There hasn't been evolution in the hobby since the invention of the relic card.
I disagree with this, I think we are smack in the middle of a new evolution in Baseball card sets. No one will dispute that relic cards have lost their luster. You can find them all over the place, they are inserted in every box (even some blasters!), and you can pick them up for a buck a pop on eBay with no problems. Now that Topps has decided to guarantee a hit per box for Hobby Series Two boxes, relic card are pretty much just another insert at this point and can't be counted on any more to drive sales. Autographs are hot and always will be, but I'm thinking of another gimmick that has crept into the hobby this decade that will end up being the driver of many sets in the near future. I'm going to go out on a limb and say in the next five years the "Big Thing" that will start driving box sales will be the non-mainstream sport/celebrity autographs. Check out my time line and hear me out:
2001 - Topps American Pie
A boomer nostalgia set that included plenty of non-sport subjects plus relics from Elvis and Marilyn Monroe that you could never pull, plus a JFK gravel relic that you could find everywhere.
2003? - Topps
I don't remember exactly when Topps started putting in their Presidents and Founding Fathers insert sets and I'm too lazy to look it up right now. Topps has leaned on these sets for a few years now though, and now we're in the middle of a Presidential Campaign blitz from both manufacturers. The key to this strategy though was the Cut Autos. Remember when you found out there was going to be Cut Autos of Lincoln and Washington in packs on Topps? Sure, you could never get one but it was a really amazing thing to even comprehend.
2003? Upper Deck American History
UD put out this set after Topps started putting Presidents into their packs. I think it was to try to counter Topps, but if I remember the set didn't sell very well and I balked at paying 60 bucks for a box of non-sports cards at the time. I kind of regret it now as it was a fantastic looking set.
2005 Donruss Products Fans of the Game
Donruss added insert cards of people like John C. McGinley, Brandi Chastain and Peter Gammons with the logo of their favorite team. While it pissed me off that Donruss never found one lousy Braves fan in the bunch to go along with the dozens of Yankee, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodger fans, it was a neat idea to insert celebrities into card packs. I didn't' really care for the idea, but even I had to pick up a card of Samwise Gamgee (or Rudy, if you prefer) when I saw it in the cheapo box for a quarter. The really genius thing Donruss did was to offer Autographed versions of the cards as well. These sold well if I recall correctly and consistently sell for higher than all but the biggest baseball stars' autographs.
2005 or so Topps Basketball
Yeah I know, everyone hates basketball cards, but Topps inserted a few celebrities into their hoops sets like Christine Brinkley, Jay-Z and Carmen Electra for a couple of years. Not a bad idea to try to rope in the casual fans who like basketball, hip-hop and good looking women.
2006-2007 Allen & Ginter
Completely ignoring the DNA and doggy autos for a moment, non-baseball athletes and non-athletes are all over this set, many with relics and autographs. The subjects were all over the map from sports legends, to actors, murderers, politicians, inventors, quiz show champs... and many of the cards were really popular. Topps did this to tie in with the subject matter of the original 1887 set, but it also touched on the trend for celebrities sneaking into trading card sets.
Mario at Wax Heaven has explicitly stated that the ad showing a card autographed by Buzz Aldrin and Alex Rodriguez got him back into the hobby after being out for over a decade. That says something. This year there's a boxing theme to the set, so we'll see how that works.
2007 Donruss Americana
We all scoffed at this ploy by Donruss to get back into the the baseball biz with a celebrity themed set (which just happened to have a couple of baseball subjects in there too) but guess what? It worked. Series two is going to be out soon and it will be in retail stores this time as well. Now I could never bring myself to buy a forty dollar pack of cards with no baseball cards in it, but looking over the checklist they put together, there has to be somebody in there you like. Who wouldn't want a Humphrey Bogart or Mae West card? Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Gilbert Gottfried, and Michael Berryman are all actors I'm a fan of as well. Celebrity culture is huge and such a set gets a lot of people who wouldn't care about a trading card at all normally to look at the products that are out there.
