- Replay Madness

FOR ABOUT SIX MINUTES, Rich Layton moves steadily but fast. He grabs a box cutter and slices the cellophane around a brand-new box of 2018-19 Panini Prizm Choice basketball cards. Then he starts ripping open wax packs. He rattles off player after player, team after team, all while showing each card on camera to a rapt audience.

This whole scene from four years ago looks a little like a televised Texas Hold ‘Em tournament if the dealers also did their own play-by-play. This Prizm set has a few 1-of-1 chase cards that Layton thinks could be worth north of $10,000. So Layton has to be a perfect blend of Vin Scully for the blah cards he’s pulling from packs, then go full Gus Johnson if he yanks out one of the premium cards in this set.

He’s about to need his very best Gus voice.

On that day in 2019, box breaking was still in its toddler stages as the biggest accelerant on what has become a booming, roller-coaster, billion-dollar sports card business. At that time, box breaking was nibbling at the corners of the hobby. Four years later — at least partially because of what is about to happen in that room with Rich Layton — box breaking has swallowed up the hobby whole. It’s such a big business that using the word “hobby” at all anymore feels a little silly.

Most box breaks cost under $100 to get in, with buyers receiving one randomly drawn team. In that 2019 break, Layton thinks that box of Prizm cost around $1,000 but was carved up 30 ways at $50 per buy-in. Because rookies remain, by far, the driving force of any card release, the best team to get back then was the Dallas Mavericks, home to a breakout rookie named Luka Doncic. In 2018-19 Prizm, there were a few Doncic 1-of-1s, but the odds of pulling one of those were so astronomical that it almost wasn’t worth fantasizing about.

After five-plus mostly quiet minutes, Layton is carefully showing viewers a Dino Radja Hall of Fame autograph card when he freezes. He can see the next card before the audience can, and Layton suddenly looks at his partner in the room. He stammers for a few seconds, saying “Uhhh” six different ways before uttering, “Oh, my God.”

“Woooo,” he says, holding his hands in front of the camera as he gets ready to unveil a card that is about to change his life: a 1-of-1 Luka Doncic.

“Kaboom!” he yells.

It now belongs to “Dirk R.” who bought into the break and randomly drew the Mavs. After a full minute of holding up the card, carefully flipping it back and forth, Layton finally goes to the next card.

But for the next few minutes, he keeps coming back to the miraculous pull he’d just made. Someone in the chat says that Luka card is probably worth about $6,000. Layton thinks it’s more like $10,000, and perhaps much higher. Layton’s co-host, who’s in charge of taking the cards from him after they’re unveiled, seems to feel the weight of handling a piece of cardboard that, if it’s graded as a perfect 10, could buy a new car. “I’m not touching it,” he says off-camera to Layton. Layton himself puts the card in a plastic case and keeps ripping packs. The break must go on.

In retrospect, that pull is a baby step in what has become the backbone of sports card collecting. The Doncic card is now worth around $1 million … and that’s nothing compared to the card Layton was about to break two months later.

THE INVENTOR OF THE BOX BREAK is believed to be a New Jersey card dealer named Rick Dalesandro. But even the most die-hard breakers probably know him only as Dr. Wax Battle, an over-the-top character created by Dalesandro in the mid-2000s. He’d broadcast live from his shop, The Backstop in Toms River, in a black wig, sunglasses and a multicolored shirt.

Breaks were a small part of what was basically a 90-minute or two-hour call-in radio show with Dr. Wax Battle. He’d have sketches, phone calls and interviews, and he would even do a State of the Hobby address. He’d then post them on YouTube, and a generation of little Dr. Wax Battles was born soon after.

Those days feel like 100 years ago. Breaks were recorded, not streamed live, and the most expensive boxes were a few hundred bucks, not $25,000 like some cost now. Breakers would buy boxes from card shops, then post a video one day that they were going to rip open a box a week later. They’d ask people to sign up for it in the comments, then collect money and buy the product. A week later, a video would get posted of the breaker opening up everything.

Joe Holman was 17 when he first stumbled upon a Dr. Wax Battle video. He immediately started doing breaks himself, usually from the employee lounge in the back of the KFC he worked at. He built up a YouTube channel full of what he calls “horrible-quality videos — terrible quality, terrible audio. It was bad.” People loved it. Within a few months, he had 1,000 subscribers. Some bought slots in his breaks. But many just wanted to watch.

