The 2022 National Sport Collectors Convention has come and gone. The dealers and collectors have all returned home from Atlantic City and are counting their sales and evaluating their purchases. This year’s National convention featured many positive issues for the sports collectibles industry — or #TheHobby for many. There were also some negatives as any sensible person may expect.
Collectors Dashboard wanted to share some key observations and trends about the sports collectibles industry with specific points for the second half of 2022 and perhaps a glimpse into what’s coming in 2023. Please note that all of these observations are solely my own based on what was seen, personal discussions, and they are based on personal interactions with dealers, collectors and those who wheel and deal at the show as collector/dealers. It is easy to assume that some dealers and buyers had very different experiences and observations than you will read about here.
There is no intended ranking or order to any of these observations and trends, so point number 12 or 13 should not be considered any better, worse nor more extreme than point numbers 1, 3, 14 and so on. Another certain caveat is that some of the dealers and buyers at the National likely experienced the exact opposite of my own observations based on what they were buying and selling and based on their own prices or budgets. Sadly, I had to depart the venue at 2:00 pm on Saturday rather than closing out the show on Sunday — so seeing blowout deals as dealers are getting ready to close up their booths, who closed up early and other happenings on Sunday are not part of this set of observation.
While there were 15 points originally in this set of trends and observations, there is also an ending note about public health in what most of us want to think of as the post-COVID world. That may be unfortunate, but this would have been rather incomplete without it.
1) Attendance Was Strong
The 2022 National was said to have “closed on Sunday after drawing the largest crowd since the 1991 National, which boasted of 90,000 attendees” in Tristar’s own word. Tristar also said that 2022 had one of the largest group of guests at the TriStar Autograph Pavilion. They even referred to it as the “crowds seemed never-ending.” It was already known well before the National began that all of the VIP packages were sold out weeks ahead of the July event. It was also a given that the large hotels in the area had either very limited availability or no rooms at all remaining (I was unable to extend my stay due to no rooms). Despite the large crowds, by and large there was enough space between the booths that it was easy to move around and sometimes even felt like the crowd was small in certain places on and off during the day. Does that mean you couldn’t get stuck behind slow walkers or sometimes wedged in at some booths? No. Online tickets were $25 per day, or $30 at the door if bought on the same day.
2) The Economy & Inflation Do Matter to #TheHobby
The economy is in a different place in 2022 versus the same time as the 2021 National, and frankly not for the better. Whether it was a dealer or a card buyer, it was obvious that most buyers are more price sensitive about overall costs and purchases. Hotel rates and airplane ticket prices are sky high with no bargains to be easily found. Car rental prices were through the roof. Gas prices and food prices are biting into the wallets of collectors. And up until July the stock market and crypto losses were souring consumers. These should have all been expected based on the same observations in other industries (and more than a 9% official inflation rate), but they are directly evident today. And right in the midst of the convention, the announcement that GDP contraction of -0.9% was the second quarter in a row of contraction — which used to be the defining line of a recession before the methodology of defining a recession changed. The economy was much stronger in 2021 and there had been countless free money sent to the public, and people are already more accustomed to the semi-post-COVID world (See more below) — and this feeling of higher prices did appear to have at least some weight on the collecting community. And for those dealers with bank credit lines, that annual debt servicing fee just went up by $750 per $100,000 due to the prior week’s Federal Reserve interest rate hike.
3) An Unfavorable View of Atlantic City vs. Chicago
The first big elephant in the room was that most dealers and attendees generally did not like that the convention was in Atlantic City versus Chicago. That said, those who lived in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the other nearby states had an easier time getting to the venue in Atlantic City. It is difficult to fly into AC’s small airport from most destinations. Those who live outside of the region have to generally fly into Philadelphia or into Newark, and that leaves more than an hour (and literally a $165 to $200 cab ride from Philly alone). Atlantic City is not an attractive place and many people were worried about safety after the show closed. The city is also broken up into pods that have been modernized, followed by old and unimpressive structures, and mixed in with large vacant lots. Most collectors I spoke with specified that they didn’t want to be caught outside alone with the cash and valuables they had in their bags. If this needs verification all that is needed is an online search about crime and the homeless in Atlantic City’s own news site. Adding up all of the costs to get to Atlantic City and staying there at the same time everyone’s living costs have risen was simply much higher even removing the inflation component from the equation.