2008 Topps, Upper Deck
We all know about the Presidential candidate craziness. It doesn't change the fact that the Upper Deck Hillary gimmick sells for over a grand and a Topps Obama signature sold for even more. Once again, more eyeballs that would never think about trading cards and focused on trading cards.
Upper Deck had a few non-baseball autographs in their Sports Royalty set last year and this year they're ramping up the autos and even putting the Sports Royalty set (now focusing more on Olympic athletes, just in time for the controversial Bejing Olympics) into the base set.
There's probably a few instances of celebrity cards or non-"big three" sports athletes creeping into baseball card sets out there, but I'm doing this from memory. One thing I've noticed from checking out eBay auctions is that a lot of times the non-sports/celebrity relics and autos just kill baseball autos and relics. There are a few reasons for this: Baseball is the biggest trading card market other than gaming cards, but there's still a limited audience for the cards. Not everyone is a baseball fan and a large percentage of baseball fans just don't care about cards.. Relics and autos of baseball players have also become far more plentiful, pushing down prices. Celebrity cards have a much wider audience and a larger market. I'm a big Lord of the Rings fan and I bought up a bunch of the relics from the trading card sets a few years ago. Those relic cards are holding their value since they were actually limited in production (You'll see Pujols jerseys every year, but Gandalf will not have any more robes out there until the Hobbit is filmed) and have a large fan base including some hard core rabid fans who will bid on everything. Finally, it's much eaier to get a baseball player's autograph than it is a celebrity's. In addition to the cards in packs and signing opportunities at shows, you can go to the ballpark and spring training and beg for autos. Trying to track down a celebrity is much more difficult and then you have an entourage surrounding them specifically to keep you out. Some sign through the mail and for conventions, sure, but it's still a lot trickier than finding a friendly ballplayer to sign. As a result, prices are a little higher and signatures are a little scarcer.
This is where I see the hobby heading. More and more celebrities signing for trading card sets. It accomplishes a few things that the manufacturers are desperate to have in their new sets. It provides something to promote their product around, something new that hasn't been seen before. The entertainment industry has lots of different avenues to follow and they can hop on new trends as needed. If there's a hot movie, get some movie autographs, if music is big, get some rock stars. in 2012 when we've finally gotten over the glut of politicians from this election, they'll throw a new batch of 'em at us. I'm not saying it won't get tedious, but there's lots of ways to go with this. It also widens the market for their product. There is already a box of Hanna Montana cards right by the register at the local card shop, but a few autographs in packs of Topps and you might see a few tweener girls buying packs of cards. It would make the hard core collectors like us absolutely apoplectic, but they'd increase their sales and the number of people buying the stuff which is what they want. It also provides "Added Value" which they desperately need to move those overpriced boxes. Right now celebrity autographs sell well so inserting them gives you one more chance at a big hit you can sell.
If you think it's daft that a baseball card set should put in something other than baseball cards into their packs, just look at your average cable channels. MTV has replaced videos with reality shows, TV Land has cut TV shows to show movies and Headline News no longer does 24-hour news in favor of crap like Nancy Grace. This is all to get a few more eyes on their channel in hopes of more revenue coming in, and the integrity of the product loses to money every time. Topps, Donruss and Upper Deck just want to make money, not make their loyal customers happy. That's kind of the attitude throughout the hobby nowadays as you can see from Beckett's newfound tendency to mock their loyal customers. As Jeff remarked almost year ago, "You'll get over it". Some of us will get over it and some won't. I'm sure the shenanigans that are being pulled have turned off a lot of collectors that won't come back just as it has attracted some new ones to replace them. The thing to remember is to decide what you like, what you want to buy and to not let the card companies dictate to you how you should collect. There are plenty of options out there for collecting, choose a path that makes you happy.