It’s important to note that box breaks did not happen in a vacuum. The human desire to watch other people open up things had become a new phenomenon in the mid-2000s, and it wasn’t just sports memorabilia. People had begun broadcasting themselves opening up their Christmas gifts, iPhones, gaming systems, clothes, beauty products, new toys … so many new toys.

And make no mistake: This is not just a silly fad. Unboxing stuff is now 15 years old and growing bigger every single hour of every single day. It’s big business on TikTok, Twitch and YouTube, and young people are driving the bus. At one point in 2021, four of the 10 most popular YouTube channels starred kids, who generated views and sponsorships by unboxing new toys and trying them out.

The highest-earning YouTube personality from 2021 was Mr. Beast ($54 million). But he had to dethrone the three-time reigning YouTube king… 10-year-old Ryan Kaji. Kaji makes about $30 million a year from his YouTube channel, which is equal parts family hijinks and opening up new products. He parlayed his YouTube popularity into a booming toy business of his own — the Ryan’s World brand toys bring in about $200 million annually. He has an entire aisle at some Target stores. Ryan Kaji isn’t even in high school yet.

It’s an odd new content lane that the kids are all doing, to be sure. But for the crusty old-schoolers out there shaking their heads right now, don’t knock unboxing until you’ve tried it. Find a category that appeals to you, then spend 10 minutes watching a few different videos. There’s a perfect blend of things happening all at once: mystery, joy, risk, instant gratification, living vicariously through others.

But perhaps the biggest draw is the sense of community. For card collectors, at virtually any time, day or night, they can find hundreds of people who love the same thing that they do. They then can either participate themselves, or watch others, and there’s a constant sense that they might be about to see somebody hit it big with a card pull. “It’s a way of being part of a group,” says Dr. Pamela Rutledge, a psychologist who specializes in the way media and technology affect audiences. “I would say this is primarily a connection story, but it also has the benefit of those sort of neurological responses we get when we’re curious and anticipating something.”

Live breaks are now a substantial portion of the card business — Layton thinks 90-95% of his sales are from breaks, which he also thinks is similar to most of the big sellers these days. “I wouldn’t quite say box breaking saved the industry,” says Ryan Cracknell, hobby editor at Beckett Collectibles. “But it’s taken card collecting to a whole new level. In the 1990s, card shops and card shows were the collecting community. Now, box breaks have become the community, and it turns cards into entertainment.”

But this ain’t opening up Shopkins or new jeans on camera. There are no tiny plastic figures or Levi’s that are worth $100,000, and nobody has purchased a stake in what often feels like a lottery drawing during a card box break. Longtime breaker (and former Class A pitcher) Chad Redfern recently did a break of Topps Transcendent, which has 61 cards in the entire box and costs $27,000 to buy. Each breaker spot was $430 — for the opportunity to get one card. The cards were all cool, with 1-of-1 autographs and jersey patches for only the very best players in baseball. But, still, each slot was the cost of a monthly car payment. “When you can take an expensive box and chop it up so everybody can get a piece of it, that’s cool,” Redfern says.

So if this all sounds a little like unregulated gambling … well, TikTok agrees. In early March, the platform all but banned live box breaks from TikTok, saying that they might constitute illegal gambling. At this point, there is very little regulation of breaks other than trusting card companies and breakers. Fanatics recently announced that it will get into the box break game, and eBay will begin pre-approving sellers before they can break with the company. That should help formalize breaking. But there are still lots of allegations of faking pulls during breaks, that inordinate numbers of big cards seem to go to the biggest breakers, and a slew of other groanings on Memorabilia Twitter on an almost daily basis.

Eric Whiteback, known on Twitter as The Collectibles Guru, thinks it’s only a matter of time until other companies join TikTok in forbidding live breaks or regulation becomes a reality, or both. “I would not be shocked to see other social media platforms follow suit — I honestly think that they should,” he says. “There are some of these breaks that you can go into and see how much they resemble a casino.”

