Sports Card Analytics

Bubbles and Basketball – 2019 Donruss WNBA Basketball


Welcome to the wonderful world of bubbles. Bubbles can be whimsical, fun, and fascinating. Some are amorphous pockets of air trapped within an impossibly thin skin of liquid, suspended in a delicate balance of equilibrium with the outside world, maintaining just enough surface tension to keep itself intact. Their outer shells shimmer with a rainbow sheen. Joyous and spontaneous, they’re the epitome of carefree fun.

But, hang on a second, this is 2020 we’re talking about. Whimsy, carefree days, and joy seem to be in short supply. Bubbles these days may remind you of the need to socially distance from one another, quarantine, and stress over potential exposure to a disease that can manifest itself with a broad spectrum of consequences. Under these circumstances, professional sports leagues have chosen to create their own form of bubble so they can safely play games and generate revenue. These games will have no fans in the stands. Teams aren’t traveling from city to city. Players, coaches, and their families are staying together without exposure to the outside world. It’s like that impossibly thin skin of liquid that’s holding them all together, separate from their surroundings.

There has been another bubble of sorts staying top of mind for many basketball card collectors. You know the one. It’s the one that has seen all kinds of cards, especially those residing in plastic slabs, making an ever-steady climb toward price levels that at any other point in collecting history would be considered absolute absurdity. I’ll save my thoughts and analysis on that bubble for another day. But, I mention it because it has inspired me to do some quick analysis on something decidedly the opposite of a basketball card bubble. Consider this the anti-bubble.

Tipoff of the 2020 WNBA season starts in a bubbly IMG Academy setting in Bradenton, FL on Saturday, July 25th. The WNBA is serving as the first of the basketball leagues to begin regular season play in the bubble format. Things got off to a pretty rocky start with regards to bubble accommodations for the players. Some places were looking pretty gross. But, it sounds like things got straightened out though and all is good now.

The very first game of the season features the Seattle Storm versus the New York Liberty. The Storm feature Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP and 2018 WNBA Finals MVP. She is the only WNBA player to hold both honors in the same year. If you haven’t seen her play, you can catch a glimpse of her all-around game in this highlight video. Stewart is good inside, outside, in the open court, and on defense. Her game is complete.

Also on the Storm is WNBA legend Sue Bird. She’s a 3-time WNBA champ, 4 time Olympic gold medalist, and 5 time EuroLeague champ. She is an all time great and a no-doubt future hall of famer. I will never forget watching her in the closing minutes of the 2018 WNBA Finals. It is one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen on a basketball court. You can check out the highlights here.

Meanwhile, the New York Liberty had the top pick in the 2020 WNBA draft after a dismal 2019 where they went 10-24. The top prize in this year’s draft was Sabrina Ionescu (pronounced yo-NESS-coo), from the University of Oregon. Ionescu is the only NCAA D1 player to have over 2000 points, 1000 rebounds, and 1000 assists. She also had more than twice as many triple doubles as any NCAA D1 player ever. Her college career was truly remarkable. It will be fascinating to see how her skills translate to the WNBA. I am hoping she lives up to the hype. Here are a few highlights to check out.

The WNBA has been absent from the mainstream basketball card market for a long time. Like since 2005 long. There has been an annual set produced by Rittenhouse Archives, but distribution has been spotty and there is almost no cache to the brand. It reminds me a bit of the 3 years Star produced sets for the NBA. But, all of that changed last year with the release of the 2019 Donruss WNBA set by Panini. Finally, we have WNBA cards featuring designs, inserts, and parallels familiar to the basketball collecting world. The design of the cards is the same as the iconic 2018-19 Donruss and Optic NBA sets, which is one of the best in recent memory. Not only that, but an Optic, Optic holo, gold holo, and gold vinyl parallel version exists for each of the 100 cards in the base set.

So, given all that, it may be a bit of a surprise that for a product with and MSRP of $80 per box, they are now priced at $44.77 per box on Blowout. Compare that to a 2018-19 Donruss NBA Hobby box currently priced at $799.95, with zero chance at anything Optic. The NBA box had an MSRP of $100 and has increased 700%. The WNBA box has decreased almost 50%.

I get it, the NBA is more popular and 2018-19 is the year of Luka, but the disparity is stark. What gives here? An article published by former Davidson college basketball player, Amanda Ottaway, contains a number of interesting insights and statistics about women and sports. She says more in her article about women’s sports than I ever could. Her perspective as a woman is something I will never have no matter how much I learn and empathize. I value having the opportunity to hear from her point of view. It is a very, very worthwhile read.

