The Olympic accomplishments of Michael Phelps have made him a hot name among autograph collectors. That demand has been reflected in a rapid rise in value for his only autographed trading card issued to date.
Cards signed by Phelps as part of the Fans of the Game insert in 2004 Leaf Rookies & Stars Football have been selling for as much as $500 on eBay, and the figure was expected to increase before the games concluded. Prior to the Olympics, that same card was going for less than $50. Donruss produced about 300 of the autographed cards and about 5,000 unsigned versions. The price surge sparked coverage by several national media outlets, including ESPN and CNN. That coverage has resulted in a flurry of phone calls to Donruss Marketing Director Scott Prusha.
“I’ve been asked by a lot of these outlets if this (rise in value) is unique in the card category, and I can honestly say it is,” Prusha said. “You see spikes in cards all the time, but not to this degree. This is a whole different level, because this is being generated by demand worldwide.”
While there have been plenty of U.S. Olympic heroes over the years, their presence in trading card sets was fairly limited. Now with today’s marketplace offering the opportunity to include select Olympians, past and present, as elements in insert sets and a broader acceptance among collectors for the “blending” of other sport stars and entertainment figures within a product, it provides card makers an opportunity.
“We’ve done a couple of product lines in the past that have featured athletes known for their Olympic success, such as Bruce Jenner and Apollo Anton Ono,” Prusha said. “One of the strongest selling cards out of last year’s Americana product is (softball star) Jenny Finch. (Swimmer) Amanda Beard is also in the product.”
Prusha said the chance to offer autographs attracts non-traditional collectors.
“If you want a certified autograph of one of these stars, often the only thing out there is a trading card. So that’s helping awareness of cards as a source for authentic signatures, he said.”
He also added that for the athletes themselves, the card category is appealing because “they love the opportunity to be included in a card set, and trading card deals haven’t always existed for their respective sports.”
The athletes also like the way cards can publicize their respective sports. Phelps told the Associated Press that it felt “pretty good” to see the value for his card increasing and says it’s part of his overall goal to elevate interest in swimming to more than once every four years.
“I heard the (TV) ratings are the highest back home for people watching the Olympics and watching swimming,” he said. “My goal of raising the bar in the sport of swimming is coming along nicely, but it’s still going to take time for me to really get it to where I want it to be.”
Donruss has plans to pursue more Olympians for its 2009 product lines, although Prusha was not ready to reveal any confirmed participants. He said the company would love to include Phelps again in a product, but admits “it’s probably going to cost us a lot more (to sign him) than it did in 2004."