National Sports Collectors Convention brings all within the hobby together

bbecBy Jeffrey Copeland

(Jeffrey Copeland photos)

“It’s Disneyland and the Guggenheim Museum rolled into one. Everyone always says, and I agree, ‘Whether you’re buying or just browsing and wandering through row after row of tables chock-full of sports history, if you can’t find it here, it probably doesn’t exist.’ There truly is something for everyone, and this year seemed even better than ever.”

This was how noted collector and sports memorabilia historian Ronald Britt described this year’s 39th annual National Sports Collectors Convention, held Aug. 1- 5 at Cleveland’s International Exposition (I-X) Center, and his thoughts were echoed by collectors everywhere throughout the run of the convention.

Added to this, attendance this year was heavy and steady all four days, signaling both the health of the hobby and just how much this event means to collectors all over the country and the world. For instance, on just the first morning alone, collectors visiting near the front of the line while waiting to enter the I-X Center shared they had made the journey to Cleveland from as far away as San Diego, California; Hilo, Hawaii; Tallahassee, Florida; Las Vegas, Nevada; London, England; Ontario, Canada; and San Jose, Costa Rica. Today, the convention is not just the “premier event” of the hobby. It has also become more than ever a “must attend” destination for collectors everywhere, a development most in the hobby believe will only continue to expand through the coming years.

The first thing one noticed upon entering the main floor was how immense the room appeared. The convention promoters had done a superb job of organizing the space in the I-X Center so that there was ample room for dealers to display their wares and for collectors to navigate the aisles and easily get to tables and booths to scrutinize items for potential purchase. This was especially important because of another development that has been evolving at the National for the past several years: highly diverse, yet connected, segments within the hobby, each requiring dedicated space to serve collectors appropriately and efficiently.

For instance, when entering the main room, collectors were greeted by row after row of card and sports memorabilia dealers that seemed to stretch to the very back reaches of the room – a wonderful sight. However, in addition to the traditional dealers, space was also earmarked throughout the I-X Center for several of the grading/authentication services, the TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion, the Ripping Wax Case Break Pavilion, display and information booths for auction houses, the ever-popular “live-auction” sites, and even tables for collectors to stop by and visit with representatives of Sports Collectors Digest and other hobby publications.  Arranging all of these groups could have been a disaster, but the promoters were given well-deserved kudos from dealers and collectors alike for making all areas easy to find and enjoy.

Beginning with the very first row, collectors found before them, available for purchase, what one attendee described as a “delicious smorgasbord” of the full range of cards and sports memorabilia. This included everything from an authenticated, game-used helmet worn by Red Grange, a complete run of the original Hartland baseball statues, a table covered with the complete 1952 Topps baseball hi-number series (including Mantle), a rare Roberto Clemente bobble head, and singles and complete sets of vintage nonsport cards priced for every wallet. One dealer even had row after row of game-used bats ranging from the 1940s to the present. Walking through this row set the tone for what was to follow.

In the next rows were rare, iconic, and seldom-before-seen pieces of sports history: a Stan Musial game-worn uniform from 1954 “photo-matched” to his 1954 Red Heart Dog Food card; a Jackie Robinson game-used bat and autographed ball; game-worn uniforms and jerseys of Hank Aaron, Larry Bird, Brett Favre, Rod Carew, George Brett, Willie Stargel, and Casey Stengel. Just behind the uniforms, one could next look upon the original artwork for the 1963 Post Cereal Baseball cards that were issued on the backs of cereal boxes that year.

After these were more game-used bats, from Barry Bonds, Derek Jeter, Harmon Killebrew, Roberto Clemente, and Bob Gibson. There were even several items, both personal and baseball-related, on display which spanned the career of Larry Doby, another true baseball legend and pioneer. These aisles were like a journey back in time where attendees could enjoy an up-and-close interaction with the history of our National Game. 

On the autograph side of the hobby, TRISTAR Productions once again produced an impressive slate of signers. Long lines formed each day as eager collectors waited to meet and greet their sports heroes. Mandy Fuerst, TRISTAR senior vice president for Operations & Marketing, said, “For TRISTAR, in running the Autograph Pavilion, our goal this year and every year for the thousands of attendees who come to the industry’s premier event seeking autographs is to help them make special memories and have a great time meeting their sports heroes. This year we have more than 140 celebrity autograph guests to help us meet that goal.” 

