleer tossed their hat in to the basketball card world but like Topps it was just a single release. Topps returned in 1969 with the “Tallboys” and a young Lew Alcindor. They continued making basketball sets until the 1981-82 season which is when their contract agreement ended with the NBA and the NBAPA and was not renewed.
The Lost Years 1983-1986
In 1983 Star Company signed a contract with the NBA to be the official producer of NBA cards, which kept them the only company to release NBA cards between 1983 and 1986. These Star cards, even though they were official, are often ignored in regards to the NBA rookies of these 3 years like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing leading to the rise of XRC cards later in the 1980s. These cards are extremely limited, some as low as 200-300 but a huge issue is they were often counterfeited so even today some collectors stay away. I personally love the Star cards.
The Return Years 1986-1990
Fleer was able to work out an agreement with the NBA and began printing basketball cards again for the 1986-87 season. The 1986-87 Fleer set is now one of the most famous releases because it included the XRCs of the upcoming 1980s stars like Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwan and Dominique Wilkins. Hoops jumped in with the 1989-90 release almost completely on the back of David Robinson and Danny Manning’s XRC cards.
The Junk Wax Years 1991-2000
1990s were the years where anyone who had a basketball card idea could make money. The printing presses were shifted to high gear and we saw a whole slew of manufacturers stand up, many of them disappeared but not all. We saw companies like: Fleer, Hoops, Skybox, Topps, Upper Deck, Classic, Pacific, Collectors Edge, Press Pass and Score.
Some of the positives we saw come from this era are inserts, limited short-prints, relics and autographs. Plus to keep a step up on the competition companies began using bright colors, strange designs, acetate, die-cuts and foil. Over the years these have been honed in but are still used.
The Downfall Years 2000-2003
The early 2000s were not really a “downfall” of basketball cards it was just the downfall of many of the junk wax era companies. This was the time where Topps, Upper Deck and what eventually became Panini stepped out of the remnants of the other companies and began buying up what remained.
The High-End and Exclusive License Years 2003-2010
In 2003 a basketball messiah appeared who was going to usher in a new level of basketball card, LeBron James. Upper Deck’s Exquisite, Ultimate and SP Authentic lines were bringing the price point of packs in the hundreds and collectors were willing to pay the price to get their hands on LeBron’s cards. Even Topps Finest and Chrome LeBron cards were hitting four and five digits on the secondary market.
Since that time Upper Deck has lost their NBA license, but they still hold an NCAA license and have exclusives with the two biggest NBA names in Jordan and LeBron. Topps was also squeezed out and Panini has the only NBA license.
The Panini Years 2010-2017
With Panini having the only NBA license they now run the ship (through at least 2017), which has left a number of basketball collectors disappointed feeling like the market is now stale. With one company’s designers creating so many sets in one year the designs seem to be similar in multiple releases.
Panini released 24 sets for the 2012-13 season and for the 2013-14 season they have already released 19 sets with one more release set for July- Panini Preferred Basketball. This would be the beginning of oversaturation of the basketball collecting market. In recent years, to try to keep things fresh, Panini has been pushing the limits on the high end product. We have now seen cards with gold and even jewels with last year’s release of the $1,250/pack Flawless Basketball.