I collect sports cards and have been doing so in some fashion my entire life. The fact that local hobby shops still exist and annual card shows draw a crowd would lead you to believe the hobby is healthy. Try to find that hobby shop or attend that card show, however and you'll find dwindling attendance and a noticeable lack of new product. The major players in card manufacturing have gobbled up their competitors and secured sport-exclusive license deals (Topps has baseball, while Panini has basketball). Like it or not, these monopolies exist as a result of the card boom and subsequent market crash of the early to mid-1990s. Back then, it was a sellers’ market; buyers motivated by speculation began to scout draft classes for the next Ken Griffey, Jr., Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky. They paid premium prices on packs for a chance to land a hot rookie or a randomly inserted card sporting an autograph or memorabilia. Dozens of companies printed millions of cards, severely saturating the market. Without scarcity, the cards became practically worthless. The 1994-1995baseball strike and NHL lockout did little to help matters, either. Collectors became jaded as the hobby introduced redemption cards (IOUs from athletes who did not sign their cards in time for insertion). Casual fans, who were buying cards by the truckload, became disinterested and stopped collecting. Manufacturers went bankrupt or consolidated and hundreds of card shops around the country closed their doors forever.
Today, the hobby is a shadow of its former self. Hobby shops are limited in number and operate on banker's hours. Card shows focus on consignments, grading and autograph sessions instead of selling boxed product. The manufacturers left are shrewd, separating their limited product lines into low, middle and high-end. The majority of adult collectors in the top two tiers "bust" boxes or cases for the chance at a handful of inserts or rookie cards. When it comes to today's sports card collector, it's less about the sport and more about ROI.
It's not all doom and gloom, however. Manufacturers managed to keep kids interested by introducing gaming elements into their lines (e.g. Topps Attax® , Panini Adrenalyn®). They also keep prices low so children (and their parents) can afford them. Although technology and the Internet has an upper hand on today's youth, there are still plenty of kids excited about playing sports and following their favorite pro athletes. The ideals the hobby was founded on are still around; you just have to look harder to find them. Here's a prime example.
While my wife and were still dating in college, she would go yard-saling and try to find things for me that I was interested in. One particular Saturday, she proudly came back to school with a few dusty binders full of old football cards. I wasn't particularly interested in card collecting at the time, and the cards were mass-produced and in rough shape. It pains me to say it, but I wasn't very grateful. Instead of taking it to heart and tossing them, however, she decided to keep them herself, storing them in her parent's attic.
Flash forward eight years, and my wife and I share a home of our own. Her parents, anxious to clean out that attic, dropped off my wife's childhood on our doorstep. Amid a sea of old stuffed animals, knick-knacks and books, I noticed the binders I blew off years earlier. I flipped through the pages again looking for cards of note. Unfortunately, my initial suspicions years earlier were confirmed; the books have little monetary value. I quickly put them on the shelf and waited for a chance to get rid of them for good. A few weeks ago, I got ambitious and put the cards into the trunk of our car. I soon forgot about them, and it wasn't until my wife sent a text to ask if she could give them away to her co-worker's son that I remembered again. Busy at work, I told her to go ahead.
The following day, I got another text from her. It read as follows:
"You made a little kid very, very happy...he was so excited, he couldn't sleep. He spent all night picking out cards in his room and telling (his parents) all the stats he knew for the player. He said he doesn't need anything else for his birthday."
It turns out her co-worker gave her son the binders the night before his birthday. He spent hours poring over the cards and reading stat lines from the players he knew. In just one night, he had more fun with those cards that I've ever had with my meticulously organized binders of prized rookie cards and autographs. Here was something I was anxious to get rid of, and yet it made a child so happy and content that he was willing to forgo his birthday presents. I realized then I'd forgotten what the hobby was all about: celebrating our heroes and their athletic accomplishments. Suddenly, memories of my childhood came flooding back. I remembered back to when my father's co-worker gave me a set of dog-eared Donruss baseball cards (my first ones) when I was about five. I cherished those cards, reading the words on the back that I could make out to anyone who would listen. That simple gesture started a lifelong interest in the hobby and the sport of baseball itself that continues to this day. Somewhere along the way, however, I became a speculator; I can see now I treat the hobby as a marketplace and the cards as a commodity. The passion for the sport and its players has slowly disappeared. I don't even remember the day I stopped collecting baseball cards altogether and choose football instead, but I do know why (the quick maturation rate of their rookie card values). In the end, I gave up something I cared about simply because it wasn't worth enough. But all hobbies share one thing in the common; their true value cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
After hearing about that boys' reaction, I can take solace in the fact that the spirit of the hobby is still alive and well. Now I need to tap into some of that spirit inside me, if there's any left. I think the first step is to spend less time thinking like an investor and more about what created my drive to collect in the first place: a genuine love of the game.