Attorney Paul Lesko agrees. He’s a well-known collector whose Twitter feed is devoted mostly to legal happenings involving sports memorabilia. In his many conversations with other lawyers over the years, he says he has never had a fellow attorney argue that box breaks aren’t gambling. He has been predicting congressional investigations, legislation and regulations for a decade now.

And … nothing has happened. “I think people say, Who is this really hurting? Box breaks are very good for the hobby,” he says. “And I like them myself. They bring a lot of excitement to cards. But still, technically, they fall under being illegal forms of gambling. I wish I could be proven wrong.”

Most breakers, including Layton, hate the G word. He makes the case that cards have had odds printed on them as a consumer guide for decades now, which is true, and wonders what the difference is between 30 people carving up a box during a break and 30 people buying packs from a box at Target. “Opening up boxes is the same gamble,” he says. “You’re either spending $200 on a box, or $20 for a slot in that break. It makes absolutely no sense.”

It doesn’t help that the market is incredibly topsy-turvy, too. Individual cards can rise and fall at multiples of 10, based on an injury, a bad stretch of games or just wild market mood swings. Layton’s director of acquisitions, Lane Kirschner, recalls how when LeBron James’ first Lakers cards came out in 2018, some were selling for $500. Now, those cards cost 25 cents. Whiteback tweeted a photo recently of one of Patrick Mahomes‘ most sought-after rookies, a very rare 2018 Panini Prizm. It sold for $511 in April of 2018, then almost $400,000 in October 2021, then $138,000 in October 2022, and then $99,000 on March 17, 2023.

In such an escalating market, breaks do offer a chance for collectors to not get priced out of most top-shelf products. There are plenty of pulls that stand the test of time. None more so than what Layton Cards broke on May 15, 2019.

On that night, Layton’s nephew, who goes by Breaking Brad, opened up a box of Panini National Treasures. That set features the company’s Logoman brand, an ultra-rare, much-hallowed card that features a Jerry West logo cut from a player’s jersey. Most Logomans are 1-of-1s, so it’s closer to fine art than a basketball card.

And on that night, just two months after Layton himself pulled a Doncic gem, Breaking Brad is 9 minutes into a 16-minute break when he holds up a Ralph Sampson autograph card.

“Oh, my God, dude,” he says. “No way.”

He puts his hand over his mouth and just holds the Sampson card as he stares at what he’s going to show the audience next.

“I’m about to have a panic attack,” he says.

It’s the Doncic Logoman card, 1-of-1, with a Luka autograph. He texts Layton right away, and the break pauses for a good 45 seconds. This is like watching a gas station owner find out she sold the winning Powerball number — there’s a reason they always put up a sign the next day saying “Million-dollar winner purchased here!” A minute later, right as the break is winding down, he unveils a cool Donte DiVincenzo autograph card and dials up his most excited voice … but he can’t even pull it off.

“I’m so distracted right now,” he says. “That does it for the break. That’s just insane. I’m sure Rich will talk to you soon about what to do with that card.”

Layton jumped in afterward with the buyer, an anonymous woman who’d gotten the Mavs. Offers began blowing up Layton’s phone, most hovering around $50,000. He eventually set up a sale in that range, and the woman used that money to pay for her daughter’s upcoming wedding.

Over the next four years, that card has become one of the most significant cards ever produced. It has sold several times, going from $50,000 all the way to a record $4.6 million in March 2021. A year later, someone bought the Doncic at auction for $3.12 million — a massive drop-off, but still the most ever paid for a basketball card at an auction. For comparison, only one Michael Jordan rookie has ever sold for over $1 million. Reminder: Doncic is 24 years old and has zero NBA Finals appearances.

As he ticks off the dollar figures, Layton pauses and shakes his head. “It’s absurd to say all of that out loud,” he says. “Absurd. It’s all absurd how all of this happened.”

LAYTON’S JOURNEY to the top of the card business began in 2009, at the bottom of a ladder, with two broken ankles, a torn rotator cuff and all sorts of knee and hip problems. Layton, 43 now, had been working as a general contractor at the time, and he fell two stories straight down a ladder and thudded to a stop on his feet. Layton’s body was destroyed, and he has never been the same. He spent months on the couch of his tiny apartment that he shared with his wife, Sara. She was paying the bills while he was out of work, and Layton says he felt broken and rudderless. They’d wanted to start a family by then, but they were in a bad position to start having kids. “I was severely depressed and highly medicated,” he says.