Here are just a few statistical items of note from Ottaway:

1)      40% of all sports participants are women

2)      1/3 of all fans of major sports are women

3)      Women’s sports receive between 1% and 4% of all sports media coverage

4)      90% of sports editors are men

Ottaway has also written a book about being a D1 athlete. The book is called The Rebounders: A Division 1 Basketball Journey. Unfortunately, I had not heard of her book before researching for this post, so I have not read it yet, but now it is next up on my list. The set of statistics above suggest there is a substantial divergence between the proportion of media coverage afforded to men’s sports and the demographics of people who participate in and are fans of sports. This is to suggest there is something askew about the way things are and that there is a segment of the population being underserved.

Now, it may also be suggested that the WNBA just isn’t as exciting as the NBA. I’m not sure why it needs to be a comparison though. Can’t both be entertaining to watch? Is it exclusive? Yes, there are almost no dunks and shooting percentages generally tend to be lower in the WNBA. But, there are world class skills on display regardless. Significant physiological differences do exist between NBA and WNBA players that have an impact on how the game is played. This article states the average height of a WNBA player is just about 6 feet. The average NBA player is around 6 feet 7 inches. There are also substantial differences in average vertical leap between WNBA players (19 inches) and NBA players (28 inches). The analysis suggests rim heights play an important role in the differences in the game. For example, for the NBA to be playing on an equivalent scale to the WNBA, the rim would need to be 11 feet 6 inches high. At that level it is projected that just 6 players in the NBA would be able to dunk. I’m sure the same could be said for the size of the court. Larger people require fewer steps to go from end to end, which in turn suggests the time to move from one end to the other may be less. The same could also likely be said for the defensive coverage one can achieve with greater height and therefore longer wingspan. That would certainly change the feel of the NBA game should the key dimensional parameters of the game be changed according to scale. All this is to say, all things are not equal if you are looking to make a comparison between the leagues and the players. The rules of our games are arbitrary. People like you and me made up the rules. The rules are not a universal truth or a physical law. It just so happens the rules of basketball could result in differences in our perception of how exciting the games are to watch.

Back to the basketball cards now. Online box break videos are sort of scarce for this product. I was unable to find a single video opening an entire case. So, I pieced together data from individual box breaks. Fortunately, the set is small enough and there are enough serial numbered cards that one can quickly make a good estimate of the print run on this product. Almost all parallel cards in this set are serial numbered, with the exception of the Optic and Optic holo parallels. So, the mystery with this product resides within these two sets. Here a link to the raw data for my analysis and below is a summary of the print run for 2019 Donruss WNBA Basketball.

Well, this is the most limited product I have ever analyzed from Panini, with only approximately 525 total cases produced. In addition, this product is hobby only, so there isn’t more out there on retail shelves. 525 cases are it. The one-per-pack distribution of Optic base cards suggests there are 420 sets of Optic out there. That’s just the base version of Optic. If you are looking for holos, those are in even more short supply at an estimated print run of 199 for the silver version. I find these low print run numbers to be remarkably interesting. It is not like there are 30 other WNBA sets released in 2019. This is the only one. If you want a card from 2019 your choice is this or nothing. In addition, the number of parallels isn’t dizzying. For the Donruss base and insert cards the parallels are silver press proofs /199, purple press proofs /99, gold laser /10, and black laser /1. For the Optic cards, the parallels include the silver holos, gold /10, and gold vinyl /1. Personally, I wish more products were the limited and affordable.

At just under $45 a box, there is a lot of potential value here. A box has 2 autographed cards, around 6 cards serial numbered to 199 or less, 4 Optic base parallels, and 2 Optic holo parallels. In addition, you will pull almost a complete set of Donruss base cards. Also, if you’re looking across a 20-box case, on average you’re looking at getting approximately 6 cards that are serial numbered to 10 or are 1 of 1’s. Few other products can duplicate the density of scarce cards. None do it at this price point.

If you are not a regular fan of the WNBA, maybe it’s a good time to take advantage of the extra time you may have due to social gathering restrictions and catch a few games. There will be a lot of them on national TV broadcasts across the next month. Perhaps you could pick up a box of 2019 Donruss WNBA, learn about the teams and players, and enjoy following along during the bubble season. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself chasing the next WNBA release, 2020 Panini Prizm WNBA, which is likely to feature the rookie card of Sabrina Ionescu.

Til next time – Jeff