The wonderful thing about the PSA Set RegistrySM is that it allows collectors to compare, compete, and just plain show off numerous types of sets. Although the most popular are traditional basic sets -- i.e. 1975 Topps baseball -- many find theme sets more fulfilling to collect. Football theme sets (called "key card" sets in the PSA Set RegistrySM) are particularly popular, with sets like the All-time NFL Rushers, Super Bowl MVPs, and 1980s Team of the Decade leading the way. Across all sports, six of the most popular ten key card sets are in football, by number of sets registered.
What makes football key card sets so attractive? The most obvious reason is player selection. While mainstream sets typically consist of a high percentage of commons, key card sets are primarily rookie cards of superstars.
Collector Jason Peeples, who owns several All-Time Finest decade and team sets, explains why he collects key card sets: "These sets are centralized collections of the all-time great players. They are also all rookie cards, which are normally the most valued card of a player. Collecting sets of cards all from one year is great too but, for me, putting together a set of ONLY the greats is much more satisfying. They are the players that I know and have fond memories of."
It's easy, it's fun, it can be done
Novice collectors might think this would make the sets harder to complete but, actually, it makes them easier. These cards are by definition more popular since they are made up of star players, which means many more have been graded by PSA. Veteran set registrants know that low population commons cause major difficulties completing traditional vintage sets; well, key cards sets have no commons!
Key card sets are also relatively small, so they are much easier to complete. This is not meant to disparage the achievement of a high-grade traditional vintage set (nor are any of the arguments in this article, for that matter); it's merely being used to explain the popularity of key card sets.
The spice of life
Key card sets also give the collector a chance to collect cards from a variety of sets while maintaining continuity. Let's face facts, for some people, it can get boring going through 600 cards of the same design.
So why are key football card sets so popular in comparison to other sports? It's anybody's guess, but my guess is affordability. I'm sure thousands of baseball card collectors would love to complete a 500 Home Run hitters Rookie Card set, but how many people can afford pre-war cards of Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams -- even in low grade? The entire All-time NFL Rushers set, containing all seventeen 10,000 yard rushers and four other superstar running backs, can be completed in PSA 8 -- a spectacular grade -- for about the same price as a PSA 7 Ted Williams RC.
In addition, print runs for vintage football sets are generally accepted to be much less than their baseball counterparts. When combined with lower prices, this makes a compelling argument for key football cards. Most Set Registry participants are not in it for the money, but we all want to spend our dollars wisely.
Collector Frank Massaro, who owns the All-Time Finest NFL Receivers set, makes this observation: "I found many of these cards to be quite affordable when compared to their baseball brethren. Just compare football and baseball RC cards from their respective eras and you'll see that football is much undervalued. In the '40s, compare the 1948 Leaf Sid Luckman (SMR PSA 8 $1300), Bobby Layne (SMR PSA 8 $1500), and Sammy Baugh (SMR PSA 8 $2500) to the 1948 Leaf Joe DiMaggio (PSA 8 $12,500), Stan Musial (SMR PSA 8 $5375), and Jackie Robinson (SMR PSA 8 $8500). It's obvious that football cards represent a great value."
Although relative production rates and quality control vary from year to year, set to set, and sport to sport, this price discrepancy trend is apparent throughout much of the '50s and '60s as well.
There is a side benefit to the prominence of the players in key card sets: Your non-collecting friends can appreciate them. The words "Mint Dan Marino Rookie Card" are impressive even to non-collectors, while "PSA 8 Andy Pafko" is meaningful only to hardcore collectors.
Collecting football key card sets can also encourage the collector himself to learn more about the history of the game. Frank Massaro explains how the Set Registry spurred him to learn more about the greats of decades past: "When I saw the All- Time Great NFL sets, and the players in the set, it opened a whole new world. I knew of many of the players from the '70s on up, but I really didn't know much about some of the early players (Van Brocklin, Jurgenson, Luckman, Graham, Fears, Hudson etc.). This prompted me to learn about the history and careers of these players, as well as look for their RC issues for the set. Prior to this, I never would have considered buying football cards from the '40s, '50s and early '60s."
Cutting your teeth
For those reasons, a key card is an excellent choice for a first registry set. If you decide the registry is not for you, you're stuck with a bunch of graded superstar rookie cards.
How's that for limited downside?
Theme sets are not only a great entry-level idea, but can challenge advanced collectors as well. The cards may not be difficult to find in respectable grades, but they are fiercely contested in the top grades. A 1965 Topps Charlie Smith PSA 8 will generate significant interest and aggressive bidding but, for the most part, will only be pursued by 1965 Topps set collectors. A 1972 Topps John Riggins PSA 9 will garner spirited bidding by 1972 Topps set builders, HOF rookie card collectors, Super Bowl MVP collectors, 10,000 rusher collectors, and of course John Riggins collectors.
If you've read this far, you might be contemplating building one of these sets. So, which one should you choose?
Super Bowl MVP set - America's most popular spectator sport. This is sport's biggest game of the year. This set features the single brightest star from that game each year and the most desirable rookie card of that star. It's no wonder this set is popular! The set ranges from the one-hit wonder of Mark Rypien to perhaps football's most recognizable card in doubtlessly football's most memorable game (If you haven't guessed that I'm talking about Joe Namath's 1965 rookie card and his Super Bowl III performance, this set is not for you!)
Heisman set - The set is hindered by the fact that many of the early recipients had no cards issued in their playing days. Remember, many of these players never played a down as part of a professional football team! Still, the Heisman is football's most recognized award, so this set has its followers.
Teams of the Decade - These sets consist of the consensus all-decade teams from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. These are fun sets because they not only include the usual skill position suspects like Jim Brown and Joe Montana, but a complete offensive line, defensive team, and even a punter and a kicker. The bad news is not many guards and punters have been submitted from any set; the good news is the likes of Jim Covert and Darren Bennett are plentiful and inexpensive in raw form. The majority of the players in these sets is in the HOF, or will be once eligible.
All-Time Teams - Football fans are fiercely loyal to their favorite teams, and many collectors concentrate on cards of one team. The 49ers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Raiders, Redskins, Rams and Steelers each have sets, ranging from 18-23 cards.
Position sets - These consist of the finest quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs in football's history. These are the most popular of all of the key card sets, with 82 sets registered between them. I'm personally quite fond of the old-school rushing game, so I concentrate on rookie cards of history's best running backs.
The future of football key card sets
As football continues to gain in popularity across the country, more and more collectors are pursuing the long-neglected football classics. As the baby boomers enter retirement and the next generation takes over the hobby's reins, football cards will play a larger role in the hobby. It's hard to envision baseball cards ever losing their dominance, but it's not hard to see why football cards might become more popular relative to their baseball counterparts in the coming decades.