4) Dealers (and Service Providers) Are Content Creators
One prevailing theme that was witnessed in 2021 was even more the case in 2022 with digital video content creation. Many booths, some dealers and almost all breakers and service providers were busy making their video content live at the show at their booths and out on the floor. That may not seem like much of change since there were also content producers a year earlier, but some of the booths were really all about live video feeds more than they were about selling to Joe Public. Does it help their business? Only they will know, but there are only so many minutes that all the eyeballs in the hobby can spend watching or reading content. The same issue can be said about the auction houses, grading and other corporate service providers in the sports collectibles hobby with many media booths set up. The number of people walking around filming and interviews would make it easy to end up in online videos whether you wanted to be on them or not 9and whether you gave them permission or not).
5) The $10 Million Mickey Mantle Effect
Heritage Auctions had its “$10 million” 1952 Topps Mantle card proudly on display as what will be the most expensive sports card ever sold. This was a great card to see visually of course (that’s me standing next to it in the image). One issue that this auction is causing is that Mickey Mantle card prices at the convention directly reflected this boost. Whether or not it is helping or hurting the best Mickey Mantle card sales is another issue. Are higher prices and fewer sales better than more items sold at lower prices? Sales of all Mantle years were seen at the show, but the stated prices for Mickey Mantle cards of the 1951 Bowman, 1952 Topps, 1952 Bowman and the 1953 Topps cards were all at a premium even to the shows earlier this summer. In fact, there were almost no formal prices that indicated a “Buy Me Now Because I Am Cheap!” Most of the Mantle prices from Wednesday through Saturday felt more like “You Want Me, Now Pay (Way) Up!” And yes, the earliest Mantle cards still managed to be sold with more than 10 dealers I spoke with indicating that they had Mantle sales in the years just addressed. How close to the sticker prices likely varied from dealer to dealer, but “strong” was used more than once. Will this have a downstream effect on other “Grail cards” like Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, and what about the rookie cards of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and so on? This remains to be seen, and where it would likely be most evident is in those highest grades. And for that matter, investment money is already more evident than ever based on the countless number of cards and items with sales prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (and some expected to be even higher).
6) Fewer Entourages at the Show
It is still quite common for dealers to be approached by sellers who are attendees of the show rather than just other dealers. The one difference in Atlantic City versus when this was seen in 2021 at the National is that the sellers did not have as many people following them in packs as an entourage. As dealers have to rely on the foot traffic for sales and for their own purchases, it’s easier to approach a dealer when there is one or two rather than six people standing in front of a booth for the same outcome. If there are fewer entourages it will be vastly easier for dealers and buyers to more easily communicate and to show their items for sale. For those who want easier access and visibility, it’s a good trend for fewer entourages.
7) Vintage Over Modern
Some card shows tend to be more focused on modern cards than vintage cards. The National in 2022 seemed to have a much larger focus on vintage cards than 2021, and if that point is arguable then the observation would easily be that vintage card buyers could not say there was not enough vintage for their tastes. This may reflect the large price drops in most of the modern star cards. More of the younger buyers have been buying vintage cards recently because the prices have not dropped as much on many of the key cards. The price trend issue can turn on a dime, and there are zero assurances that any of the same trends will be the same in 2023. For that matter, when card buyers buy a card with a graded population of 800 to 2,000 total they are just going to see fewer transactions and less available than the cards with 50,000 graded examples. At any rate, the drop in modern card prices versus the super-star grail vintage card prices is not really the point here. The end point should be if you wanted to see lots of vintage it was there at the National.
