ROSEMONT, Ill. — On Day 2 of the 2021 National Sports Collectors Convention, Pristine Auctions was one of dozens of vendors offering giveaways of sports memorabilia amid the hundreds of booths filling up the Donald E. Stephenson Convention Center.
Attendees gobbled up raffle tickets and waited for their number to be called. For dramatic effect, the Pristine emcee had those gathered around the booth repeat the numbers as they were read. ("Zero! ... Two! ... Six! ...)
The lucky raffle winner stepped up to claim the mystery gift.
Which autographed jersey did he want, the young man was asked.
"I want the Tom Brady!" he said, asking for the biggest-name giveaway on the docket. He opened the box and — BOOM! — there it was: a signed Brady Buccaneers jersey.
A buzz rippled through the area. Everyone around him cheered and snapped pictures. The young man was in disbelief. He even posed for a few shots with two strangers. Elsewhere, buyers went back to sorting through wish-list cards, and dealers went back to making deals. After all, the money was flowing.
While the Brady winner was being whisked away by a few Pristine employees, the man who got a picture of himself and his son with the Brady-jersey kid was asked why he might want such a photo for his collection.
"Why not?" asked Dusty Morgensen, 46, of Owensboro, Kentucky, whose son was also in the Brady picture. "It was a fun moment. You could tell how much it meant to him. It's a great day. We had last year taken away from us. We weren't going to miss this year, no way.
"I've been a collector since I was a kid, and now my kid is into it. It's his first National, and we're just soaking it all up. It's going to be a great weekend. It has been already, and it's only Thursday."
Why The National is such a big event for collectors
The National, as it's known in the sports-collectibles industry, was shut down because of COVID-19 in 2020. It returned in grand fashion Wednesday, running through Sunday, and it appears the 41st event is going to be one of the biggest in its history.
The show is among the best known and most attended in the business — and because of the pandemic, business has boomed. Even with a slight "market correction" as investors are fond of saying, leveling off huge inflation for what had borne some absurd trading card prices the past 18 months, interest in the hobby remains robust if Day 2 attendance is any indication.
According to event organizers, four times as many online general admission tickets were sold for this event than for the 2019 event. Attendance for Wednesday and Thursday were, Bismarck, North Dakota, dealer Chris Magstadt estimated, were as strong as you might expect for a typical Saturday or Sunday, which often are the most heavily attended days at most card shows.
"Everyone's interested in sports cards again," Magstadt said. "There's money to be made for sure. But you also want to come and see what the vibe is, what's happening, what's hot. We're all collectors and investors, even if some people aren't doing it professionally, and this is the best opportunity to see what's happening in our industry right now. Everyone is here this week.
"It's all about relationships and getting a better feel for the market for me as a dealer, so the better off my store (The Sports Cave) is and my customers are."
Among the more surprising developments in the market, Magstadt said: the popularity of sports outside the big four of football, baseball, basketball and hockey. That might also explain why the crowds have grown.
"Soccer, F1 [racing] and UFC are huge now," Magstadt said. "We're selling more Formula 1 cards than any other card on our table right now."
Collectors couldn't wait to flood The National
When the doors opened Wednesday, Morgensen said, it was "like the running of the Pamplona bulls. We just put our heads down and made our way to the grading stations." As many others did.
Although the business of sports collectibles has seen a major resurgence, fueled in part by the COVID shutdowns last year, one aspect of it has remained shackled. PSA Authentication and Grading Services, the industry's biggest name in item authentication and grading, shut down part of its services back in March after being inundated with service requests.
For collectors seeking "slabs" — numerically graded cards encased in plastic holders — the PSA shutdown threw a wrench into the market. The company reopened some of its higher-priced grading services, and even at The National, its cheapest price point was a whopping $250 per card. (Some dealers get discounts for large-lot submissions.)
Still, the lines for PSA and the other grading services at the event started winding around the corner shortly after Wednesday's opening and didn't let up Thursday. With very few newly graded cards circulating as PSA digs out of its backlog of submissions, existing slabs are still a premium.
"If it's in a slab, I can probably sell it. See these?" said Bruce Bain of Heavy B Sports in Dixon, Illinois, pointing to a few rows of graded cards [and not just from PSA]. "I sold an entire box of them yesterday alone. These are the less expensive ones, and I'll probably sell most of them by the weekend."
Sports collectibles for every price point
The National isn't just for the average collector looking for a little cheap swag. It also caters to the heavy hitters.
Although Heritage Auctions showcased some of the biggest-ticket items at the event, including Magic Johnson's game-worn jersey from the 1980 NBA Finals (estimated at $600,000 or more) and a 1910 Old Mill Series 8 Joe Jackson card ($400,000 or more), HA director Chris Ivy says The National caters to all levels of collectors.
"To me, there are no barriers, especially for younger collectors who might be a bit more strapped," Ivy said. "People can still come here and have fun with a few bucks in their pocket — make trades, pick out a few cards or just look at all the collections.
"Last year was my first year not being able to come for the first time in 20 years. I am happy we're back."
You can find everything here from nickel commons to a T-206 Honus Wagner card — one of the most well-known in the entire industry — with a grade of 3 (out of a possible 10) that could fetch $5 million.
Digital assets are also taking hold of the marketplace
And it's not just for physical items. The NFT (non-fungible tokens) and digital market has been hot, too, taking off after a tepid start once people got a feel for what exactly they were buying.
"It was sort of a perfect storm," Topps Digital director of marketing Gino Ferrazzano said. "We were seeing a rise in our digital collectible apps before the pandemic. There has been a gradual rise of our digital products for about three or four years now, so it predated COVID.
"Some of our initial digital offerings [in 2019], people were ravenous for it."
There might still be suspicion toward NFTs in some circles, especially among the less digitally savvy crowd. But Ferrazzano says digital assets are here to stay — and they were a popular topic this week at the event as more people warmed up to the idea of investing in something that one might not be able to physically touch.
The company that's nearly synonymous with baseball card trading since the 1950s isn't resting on its laurels of nostalgia. The industry is changing, and they're helping drive it.
Case in point: Topps Digital's MLB Series 1, which launched in April, sold out in 70 minutes.
"It showed there's something there," Ferrazzano said.
There's also something here at The National on the whole. Card and collectible prices might have cooled off following the white-hot hysteria of late 2020 and early 2021. But Ferrazzano believes there are so many more avenues for collectors to enjoy this expanding wing of the hobby that could keep it very much afloat.
"We've seen a little softening, but nothing to indicate that we're on a downslope at all," Ferrazzano said. "I could admit that the industry is evolving on the fly. But like for us at Topps, with our brand equity, puts us in a unique position to continue innovating in this space."
Based on the size of the first two days of the event, that space appears to be growing along with it.
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