By Wes Yee (@WesYee)
Picture a sports card collector. He walks into a humid auditorium, sniffs around the aging cardboard and peers into dusty showcase after dusty showcase. He’s wearing an old t-shirt; something from college and bearing the insignia of his local nine. He’s got a hat on, equally vintage, frayed and yellowed with the passing of the seasons. Now take that image and throw it in your mental trash bin like a used up parking ticket.
The 2010 National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC) took place in Baltimore this past week. This year’s annual gathering of collectors, dealers, companies, athletes and others in many ways signaled the resurgence of the beleaguered sports collecting industry. No longer a closet hobby reserved for unshowered "man-children," sports collecting has gone mainstream.
In addition to media coverage, shows are now attended by (pause for emphasis)—normal folk! This years convention featured collectors from all over the country, of all ages, genders, religions and ethnicity. Bucking the stereotype most of all was the adult film star Jesse Jane, who was kind enough to take photographs with fans while picking up a variety of autographed pieces for her own collection. In two short years the industry has undergone a Lance Armstrong-style comeback.
Jesse Jane with dealer Randy Shields at the 2010 National
Sports collecting has taken some major hits over the past couple of decades. Overproduction in the 80′s and 90′s led to depressed card values and turned off many collectors. Manufacturers running wild with unlimited releases diluted and confused many. In 2008 the economic downturn hammered just another nail into the coffin of what many saw as a dying part of Americana.
Two years spent grinding through tough releases, internet criticism, licensing battles, and buyouts has reshaped the hobby.
Topps has the exclusive licensing to Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball and Team USA. Panini is the exclusive producer of NBA cards and eBay has taken even more of a hold on the buying and trading of cards as hobby shops continue to flounder. Internet communities, led by Freedom Cardboard (FCB), have become the lifeblood for many who have seen their shops and local shows dry up and in some cases disappear.
Despite the cases of violent contraction of companies and dealers, (Dealer LRCards leaving numerous collectors out in the cold comes to mind) the hobby is showing some serious signs of a rebirth.
Topps, the behemoth of the industry, kicked off the national with a discussion panel at the NSCC where they opened up the floor for collectors to both ask questions and provide serious criticism. In recent years, Topps has received serious criticism over issues from flash in the pan brands to abusing sticker autographs, and showed collectors a refreshing side to their company.
Clay Luraschi, David Reel, Mark Sapir, John Buscaglia and Michael Mader gave the company a face. Reel and Luraschi especially were candid in their criticisms of past failures on the part of the company. They did well to reinforce the idea that while cards are a hobby for collectors, they are ultimately a business for Topps. Many of the concerns addressed were answered with logical reasoning based on sales, market reception and profitability.
While it may not seem worth noting that Topps was at the National this year, it should be noted that the company was conspicuously absent in 2009. Their presence this year reflected a serious turnaround for the company. Topps also gave away 999 Stephen Strasburg promo cards, which were the talk of the show. Having a presence at the show is an absolute must for the a company seeking to maintain engagement with a divided collectors base.
One of the more poignant thoughts in the discussion revolved around the challenges that Topps and the other companies face. It became obvious that it wasn’t so much other card companies that they were going up against but waning market interest. More than ever other discretionary activities (technology) are competing for the consumer’s time and money.
The show itself was well attended all five days. Booths seemed busy as collectors clogged aisles for free autographs, free cards and other promotional events. Several wax dealers offered raffles, prize wheels and free supplies. Freedom Cardboard brought in Red Sox pitcher Junichi Tazawa and Blue Jays pitcher Dirk Hayhurst to sign free for fans. The site also provided a promotional set free of charge for attendees.
Brian Gray unveiling Leaf
Also noteworthy was the rebirth of the defunct Leaf brand. Razor President Brian Gray unveiled his latest venture into collecting with an ostentatious booth that gathered nearly as much attention as it’s owner’s wheeling and dealing at the show.
Lines at the NSCC
Perhaps what offered the most hope for the industry was the wonderful attendance. Aisles were full and dealers seemed to be busy and in high spirits throughout the show. Lines were long, even on the weekdays.
Susan Lulgjuraj, Chris Olds, Wes Yee and Marie Pecora
Renewed interest in the hobby was obvious and it was easy to attribute much of that to the success of Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg. His cards were in seemingly every showcase at the National and his name was on the backs of more than a few attendees.
It was also clear that the revamped approaches of the card companies themselves was also responsible for this. Upper Deck, Razor/Leaf and Topps have stepped up their level of engagement on the forums, Twitter, Facebook and in the blogosphere. It’s a critical move–collectors, younger collectors especially, are no longer content to engage on a purely retail or hobby shop basis. They’re on these platforms on a regular basis and it’s only logical to take your marketing efforts to where your audience is.
The rebuilding of the hobby is surely an ongoing process, but with the help of more receptive manufacturers, savvier dealers, knowledgeable collectors and yes, even an adult film star, this hobby has sunny days ahead.
Special thanks to Chris Gilmore, John Wenzel, Tim Elrashedy, Andrew Lederman, Jim Witmer, Randy Shields, Susan Lulgjuraj, Marie Pecora, Chris Olds, Tracy Hackler, Brian Lanning, Robert Sanders, Ken Ross and all of the others who helped to make this show special.