8) Boxes and Breakers
The law of finite numbers should dictate that the numbers will eventually run out for boxes of unopened packs and cases of unopened boxes. Or will it? That logic may not be sound after seeing mountains of cards on shelves. There were enough boxes and cases in the middle of the National’s show floor that it looked like a warehouse had opened. It was massive. Did I take a picture or video like I should have? (Nope) The number of unopened cases stacked on shelf after shelf was something to see. As for card breakers, they were generally pointed more to the right-side back and there were many tables full of guys breaking their boxes and packs in live streams (internet depending). Even if the breakers were not able stream, They were recording videos.
9) On-Site Grading Has Changed
The 2020 and 2021 flurry of cards being graded has now caught up to a more manageable flow for grading companies. And the rip-your-nails-out pricing has become generally more reasonable. More graders having been hired, but collectors now also seem to be more sensible at determining whether their card’s value or condition justifies the cost. And perhaps the grading public figured out that not all “mint condition” and “pack fresh” cards will automatically get graded as a Perfect 10. Most on-site submissions are now handled entirely by entering each item into the system one at a time by each person submitting. This means that the collectors and dealers who would normally submit cards (or other items) will have to spend a much longer time on submissions at the show versus prior years when you could fill out paper forms ahead of time and drop them off all at once. This prevented me from handing over about 35 cards and related in need of grading. And frankly, the grading companies should all allow paper submissions when they are in-person like this so that the people can spend time at the show looking for more cards rather than waiting and typing out forms. There are also more grading partnerships happening with auction houses and other sales services, but that will be discussed in an upcoming article dedicated solely to recent announcements and changes being seen in grading services. And, a good trend for the collecting community, is that the number of grading services and price points per grade is now much more available.
10) Dealers Will Work With You
Prices being advertised (if visible) were generally considered high at the show. Dealers know that if they want to command a premium sale that the National is a venue this will occur. That said, most of the dealers will work with you on prices if reasonable. The 50% low-ball offers were seen directly after 4 days of being there, and not a single “Deal!” was heard for the low-ballers. Dealers know the cost of their trip, the hotel rates, transportation costs and so on. The dealers all know they have to have their inventory moving. If you were buying multiple cards or larger lots, it was easier to work a price out than just a one-card buy. The dealers are also still more than willing to take a trade and cash if that item fits into what they know they can sell (for a profit of course). If any dealers were giving cards away for dirt cheap prices, that wasn’t seen on Wednesday through Saturday. All said, the dealers are still generally willing to negotiate so long as it wasn’t an obvious “bid you down just because.” And some of the more expensive cards and items are more frequently coming with cash/pay and a trade. If prices remain high, the buy and trade component of the hobby is likely to remain in place or become even more common ahead.
11) Junk Wax Era Cards and Autographs?
Cards from the 1980s and 1990s were generally mass produced and in many cases they are still junk for the most part. That said, many tables had mixed in with their vintage and modern cards lots of high-grade 1980s and 1980s superstar cards. There were also countless autographed rookie cards from the Junk Wax Era. One entire box full of signed Jeter rookies right there on display, and at a big premium. Lots of Ken Griffey (Jr.) signed cards. Lots of others. And we were already told by Tristar that this year’s signing lineup was one of the largest ever, many of whom were signing autographs at the show. Key tickets seem to be more prominently placed than in the past, although many dealers have had tickets before.
12) Dealer Interest Remains Strong in the Hobby!