When his body healed up enough to hobble around, he took a Domino’s job delivering pizza. But the depression refused to lift. His whole body ached, and he didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. That’s a tough combo for a 30-year-old.

One day in 2011 Sara called him and said she’d bought him a pack of baseball cards. “Want to know what you got?” she asked.

“Wait, you got me a pack of cards and opened them for me?” he replied. “That takes away all the fun!”

Sara went back and bought an entire box to bring home to Layton. As he tore open packs that evening, something rekindled in him — the anticipation, the surprise, the disappointment and the optimism of what hides in those wax packages. Growing up in Cape May, New Jersey, Layton had been a typical child of the late 1980s, pouring every penny he could find into baseball cards. At one point as a little kid, his dad even cleared out space in the attic for Layton to set up his own mini baseball card shop.

That old feeling came rushing back to him on that day in 2011. He didn’t pull much that afternoon — other than, you know, finally figuring out his life’s calling.

Layton started small, maxing out his credit cards to buy boxes at local retail places. He went to card shows and built up enough inventory to be able to open up a small shop. But finances were tight, and both Laytons felt on edge all the time. It didn’t help that they had decided to start trying to have kids but found out they would need fertility treatments. The idea of Layton pursuing his dream as a scuffling card dealer at the same time began to feel dicey.

It was around that time that Layton saw his first box break online. He immediately spotted the allure of allowing everyday schmoes to be able to spend $50 or less to buy their way into otherwise unaffordable products. Layton also noticed then that many of the early box breaks on YouTube had thousands of views, which meant public pack opening seemed to be something that nonparticipants wanted to watch. It was Card TV. His first few box breaks were a complete waste of time. He’d show up live, offering up pretty meh boxes you could buy at Walmart. People would pop in, though, and he’d talk to them for a bit before logging off with zero sales. Sometimes he’d open up the packs, anyway, with a small crowd of people watching just because.

Slowly but surely, his products got a little better, and some of those same people who kept stopping by to say hello began to buy in. His breaks gained some ground, so he did more and more of them. Then he started hiring people, and then his setup in New Jersey ran out of space, and then he packed everything up to move to Florida, where his mom and sister lived and he could afford what would become a sports card compound.

By that point, he and Sara had just about given up on the idea of kids. The fertility treatments weren’t working. Layton poured himself into growing his business, and his wife soon joined the team, too. Maybe memorabilia could just be their baby. By the time Layton pulled that first Luka card, he was selling cards online and in his shop in Florida. He had signed helmets and jerseys. He even did Magic, Pokemon and other gaming tournaments. But sports card breaks were what pushed him toward the top.

When Breaker Brad pulled the second huge Luka Doncic card in May 2019, suddenly Layton Sports had the level of big pulls that generated tons of buzz. Nothing’s better for business than a viral break.

That’s also why there are nonstop allegations levied at just about every breaker at one time or another for planting pulls. Layton has a good reputation in the business, but he’s insistent about every single second of a break being captured live on camera to avoid any accusations of shadiness.

Even with everything on camera, Layton and other big breakers catch heat because they end up with so many long-shot breaks. That fuels chatter about card companies slipping hot boxes to big breakers; the big breakers counter by saying if you open up 10 times as much product as everybody else, of course, your breaks are going to have more significant pulls. “I don’t think it’s happening,” Redfern says. “These cards already sell out. I buy direct from these companies, and I wouldn’t do that if I thought there was shady stuff happening.”

Layton’s shop now is the epitome of what most big-time card businesses have become, which is more like a pricey digital art gallery than a brick-and-mortar sliver of a strip mall. Layton Cards is in Apopka, Florida, next door to Orlando. The main building is 6,000 square feet, with a separate warehouse of product nearby. The front of the building houses a small shop, with a gaming room off to the side. Walk-in customers can come in and buy individual cards or unopened boxes as live breaks — usually happening in the back of the building — stream on a TV on the wall.

The whole place is Fort Knox-ish. There are cameras everywhere, with panic buttons stashed in certain spots. The glass is reinforced and damn near unbreakable, and the walls are so thick that cell signals are about as good inside as they are in horror movies — one bar if you’re lucky. Layton and his team have keys to go in the back area, where a fleet of workers is set up at individual stations sifting through the thousands of cards that got broken the day before.

