Image by Lia Kantrowitz.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz.
It's narcotizing in practice, magical in its aridity; viewers watch the Rolodex of names, faces, and teams amble across the camera for hours on end until they become a hazy, meditational blur. The vast majority are worthless, but Coenen pauses briefly on the few that have real collection implications. The most valuable pull he ever captured on YouTube was a one-of-one Shoeless Joe Jackson from 2019 Panini Flawless Baseball. A certified piece of the White Sox' legend's bat barrel is lodged in the cardboard. On the open market, says Coenen, it could fetch about $3,000.
In industry parlance, this ritual is called a "break" — literally, "breaking" open a freshly shrink-wrapped box of cards. Coenen and his business partner George Moody do not keep the cards they reveal on camera. Instead, they run a North Texas-based business called Dynasty Breaks, where hopeful memorabilia obsessives pay the duo a fee for the rights of a portion of whatever card box they happen to be opening each day. Coenen keeps a detailed schedule on his website. On an average weekday, he might be exhuming a set of 2019 Panini Chronicles Hobby, some 2020 Topps Gold Labels, and a handful of Bowman's Best to boot. On the Dynasty YouTube channel, those who've paid the fee — of anywhere from $50 to $300, depending on the box — select the fraction of the cards they want.
Usually, this is divided up by team. Perhaps my ticket gives me the rights to everyone on the Cincinnati Reds, or the Miami Heat. Maybe I'm a hardcore Pittsburgh homer, so I choose the Penguins, Pirates, and Steelers. Or maybe I'm a shark who's extremely high on the future valuation of Fernando Tatis Jr. memorabilia, so I zero in on the Padres with every purchase I make. Regardless, once the money has changed hands, all there is to do is tune in live and pray for a little bit of luck. Sometimes, viewers hit a jackpot; they watch all the refractors, diamond rares, and autograph cards fall into their lap, which immediately reimburses the cost of entry several times over. But far more likely, they'll see a ton of duds come down the pipe and shrug off the disappointment. According to Coenen, that's a crucial part of the break game. Everyone knows that it's hard to pull a Patrick Mahomes rookie card, but it sure is fun to try and hit the jackpot.
"It's similar to Netflix. Breaking isn't an investment, it's entertainment," he says. "You have the opportunity to hit some $10 cards or $5 cards. Most of the time that's what you're going to have. But you do have that shot to do something a little more."
Coenen got his start in the business working at a card shop in the 1990s during the historic baseball collecting boom. Like many others in the scene, he jumped ship at the turn of the millennium, as the industry went south. But the previous decade has been shockingly fruitful for cards, reaching new heights in 2020, where autographed LeBron James paperboard is selling for a higher bounty than the classic suite of Dead Ball-era cigarette cards. With those green shoots showing after a long winter, Coenen orbited back to his first love. He's been running Dynasty Breaks since 2018, and in that time he's opened thousands of different boxes, joining the ranks of the many, many professional breakers bobbing around the internet. They can be found in Twitch streams and YouTube broadcasts, and run the same basic gambit that Dynasty does. The card shops that Coenen once nurtured have been thoroughly market-corrected by live breaks; who needs a brick-and-mortar boutique when you have a webcam and a microphone? Social media has disrupted the supply chain in countless ways over the last 10 years. It was probably inevitable for sports card collecting — traditionally one of the most staid, inveterate monopolies on the planet — to be fully reinvented by the tech sector.
"It wasn't like you could go start your own TV studio," says Moody. "But now you can create a channel, invest a little bit in software, and it becomes really doable. We spent 2017 learning the game, and 2018 executing it. It sounds like a crazy project, but more and more people are doing it."
"There's no card shops in most towns," adds Coenen.
"To collect in the 2000s, you'd either buy cards on eBay and put them in your closet. Or you'd go drive to wherever your nearest shop is, and they may or may not have what you want. Breaks have made the hobby fun again."
In some ways, you can make the argument that card publishers themselves have tilted the business towards live breaking. Sports cards have never been more expensive than they are right now. Remember that Shoeless Joe Jackson piece I mentioned? From the 2019 Panini set? A single box from that line runs for $1,250 at retail. Obviously, there is a chance that you end up with a couple Holy Grails after purchase, but the average collector isn't going to be willing to risk that much capital. That's why breaking is becoming more and more appealing, argues Coenen.
I get the sense that Coenen is a bit of a purist. He speaks wistfully about his adolescence, where he and his friends would burn hours at the card shop, talking about quarterbacks, shortstops, and what they dreamt about pulling the next time they plunked down their pocket money.
The card industry, lately, has been focusing more and more on high-rollers chasing big-ticket items. Panini is cutting up baseball bats and engraving the splinters into their sets to juice up the auction price, which some old-timers think is heresy. When Topps was jamming booster packs into 5-cent sleeves of bubblegum, I doubt that they envisioned that someday, the primary demographic for those cards would be adults.
This collective of obsessives are finding ways to keep the old ways alive, even if they're beaming out of a Twitch stream. Kevin Gibbons is the owner of Sports Box Breaks, another service that's been selling boxes over the internet since 2014. He tells me that there is no euphoria quite like discovering a big-money item in a sea of misses and also-rans, but throughout his years of opening packs, Gibbons has fostered an authentic relationship with his buyers.
"There's a distinct sense of community with breaking groups. Most of our regulars know each other's names, they know what important events are happening in each other's lives," he says. "This of course doesn't happen day one, it's something that builds up over time and we're fortunate to have a great group of breakers."
Truly, it has never been easier to geek out over cards. Go ahead, try to score that Joe Burrow rookie. At the very least, you'll make some friends along the way.
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