By all accounts received from happy and excited participants at the Pavilion, it was evident TRISTAR met — and exceeded — this goal.

From the world of baseball, attendees could obtain signatures from and, in some cases even have photos taken with, such past and present greats and luminaries as Bob Gibson, Jack Morris (new to HOF), Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Pete Rose, Rod Carew, and Roger Clemens.

From football, basketball, and hockey, signers included Dick Butkus, Joe Theismann, Joe Greene (“Mean Joe”), Franco Harris, Brett Hull, Jim Craig (of U.S. Olympic glory), Julius Erving (“Dr. J”), Dennis Rodman, and Oscar Robertson. This was quite an impressive lineup.

For those who are building “crossover” autograph collections (for instance, those who collect Hollywood memorabilia and autographs related to sports), TRISTAR added a nice touch by bringing to the show the “Hanson Brothers,” the sibling group of goons from the hockey movie “Slap Shot,” which starred Paul Newman. They also scheduled actor Corbin Bernsen, who played an infielder for the Cleveland Indians in the classic sports film “Major League.” Finally, the icing on the cake for many crossover autograph collectors was grabbing a signature from Henry Winkler, known to most as “The Fonz” on the “Happy Days” television show – but he has also appeared in many sports related productions as well, most notably the film “The Waterboy” (1998). Henry was as gracious as ever to his loyal fans. 

Grading/Authentication services — PSA, Beckett, SGC, and others — also held prominent space throughout the I-X Center. Most offered both “on-site” and “drop off” services for attendees. The lines for these groups were also steady, if not lengthy, indicating just how important this area of the hobby has become for collectors. 

Derek Ficken, BGS regional sales manager, added, “The hobby is at an all-time high, especially because buyers are acquiring more and more raw cards from the secondary market, such as eBay and other online sites. If these cards are then authenticated and graded, the value can jump dramatically — and collectors are realizing this is a nice benefit that often grows from our service. Collectors can also receive peace of mind when it comes to making sure their purchases are what they believed they were getting; in other words, they will know their items are not counterfeit or reproductions, which, sadly, ends up being the case at times. Basically, we want to help the hobby grow — and also to help collectors enjoy their collections more.”

PSA also continued to provide one of the most popular and talked about attractions at the National: free custom, one-of-a-kind cards of the attendees who wished to have one made. This year, those who participated had a choice of posing for the photo while wearing a Cleveland Indians or a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey.

Terry Melia, PSA public relations specialist, said, “We brought the PSA custom trading card station with us to Cleveland because it was such a crowd pleaser in Chicago last year. It’s free, so that’s great, but what collectors love so much about it is that each card gets encapsulated in its very own PSA cardholder, so it immediately becomes a coveted collectible keepsake of their experience at the show.”

He was so right about these being coveted; collectors were showing off their cards all around the room. This is a very classy thing PSA is doing, and it is hoped they will continue to offer this in the coming years.

At the same time, action was once again brisk and steady at the Ripping Wax Case Break Pavilion. This year Ripping Wax was the official promoter of the Pavilion, which has now become a staple at the National and one of “THE” places to hang out while catching one’s breath, reviewing wantlists, visiting with friends – and watching and participating in breaks. Among the highlights were the increasingly popular free “group breaks” sponsored by Topps, Onyx, Upper Deck, and Panini. Other groups and companies also hosted traditional breaks almost constantly throughout the run of the convention. 

David Gelfman of Ripping Wax probably put it best about this area when he said, “In many ways, the National is a natural extension of what we’re seeing everywhere else in the hobby — that people are connected mostly through the Internet and social media. However, the National, and the case breaks and what goes on at the Case Break Pavilion, brings collectors together so they can meet in person, connect, and enjoy the time together. At the same time, breaks allow hobbyists a choice of how they’d like to allocate their funds to acquire more of what they want for a smaller spend in a fun and exciting atmosphere, which adds great all-around value to the experience.”