Layton rarely does breaks himself anymore — it really is a young person’s game. But the breaks happen nonstop every day, every 20 minutes, for 12-plus hours in a few back rooms at Layton Cards. Within 24 to 48 hours, a team member has sorted every break and mailed out 30 packages for an NBA break, 32 for an NFL one, and so on. Each worker is within first-down range of mounds of shipping boxes, plastic protective cases and enough peanuts to pack up Orlando and mail it out of Florida. The mail bins are practically their own post office of shipments coming in and out every day, all with bar codes and meticulously documented. It’s not your dad’s old card shop. In fact, it’s not even your slightly older sister’s card shop.

On one recent evening, Layton has to ask around for a key to the back room’s back room, and when the door opens, it feels a little like a casino vault. There are card products piled from floor to ceiling and random pieces of memorabilia boxed up with no particular place to go yet. At one point, he tugs open a big square box and pulls out a signed helmet of Tom Brady that is half Bucs logo, half Pats logo. “That’s probably worth about $5,000,” he says.

The whole room is about the size of a basketball court, and it is packed with $10 million-plus in product. He swings open the gate to an indoor black cage that stretches 30 feet long, 15 feet wide and about 10 feet high. For a card collector, this is the secret room at Willy Wonka’s factory, except with millions worth of unopened sports cards instead of gobstoppers. Layton cruises around, lifting up thin cardboard boxes with ridiculously cool cards inside like they are last month’s widget crop. “These ones are $8,000 apiece,” he says about one box, and he plops it down on top of the others in such a casual way that you want to throw your hands underneath to cushion the fall.

Later, when asked what the single most valuable thing in the entire building might be, he opens up an 8-foot-high safe and starts shuffling through hundreds of cards in plastic cases that all have price tags on them saying $10,000 or $25,000. It’s hard to keep your eyeballs from popping out of your head as someone whizzes through 100 baseball cards that could pay for 100 new cars. He eventually settles on a card that has the signatures of both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on it, which he thinks could sell for $50,000.

As he talks, Layton’s voice is incredulous, not arrogant. When he says the prices of things, it has an undertone of Can you freaking believe this? more than being braggadocious. His business did north of $20 million in revenue last year, with much of that poured back into the business. He has 31 full-time employees now, with an HR person and an employee handbook.

He and Sara have come so far since those days in 2009 when they couldn’t even squeeze down their apartment hallway with a pizza box unless they turned it a little sideways. They bought a nice house in the area, maybe 10 minutes from the shop, and Sara started working at Layton Cards. By the end of the pandemic, they’d come to grips with the concept of a successful business but no kids.

And then one day they got a miracle call: they’d matched with a surrogate in the area. The Laytons met with her and her husband, and they hit it off. There was still a long way to go from agreeing to be a surrogate, to having an actual baby, for sure. But they all got along, and when the woman’s husband said he was looking for work, Layton offered him a job at the card shop. The guy said yes, and as his wife carried the baby, Layton had a short-term helper every day. He eventually got a job at Disney … and his wife had the baby.

As the Laytons stand together in the front of the shop, talking about their long and winding journey as a break happens on the TV above, the door into the back area keeps opening and closing quickly as employees meander in and out. For a second or two until it slams shut, some staff members are visible in the back, cooing and rocking little Rocco Layton, born Aug. 2 with a glorious tuft of black hair. “We got so lucky,” Layton says. “It was literally 10 years of, This is never going to happen. A decade of heartbreak.”

Finally, after 15 minutes or so, somebody lugs Rocco out and hands him to Sara. “I think he’s hungry,” Sara says. Rocco’s hair is sticking straight up as Sara scoops him into her arms and says she has to head home.

“Say bye to Daddy,” she says, and Layton looks like somebody just plugged him into a smile outlet. He waves goodbye and eases back into a conversation about the excitement of the upcoming draft classes in the NBA and NFL.

But his eyes never drift from the front door. Sara and Rocco are moving away into the distance, and it’s clear that he just said goodbye to the best rookie he’s ever pulled.

Source link

How box breaks took over the memorabilia industry