Hot Packs: What Are They and Are They Worth It?

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One of the main reasons I (and probably a majority of others who collect) like to buy packs of cards is for the thrill of the chase. The chance of not knowing what could possibly be hiding inside a pack of cards, whether it is a dud or the hit of a lifetime. To me there is no better rush or feeling of excitement when I open a sealed pack hoping to find a Mike Trout or Kris Bryant autograph or multicolor jersey swatch. Much like a scratch ticket, it is the thrill of hitting it big and taking that gamble hoping it pays off. (Although the odds are much better in packs than scratch tickets)

Hot Packs: What Are They and Are They Worth It?

Now imagine a world where if you bought a pack of cards, it would be guaranteed to contain a hit. A pack that may cost more than normal, but you are guaranteed to get a relic or autograph card. You aren’t guaranteed any specific team, player, or any promise that it would be an autographed card or jersey card.   All that is promised is that you will get a relic, autograph, or both of some player/players for some team/teams in the respective sport. In essence, that is what a hot pack is.

A hot pack is a factory sealed pack that is guaranteed to contain a hit. There are different types of hot packs and price can range depending on what is promised or guaranteed. In theory, it sounds like a great deal for the buyer and nice way to boost your collection. However, don’t be fooled. Most hot packs are not worth it! Let’s discuss some of the most common hot packs available. Like most collecting items we can find these on eBay but hot packs also exist outside of eBay.  There are two main forms of hot packs on eBay, which I refer to as commercial and homemade.

Commercial hot packs are factory sealed packs from the card manufacturer that are guaranteed by the seller to contain a hit and be unsearched. If you’re wondering how a seller could guarantee such a thing without opening the pack or x-raying it, the answer is simple. The seller bought a box of cards. Most boxes of cards contain 20 packs and usually 3-4 hits per box. In theory, the seller opened 16-17 packs and didn’t get a hit. Therefore, those remaining packs in the box must contain the guaranteed hits from the manufacturer. While not impossible, it seems highly unlikely that someone opening a box managed to avoid opening any pack that contained a hit, especially when the companies include decoy cardboard and redemption cards to mislead devious collectors. Most sellers will charge anywhere from $3 more to 2X-3X more than the normal price of a pack from the same set.

Much like casino games, the odds are in the houses favor. Assuming the commercial hot pack is genuine, the odds that said pack actually contains a boom (huge hit like Andrew Luck, LeBron James, etc) is slim. If we do the math it is much more favorable for the seller. For example, the NFL has 32 teams. Each team is allowed 53 players plus 5 man practice team. Therefore 58×32 is 1,696. While not every player signs cards or has relics made of them, the odds that the hit inside the hot pack is of Andrew Luck or J.J Watt is 1 in 1696 assuming every player had a hit of them and there were only 1 copy made of each. For context most players will end up signing 1,000 cards as there are base autographed cards which aren’t numbered and numbered refractors.  It’s like the show “Deal or No Deal” but the odds are much lower than 1 in 26.

Homemade hot packs are those assembled or created by an individual seller. They might guarantee between 1 – 5 hits per pack and range from $5 – $25 depending on the quality of the hit. While the seller might include some sort of chase card to get more buyers who think they’ll get lucky, the seller is in complete control of what hits are being sent out and which ones aren’t. No collector in their right mind would allow a LeBron James autographed card go in a hot pack if they’re selling them for $5 each and only have 10 available. Chances are these homemade hot packs hits are of bench warmers, lousy players who shouldn’t be playing (like Raymond Felton) and rookie prospects that were busts. Even if there is a big chase card like a Nathan MacKinnon or Bryce Harper autograph rookie, unless you as a buyer buy every single hot pack, you will never be able to track down the other buyers and compare notes or ask what they got.  For the most part, homemade hot packs are ingenious ways for collectors to unload junk cards and no name hits without a paper trail.  I have fallen for these as have several other collectors I’ve met.

Here’s my advice when looking at hot packs on eBay both commercial and homemade. For both commercial and homemade hot packs, check the seller’s feedback. Although not every buyer leaves feedback and you can’t ding the seller because the hot pack they sent you doesn’t contain a $500 card like you wanted, it is a good way to check. Don’t buy if anyone has left reasonable negative feedback.  For commercial hot packs especially check the quantity available. Be cautious of someone who seems to have an unusually large number of commercial hot packs. I’d say 10 or more is alarming. Even if they purchased a case of cards (which normally costs over $1,000), it is 12 boxes or 240 + packs. There’s absolutely no way they avoided opening every single pack out of those 12 boxes that contains a hit. While it hasn’t happened to me, several of my Twitter followers informed me when they bought commercial hot packs off of eBay there were clear signs of tampering. The pack either had tape or glue as a feeble attempt to close a pack that was already open. Check a seller’s other listings. If a seller is selling numerous hot packs of Topps Gypsy Queen for example, and they also have several listings for big name autographed singles of the same set and they are getting $100 or more, it could be a sign they replaced that good hit with another one that is much lower in value and tried to reseal the pack. Always remember, you get what you pay for. The cheaper the hot pack the cheaper the quality.

Outside of eBay and mostly found at your local card shop (LCS) is what they refer to as either mystery packs or grab bags. These are synonyms for hot pack.  Usually costing around $5, these contain a random hit from a random set. While your card shop has more accountability than a eBay seller 1,000 miles away, keep in mind the owner of the shop is making a living off of it. They will not be including a Hank Aaron autograph or any other huge name in these bags, when they have the ability to sell it for near to full book value price, probably close to $200 maybe even more.  Retail wise, in places like Target and Wal-Mart you may encounter repackaged cards that promise to contain a hit inside. On the front of the box is an autographed card of Sandy Koufax or Ken Griffey Jr and a little note in fine print that reads “cards pictured on box are not guaranteed and may differ from those inside.” In my over ten years of collecting, I have had one of these hits actually sell for over $100. These repackaged deals aren’t half bad and I’d rather buy them than a grab bag from my LCS.

I don’t blame most buyers and collectors who state they don’t buy grab bags. The risk associated with them is not worth it to the buyer. I also don’t want to discourage you from buying hot packs because there are some honest sellers out there who have good deals. I’ve been on both ends of the coin personally. I’ve purchased homemade grab bags and commercial ones. Grab bags from card stores and repackaged hits with varying degrees of success.  Really what it comes down to is how much are you willing to risk and do you trust the seller.  But for the most part, the general rule of thumb for collectors is to avoid hot packs. As for me, I enjoy the retail repackaged cards once a month and there is one seller on eBay I trust to keep buying hot packs from.



Main Photo: Baseball cards in Bill’s Sports Collectibles store in Denver, on Friday afternoon, May 28, 2010. Diego James Robles, The Denver Post  (Photo By Diego J. Robles/The Denver Post via Getty Images)