There were also plenty of other activities at the Pavilion to fill time between the pack/case breaks, including the informative “Great American Collectibles Show Broadcast,” the “Panini Kids Break,” and the “Fat Packs Podcast.”

There were also book signings held in the Pavilion as well. Olympic Gold Medalist Dick Fosbury (high jump) and Rico Petrocelli (who spent his entire career as a star infielder with the Boston Red Sox) signed their new books and posed for photos with fans. Finally, there were also plenty of giveaways and product previews at the Pavilion, many of which were geared to younger collectors: free packs of cards, goodie bags, and even some free sports equipment.

The Pavilions weren’t the only places where special events were taking place. For example, Baseball Card Exchange (BBCE) hosted an event that had attendees buzzing and debating all weekend. BBCE brought a box of 36 unopened packs of 1986-87 Fleer basketball cards. Two of the packs had the Michael Jordan rookie card showing through their wrappers. Those who wished to participate paid $2,000 for a pack of cards, not knowing which pack they would get, while hoping they would receive one of the popular and valuable Jordan rookie cards.

Steve Hart of BBCE said, “The National is the only show we do each year. It’s the Super Bowl of the industry, and we chose this as the place to showcase this box break.”

With 36 packs involved, the odds amounted to a 1 in 18 chance of being one of the lucky winners. For those who got those two packs, the Jordan card, depending upon condition/grade, could potentially be worth as much as five to ten times more than their initial investment. For those with the other packs, if they kept them unopened, they still ended up with a nice investment as well. The buzz among attendees generally centered on these two questions: 1. If you had been able to get in on this, would you have paid the $2,000 for a pack? And, 2. If you received one of the packs with the Jordon card showing, would you open it and sell the card or keep the pack unopened? The debates on this were lively – and spread throughout the whole room, generating a great deal of excitement.

As is typical of the National every year, there were also plenty of “giveaways.” There were beautiful, full-color auction catalogs that were like exquisite coffee table books, free packs of cards, “mini-sets” of cards, special “limited edition” convention cards (produced by multiple companies), magazines, posters, backpacks and tote-bags — and these just scratched the surface of what was available. For some collectors, these free items alone made the convention experience rich and rewarding.

Finally, it has also become a tradition at the National to visit with dealers to get their impressions of the current state of the hobby and marketplace. To this end, as in previous years, SCD asked several prominent dealers, representing a wide range of collectibles and memorabilia, what they predicted the “next major areas” of collecting interest would be, whether it be specific individual cards, sets, special areas within autographs, and so forth. Last year’s predictions were so spot-on, it was decided several should be asked again to look into their crystal balls and share their wealth of knowledge with us. The responses they offered this year were as follows:

Kevin Savage of Kevin Savage Cards: “As for the next ‘hot’ area in cards, what is selling best now is ‘low grade’ examples of stars like Mantle, Cobb, DiMaggio, Williams, and so on. Basically, anything before 1970. There’s value for people in these lower grade cards.

“In a perfect world, everyone would love to have these cards in high grade, but 8s and 9s are getting out of the reach of most collectors, so the lesser condition ones give more ‘bang for the buck.’ I’m also seeing this trend in the really old stuff, like Hall of Famers in the T206 set and other tobacco issues.”

Rick Romito of Romito Sports Figures: “Right now there is a tremendous interest in SGA (stadium giveaway) bobble heads that are given out at games and aren’t available anywhere else. This is especially true of the bobbles given out at minor league stadiums, where there may be only two or three thousand of them ever produced. This limited supply really drives up the demand with collectors. It’s almost like the old days when there were regional issues of such things as the Starting Lineup figures – and only people in certain areas could get them. At the same time, of course, any bobble or other figures of emerging stars like Judge or Bellinger or Ohtani are also very desirable right now.”

Rick Giddings of Gizmo Sportscards (Note: Giddings was just voted to his fifth term on the Board of Directors of the National): “I’m thrilled so many collectors are still buying stuff to relive their childhoods, to recapture the memories of opening packs and finding favorite players. Tied to that, the pre-1969 cards are really hot for me right now. I love it when collectors say, ‘Wow – I had that card when I was a kid!’ I think vintage will always be popular. 

