The National Sports Collectors Convention is returning to Chicago in one week. Held annually since 1980, The National is the largest sports collectibles convention in the world, with over 600 tables and more than 300 dealers selling sports cards, autographs, apparel, and anything else sports-related that you can think of. Fortunately, The National is five days long — starting on Wednesday, July 26 and lasting until Sunday, July 30 — so you don’t have to do everything in one day.
If you plan on going to The National, here are some tips that will help you get the most out of the experience.
1. Determine How Many Days to Go
The National lasts five days (July 26 to July 30, 2017). In 2008, I went to the show for one day, and had just barely enough time to see all of the dealer tables, and nothing else. I went for five days in 2011 and 2013, and for four days in 2015. Four or five days is more than enough time to do everything you might want to do, including wait in line for autographs, participate in various redemption programs, sift through the many quarter and dollar boxes, participate in raffles and giveaways by the larger exhibitors, socialize with friends and other convention-goers and generally not have to be in a rush all of the time. The National is a lot of fun, but it’s even more fun if you can pace yourself.
If you are a casual collector, one day might be enough. Figure out what redemption programs you want to participate in, and what autographs you might want to get, and plan accordingly. My podcast co-host Tim (@TheRealDFG) usually goes to The National for one day, with his kids in tow, and usually manages to accomplish what he sets out to do.
2. Buy Admission Ahead of Time
You save money if you purchase your tickets online: $3 off a one-day ticket($19 instead of $22) and $10 if you buy a five-day VIP Package ($129 instead of $139) or SuperVIP Package ($189 instead of $199). But you will also save time, since you won’t have to wait in one line to buy your ticket or VIP pass, and then another line to enter the show. Plus, if you buy a VIP package, you can actually enter 30 minutes earlier than non-VIPs. This minimizes waiting in line and gives you more time to browse the show floor.
3. Dress Comfortably
The 2017 National will be held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Almost the entire show floor is made of concrete, so comfortable shoes will make walking and standing more bearable. The temperature in the exhibit halls is pretty cool, too, so you can wear pants/slacks instead of shorts if you wish, and a sports jersey over your t-shirt, and not feel hot. (Outside might be a different story, though.)
4A. Where to Park if you Drive
The Donald E. Stephens Convention Center has a connected parking garage. The last time I checked, the cost was $20 a day (it might cost more now). That may seem high, but it is worth it if you are going to go back and forth to your car many times, or plan on purchasing large or heavy items that you don’t want to lug around, or if you are bringing bulky items to get autographed, like sports equipment. Having a car nearby is also good to stash the things you buy throughout the day.
If you don’t mind walking a little — 0.5 miles according to Google Maps, though I always felt it was closer to three or four city blocks — you can park at the CTA Rosemont Station just north of the Convention Center. It costs $5 to park in the lot for up to 14 hours.
4B. Get to the Show via Mass Transit
Despite being in the suburbs, the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center is easy to get to via mass transit. The CTA’s Blue Line Train and numerous buses — both CTA (Chicago) and Pace (suburban) — have stops at Rosemont Station, which is just a few blocks north of the Convention Center. Visit the CTA or Pace websites to plan your trip.
5. Have a Game Plan
The convention floor is huge, and it is easy to get lost or sidetracked. So have a game plan. Keep the following in mind — or better yet, write it down:
• Are you participating in wrapper redemption programs? What time do they start?
• Are you buying any autographs from a player? What day and time is he signing? Did you buy your autograph tickets yet?
• Did you purchase a VIP Package? Most freebies for VIPs will be in the goodie bag you get when you pick up your pass. But some exhibitors want you to stop by their booth to pick up your con-exclusive trading cards, so be sure to make time for that.
One good idea is to download and print out the convention floor plan and know where your destinations are. Plus, if you see something that interests you, circle the booth number on the map so you remember where to come back later.
6. Bring Your Updated Want Lists
You never know what you will find at The National. Every time that I have gone, I have found something that I needed for my collection, and was glad that I brought an updated list. Up until a year ago, I was one of those “dinosaurs” who would print out my various want lists (singles needed, team sets wanted, etc.). Now I have a tablet computer loaded with all of my lists as digital files, which is much lighter to carry around. Plus, I don’t need to re-print my list every time I go to a show.
7. Bring a Lunch
Unless you like paying $6 for a slice of bad pizza (yes, there is such a thing) or $3 for a can of soda at the Convention Center, you should pack a lunch — or at the very least bring some Cliff bars to tide you over until you leave the convention and can get some real food. Also bring an empty water bottle that you can fill at the show, either at a water fountain or a bathroom sink. Off to the side of the show floor will be tables that you can sit at and eat.
If packing and eating a sandwich sounds dreadful, here are a few other inexpensive options that won’t strain your budget or take you too far from the show:
• There is a Starbucks in the main lobby of the Convention Center.
• There is a McDonald’s 0.8 miles north of the convention center. It’s a two-minute drive or a 15-minute walk.
• GTS Distribution will have complimentary food and beverages at their booth at The National.
Whatever you do, just make sure you stay energized and hydrated.
8. Bring a Backpack
Most dealers will give you a plastic bag if you make a purchase, but it becomes a chore to carry stuff by hand. Plus, a backpack can fit your lunch, your lists (or tablet), stuff to get signed and anything else you might want to bring. Just don’t bring too much; you’re going to need room in your bag for the cool collectibles you buy.
9. Find Some Peace and Quiet
The National can be loud and overwhelming. There are a lot of people, especially during the weekend. Lots of people can get noisy. Every few minutes, there’s an announcement over the P.A. system about this athlete “now signing” or some case break about to happen. Often times, a vendor is holding a raffle or giveaway, usually encouraging people to (needlessly) cheer or make noise.
Sometimes, I need a break from all of that.
So here are two places you can slip off and get a little peace and quiet. To the left of the exhibit hall are glass doors, which lead to the various conference rooms at the Convention Center. Go through those doors and you’ll find a carpeted lobby area where you can chill for a bit away from the noise. Or, if you bought a VIP Package, then you can access the “VIP Lounge” — really just a carpeted room with tables and chairs. Either of these places are off the beaten path enough that you can get some quiet time, again without straying too far from the show.
10. Have Fun
It’s a card show, after all. A very big card show. So have fun. Try to talk to some people and make new friends. (I’ll be there; say hi.) Even if you just “wing it” and don’t bring your lists or a lunch, or don’t really have a plan, that’s OK too.
Oh, and if you are a hockey collector, be sure to check out my advice for hockey fans attending the 2017 National.
Here is general information about The 2017 National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago:
Wednesday, July 26: 4 pm – 8 pm
Thursday, July 27: 10 am – 6 pm
Friday, July 28: 10 am – 6pm
Saturday, July 29: 10 am – 6 pm
Sunday, July 30: 10 am – 5 pm
Note that those with VIP passes get in 1/2 hour earlier each day
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
9301 Bryn Mawr Ave.
Rosemont, IL 60018 (map)
• National Sports Collectors Convention website
• Purchase admission
• Autograph guests, schedule & tickets
• Donald E. Stephens Convention Center Website
• City of Rosemont Restaurant Guide
• City of Rosemont Hotel Listing
Are you going to The 2017 National? Leave a comment and let me know. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.