Pack Searching Experiment - It Should Not Be This Easy

By Adam McFarland, Founder of SportsLizard on July 17th, 2007

One of the more disturbing trends in the last several years in the sports card industry is pack searching. Pack searching is the "art" of figuring out which packs in a box contain autographs or relic (game used jerseys, bats, etc), presumably because those packs will be thicker or weigh more or "feel" different. I recently read two distinctly different articles on the topic that inspired me to do my own experiment. Joey from Squeezeplaycards talks about the dark side of pack tampering:

On one visit to the card aisle at Target every pack had a notch cut in the side exposing the edges of the cards. Another time I was in Wal Mart and noticed two men searching through the packs. I stood afar and watched as they asked each other about the packs and moved the cards around in them. Finally I walked up to them and asked if they had found all of the good cards. The younger man said no, he was just trying to decide which cards to buy. I asked him if he thought it was fair for people to tamper with and search the packs. He ducked his eyes and put the cards back and walked out of the store. As he walked away I wondered if he would just come back another day and continue to try to beat the system. For me, I picked up a sealed box and checked out and waited till I got home to see if I got any good cards.

The next time you are in a retail store looking to buy some packs think twice about it. The packs that you buy may have been searched or tampered with in some way. Buy a sealed box instead; your odds of getting undamaged cards are much better that way.

While Jason Barrow wrote more of a tell-all piece about how pack searching is done:

If you look for information on pack searching on the Internet you won't find much because it's considered a taboo and an off-topic in the sports card community...Remember, there is nothing illegal about pack searching. It is similar to testing which piece of fruit is ripe at a supermarket by squeezing each one, the pack searcher is touching each pack to see which one is ripe for the buying.

Both pieces really made me think "there's no way it could be that easy". I've opened my fair share of cards but never really considered an attempt at pack searching, so I figured I'd buy a box and give it a shot. I purchased a box of 2007 Playoff Prestige Football online and last night I sat down to see if I could predict which packs had the good cards. As you can read in Jason's article, there are several different methods to pack searching - anything from bending the pack to actually weighing it - but I decided to try my own method.

I picked up a set of vernier calipers for about $15 on Amazon and decided to attempt to precisely measure the thickness of each pack. Here's how the experiment was to unfold:

  • Open the sealed box and number each pack 1-24 with a Sharpie
  • Measure the thickness of the pack, from the center, in millimeters.
  • Measure in random order, three times per pack to eliminate any natural variation or operator bias
  • Take the average thickness of the three measurements and use that as the thickness to "predict" which packs would have autos or relic cards
  • Take photos of everything

Here's the box - I apologize (a little) to Donruss for picking on them. I chose to open this box for no other reason than because it had some potentially cool cards:

2007 Donruss Playoff Prestige Box

Here are the calipers:


Here are the numbered packs:

Playoff Prestige Numbered Packs

Here's an example of my measurement technique (I squeezed the packs to the point where I could rotate the calipers 90 degrees and hold the pack without it slipping):

Calipers and Pack Searching

And here's the resulting data:

Pack 1 2 3 Avg
1 7.24 7.26 7.20 7.23
2 5.16 5.27 5.18 5.20
3 5.36 5.69 5.54 5.53
4 7.30 7.43 7.26 7.33
5 5.27 5.35 5.24 5.29
6 5.38 5.27 5.24 5.30
7 7.37 7.41 7.45 7.41
8 5.52 5.42 5.32 5.42
9 5.15 5.16 5.16 5.16
10 7.83 7.37 7.28 7.49
11 5.42 5.40 5.34 5.39
12 5.20 5.49 5.39 5.36
13 7.27 7.34 7.48 7.36
14 5.29 5.28 5.45 5.34
15 5.40 5.44 5.40 5.41
16 7.25 7.41 7.48 7.38
17 5.26 5.22 5.16 5.21
18 5.64 5.31 5.39 5.45
19 7.36 7.64 7.37 7.46
20 5.30 5.47 5.26 5.34
21 5.22 5.31 5.23 5.25
22 7.37 7.45 7.44 7.42
23 5.37 5.31 5.40 5.36
24 5.18 5.33 5.30 5.27

It doesn't take a statistician to see that there are two distinctly different types of thicknesses: those around 7 mm and those around 5 mm (the actual averages are 7.39 mm and 5.33 mm). It's also important to note that the average standard deviation among my 3 measurements was only .09 mm/pack - clearly not enough to influence the results.

