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Modern Sports Card Collecting Terms and Definitions

by Rob Bertrand (12/13/13).

A “sticker” autograph card bears the player or personality’s autograph on a sticker affixed to the card, rather than “hard-signed” or “on-card.”

If you are new to the hobby of collecting sports cards, or perhaps you are a returning collector reengaging with a childhood pursuit. Maybe you are considering giving sports cards as Christmas gifts this year. Many things have changed within the sports-collecting market over the last several years, with new business practices, product innovations and brands having been established.

As a result, new terms have been added to the hobby vernacular. In this article we provide a primer on terms and practices you may, or may not, be familiar with regarding sports-card collecting.

Group Break: In the last few years, a new trend has arisen in the hobby of sports and entertainment trading cards called a group break. Simply put, group break is when one collector, dealer, retailer or website sells “spots” in a break of numerous sports-card boxes, usually a case or a mix of different brands from the same sport. You can “buy into” these group breaks for a fee.

Group-break sites like Cardsmiths Breaks allow collectors to focus on particular teams to add to their collection.

The practice arose a few years ago as collectors became disenfranchised with purchasing pricey new boxes of trading cards. Often times upon opening the box, collectors are left with the higher-value cards being of players and/or teams that aren’t actually part of their personal collections. So for a fraction of the cost of purchasing an entire box or case, you can now purchase spots in a group break and be assured of receiving cards only from the team you collect.

Spots in the break are determined by two primary means. The first method is to be assigned a spot randomly. This means that each participant in the break is assigned a random team. Another option used by group breakers is to sell spots by team. So, for example, all 32 NFL football teams would be available for purchase. However, as one might expect, a team like the New England Patriots would obviously be sold for a higher price than a lower quality team, like the St. Louis Rams.

A “slabbed” card has been graded by a third-party company and placed into a protective case, or “slab.”

Once all spots in the draft are purchased and allocated in random breaks, a period of time is allowed for participants to trade teams. After this process is completed, the breaker opens the entire case of trading cards or boxes, live, through a video service like Vimeo or BlogTV. All of the cards “pulled” from the product or products are then divided by team, and the person that was allocated or purchased that team receives those cards.

Hit or Pull: Randomly inserted into modern trading-card products are cards that are referred to as “Hits” or “Pulls.” These cards may contain autographs, memorabilia worn or used by a player or a combination of the two.

Slab and Slabbed: The practice of having cards graded has existed for several years. Grading cards is the process of submitting them to a professional third-party service that will determine the card’s condition, assign it a numerical grade and enclose the card in a protective holder. This holder is often referred to as a “slab” and the process of submitting the cards as having them “slabbed.”

Refractor, Prism and Prismatic: Certain trading-card products in the market are printed on a thick, metallic-reflective card stock. Refractors, Prisms and Prismatics are versions of the base card printed in smaller quantity or in a different color and are typically stamped with serial numbering.

Each manufacturer has its own term as follows:

• Topps: Refractors;
• Panini: Prisms;
• Leaf: Prismatics;
• Upper Deck: Does not issue these types of cards.

“Cut signature” cards contain a player’s autograph cut from another document, like a check, and affixed to the card.

Cut Signature or Cut Autograph: A card containing the autograph of an athlete, celebrity or personality that has been physically cut from another document, such as a check, letter or contract, and embedded on a trading card.

Micro-Manufacturer and Repackaged Product: The cost of merchandise licensing from the professional sports leagues has given rise to a handful of smaller trading-card manufacturers that are not dependent upon these fees to manufacture trading cards. Instead, they specialize in distributing cards that have been repurchased from the secondary market and “repackaged” for sale under a theme or brand. Three of the primary companies doing this today are SouthBay Cards, Historic Autographs and Heroes of Sport.

These products may contain everything from high-end memorabilia cards to cut autographs, graded rookie cards, autograph cards and even exchange cards for full-sized, game-used and/or autographed sports memorabilia.

Redemption cards can be redeemed for an autograph card by contacting the manufacturer.

Sketch Card: In the ongoing effort to innovate within the confines of a product delivered on a 2-1/2-inch-by-3-1/2-inch piece of cardboard, some trading-card companies have started commissioning artists to produce hand-drawn, one-of-a-kind miniature pieces of artwork depicting various athletes. These cards are growing in popularity and are all categorized as “hit” cards.

Redemption Card: An unfortunate part of the modern trading-card hobby is the existence of the redemption card. Often times, manufacturers do not receive autographs from specific athletes before the packaging process must begin. When this happens, a “redemption” card is inserted in the product as an official manufacturer “IOU.”

The collector “pulling” such a card, must go online to the company’s website and redeem the card by entering the card’s code. The collector must then wait for the athlete to return the cards or autographs and for the company to then produce and ship the card to collectors.

The merits of the redemption card have been and continue to be well argued in hobby circles.

Refractor cards can also be called “Prism” or “Prismatic” cards, depending on manufacturer.

Sticker vs. On-Card and Hard Signed: The process of acquiring athlete signatures signed directly on trading cards is complicated by several factors that ultimately may affect the condition of the cards themselves. One way that manufacturers protect against this, while also reducing costs of autograph acquisition, is to have athletes sign and return sheets of holographic “stickers.” These stickers are then affixed to trading cards.

Collectors refer to these as “sticker” autograph cards compared to cards signed directly by the athlete, which are referred to as being signed “on-card” or “hard signed.”

As you can see, while the terms and methods may have changed, the ultimate quest for cards from one’s favorite player or team has not. In a future piece, we’ll look at terms and definitions from the world of sports memorabilia.


Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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