“Also, newer cards seem to go up and down in terms of both value and desirability. Vintage cards stay pretty much relatively stable, especially because there is just a limited number of them out there.  At the same time, high numbers for all vintage years, in all sports, are very hot right now. And, several sets are showing tremendous interest of late: 1955 Topps All-American Football, 1957 and 1961 Fleer Basketball, 1966 Topps Baseball, and, of course, the ever-popular 1952 Topps Baseball. Also, I firmly believe Topps Baseball sets from 1970-79 are going to dramatically climb in value. Right now, they are inexpensive and are loaded with Hall of Famers. They are great, phenomenal sets.”

Scott Cowan of Kit Young Cards: “The vintage market is still extremely healthy — and I predict will continue to be so. We’ve been selling mainly ungraded cards to collectors, and right now the demand is very high. This is especially true of ungraded star cards from the 50s and 60s — and ungraded pre-war cards as well. Mantle is king, and cards of Clemente, Mays, and Aaron are also at the top of the list right now.”

Kent Garnett of Pennant Fever: “Partly because of the World Cup, everything related to soccer is in high demand right now. Our country is really evolving in its love of soccer, and I predict over the next five years we’ll see more and more collectors looking to acquire soccer cards, autographs, jerseys — and especially memorabilia related to the World Cup matches. For those interested in soccer, now is the time to get in on the ground floor of some really nice collectibles.”

Mike Hattley of Touchdown Treasures: “Vintage bobbers and bobble heads are very popular right now, especially the papier mache versions. Not that many dealers bring them to shows because they are so fragile and break so easily. They are also about sixty years old, which also makes them a great piece of history, and collectors see the importance of them. Most kids played with them back-in-the-day, so few have survived in great condition.

“In addition, signed baseballs, basketballs, footballs and so forth with interesting inscriptions on them are increasingly popular. Instead of just having a regular Mickey Mantle signed ball, which is pretty special in its own right, collectors are looking for balls where he signed his name with ‘The Comet’ or Merry Christmas or something else special.

“Pete Rose also signed some with ‘I’m sorry I bet on baseball’ added as well. Some Japanese ballplayers sign in both languages. I see these as the hot autographs now.

“Finally, here is my advice about future collectibles: Buy what you like — and stay within your budget. First and foremost, have fun!”

Josh Evans of Lelands: “Cards of all types are hot. If you can’t sell it, it’s probably priced too high. If it is priced right, it will sell. Why? It is unfathomable how much money there is in the market today among collectors, investors, dealers, and of course combinations of all three. The sports memorabilia and card market has doubled in the past five years, and I think this growth will continue. Predicting the future has always been the same answer in the world of memorabilia: The finest specimens of items will always tower above the rest, and collectors are realizing this more today than ever.”

LeAnne Alsept of Outstanding Collectibles of Cincinnati: “Pop culture items are becoming more and more popular, especially as these are typically not as expensive as most other areas of collectibles. These would include everything from sports-themed pins, matchbooks, banks, mini-bats, pennants, puzzles, and so on. These are all flying off our shelves.”

As evidenced once again this year, the National continues, in so many ways, to be the centerpiece of our great hobby.  Collectors come to whittle down their wantlists for items in their collections, learn about new trends and developments in the world of sports memorabilia, and view (and often hold in their hands) iconic pieces of history.  But, perhaps the National’s most important role of all is providing a place where friends, both new and old, come together to visit, catch-up, and share in the camaraderie that is the true life-blood of the hobby. 

This writer saw this at every turn in the I-X Center — and outside as well in nearby restaurants and hotel lobbies. While having lunch in the main concession area on day two, four life-long friends from Detroit, all in their mid-40s, sat at a table and ripped open packs together while munching their food. At one point, one member of the group suddenly tilted his head back and said loudly enough for all around to hear, “Isn’t this great?” 

It was a great sight to see — and representative of why we love this hobby so dearly. How long until next year’s National in Chicago? For many, it can’t come soon enough.

Jeffrey S. Copeland is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest, as well as an author. He can be reached at jscottcope@gmail.com. 

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