The first pack I opened (7.23 mm) contained a Larry Johnson game worn jersey card - sweet! At this point I was beginning to question whether or not all of the ~7 mm packs would have relic cards. Of course I was wrong and many of the packs contained cardboard fillers like the one below.

cardboard filler

This is what really perplexes me - why are the fillers in some packs and not others? Wouldn't every logical person still go for the 7 mm packs? You might not hit 100% of the time, but you damn well know you're hitting 0% of the time if you open a 5 mm pack! Speaking as someone with an industrial engineering degree who spent some time working as a quality control engineer - how the hell does every pack not weigh the exact same amount and have the exact same thickness? Seriously guys, this isn't rocket science - figure it out. Make a hard casing around each pack to fix the size, make every card the same size regardless, or at least put the damn cardboard in every pack!

In the end, here are the relic/autos/parallels found from the 16 packs that measured around 5 mm:

  • Ronald Curry Parallel
  • NFL Draft Tony Hunt
  • Willie Parker Stars of the NFL
  • Rudy Johnson Prestigeous Pros
  • Tom Brady Parallel
  • David Carr Parallel

Here are the relic/autos/parallels found from the 8 packs that measured around 7 mm:

  • Larry Johnson Game-Worn Jersey
  • Roy Williams Prestigeous Pros
  • Tony Hunt Parallel
  • Devin Hester Super Bowl Heros
  • Rudy Johnson Prestigeous Pros
  • Gridiron Heritage Cadillac Williams
  • Brett Favre Game-Worn Jersey
  • Kenny Irons Prestigious Picks

So let's sum up: 8 of the 14 good pulls we're in the 7 mm packs, and there were only half as many 7 mm packs (8 compared to 16). So on any given open, you had a 100% chance of getting a relic/auto/parallel card when opening a 7 mm pack, and only a 37.5% chance with a 5 mm pack. Not to mention that the two game-worn jersey cards both came from 7 mm packs as well. Oh, and for the record there were 6 pieces of Cardboard, 5 of which came from 7 mm packs. Freaking unbelievable.

Again, why the hell would anyone ever open a 5mm pack? Personally I think this is a bigger issue for hobby shops than it is for big chain stores like Walmart and Target. We know that stuff is picked over - it has been for years by employees. Couple that with a few "smart" collectors who pack search and you should stay away at all costs. But if you're a hobby shop owner, why wouldn't you open a few boxes and pick out the good ones (7 mm in this example) and put only 5 mm on display for customers?

"They'll go out of business" you say. Ok - fine - maybe they keep one or two 7 mm in the box. You still have an enormous problem. First and foremost, the kid who can only afford a pack a week never has a chance at that Brett Favre game-worn jersey card I got because shop owner has already separated that pack. If the hobby wants to reach out to kids, it needs to at least give them a fair chance of getting a decent card! Many of them can't afford to buy sealed boxes like you or I.

Secondly, shop owners inadvertently promote pack searching when they sell "hot packs" on eBay - packs like these 7 mm ones that have a higher chance of resulting in a good pull. If they can't stay in business with honest tactics that promote the health and well being of the hobby, than they shouldn't be in business anymore. The proof is in the pudding - a quick search of eBay will find hundreds of packs like this one for sale. Don't tell me card shop owners aren't doing it because they clearly are.

I realize that this was only one box, but it really does illustrate a HUGE problem. Sometimes this hobby drives me nuts! Honestly, I feel like it all comes down to greed - greed by Donruss to not spend a few cents extra per pack on QC, greed by shop owners to pick over their boxes before putting them out, and greed on the part of collectors to artificially increase their chances at a good pull by pack searching. And we wonder why a hobby that, for all the increasing money that's flying through sports these days, is dying a slow and painful death in front of our eyes.