When times get tough and when prices go south, many sellers can be gloomy and unenthusiastic. We already know the economy is soft in 2022 versus 2021. Most of the dealers are not betting that sales are going to dry up now nor over the next year. Modern card dealers have seen many star card prices rise and fall, but it was obvious that this year has been harder on modern card dealers. Vintage card dealers still have the complaint that they have a hard time replacing their inventory. So what about the rest of 2022 and into 2023? The Tristar website for the 2023 National’s convention news states — “2023 Booth Sold Out… All Booth Space for the 2023 Chicago National have been sold at the Booth Lottery held in Atlantic City. No new names will be added to the waiting list.” Does that sound like an overall weak dealer interest in the hobby? Imagine what it would mean if dealers were saying they had no interest in the large show formats going forward. Fortunately, that is a good trend in place for the sports collectibles hobby for the second half of 2022 and looking out into 2023.
13) Trade Nights Are Still Big
The first trade night was on Thursday evening there at the Atlantic City convention center where the show was being held. The line was quite long to get in and the pictures from the room were very crowded. There is no consensus as to who did well and who did not because many of the trade night attendees are often not speaking to the public at the same rate as dealers. And generally speaking, most trade night cards on display are more modern cards than vintage. A pop-up trade night took place on Friday in an area in the Bally’s hotel and casino. This trade night started slow even at 6:45 or 7:00 pm, but (after a few social media posts) there was suddenly no space for guys to even set up along the walls. This all happened without any tables or chairs and guys setting up like an impromptu swap-meet with their cards laid out on the carpet. That night went well past midnight and cards and cash were moving. How much is anyone’s guess. Oh, and at trade nights be prepared to hear “Bro” more than you are used to.
14) More Ladies in #TheHobby
If you think that the conventions were just for boys, men and dads, that’s old school. There were more tables being run by women. There are still very few females walking around as the collectors themselves compared to men, but there are some. I met several husband and wife teams who either set up in booths, and many families with their kids, and there were some couples who were wheeling and dealing together on the show floor and trade nights. There are more sports collectibles which target the women athletes now as well and that has to be one of the forces helping to draw women into the sports conventions. Don’t think you aren’t going to see of a lot middle aged and older guys with bellies, but you are seeing more diversity in the hobby. As more female-targeted and non-sports cards are being created, that is likely helping more females get into the hobby. And yes, there are ladies who are just as big into sports and sports cards.
15) Venue Amenities Matter (A Lot)
The Atlantic City Convention Center was definitely large enough to handle the venue, but some serious issues impacted the show. Some said T-Mobile coverage was fine, but there was a serious issue with the internet access, receiving phone calls, and even sending texts with photos. This means that getting comps was a serious challenge. Making payments via Venmo, PayPal, and even accessing banking apps was very difficult. Having to outside of the venue to send a payment, send emails and send texts was not exactly a favorable situation and this trend there was that many dealers and buyers had a very hard time on live pricing and accessing some of the services and apps they rely on. If this occurs again then the downside trend for the convention will be that the National may almost seem like the internet back before smart phones were the only cell phones. Another issue is being able to get calories and getting water. If you have attended any conferences or sporting events, you already know about sky high food and drink prices. That was the case and then some (a $13 tall boy, domestic). One issue that occurred more than a few times was that people were mixing drinks and they would not simply grab a bottle of water. It made the lines difficult to wait in. And the food lines mid-day were often well out into the venue and competing for space with dealer booths.
One last special note that delayed this reporting is public health. We are all over and done with COVID keeping us down and locked up, but COVID is not exactly done with the public. The social media reports and text messages Sunday and Monday after the show were full of great snags and purchases. Starting Tuesday and well into Wednesday the number of attendees reporting on social media that they caught COVID spiked. It is obvious that traveling and being in large groups and large public venues comes with greater risks. Most people do not know where they caught COVID and it could have been off-site or during the travel. Those who have the underlying health conditions which make COVID much more dangerous need to assume they are taking a greater chance at large packed venues. We did all already know that, right? It is becoming rare to see people in masks and finding hand sanitizer stations that have sanitizer in them is not an assurance. And before solely blaming sports conventions for being super-spreading events, I have a friend who recently went to a Las Vegas corporate sales convention and over half of the attendees were sick with COVID within a couple days.