As a lifelong sports fan, there are some moments I will never forget.
Kirk Gibson’s walk-off homerun in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, the New York Rangers winning the 1994 Stanley Cup to end a 54-year championship drought and the U.S. soccer team capturing the 1999 Women’s World Cup on penalty kicks, followed by Brandi Chastain’s now-legendary goal celebration.
Add the 2023 National Sports Collectors Convention to that list.
Sure, the 43rd edition of the NSCCC was not a sporting event. Nonetheless, it did bring fans – in the form of collectors – together in one place as it does every summer.
This year’s five-day extravaganza made Chicago the hobby capital of the world, attracting a record crowd to the sun-drenched Windy City. The sprawling convention floor space, spread out across three areas totaling 600,000 square feet, featured 750 exhibitors, including Puck Junk.
Show promoter John Broggi said the attendance at this National set the record, surpassing the 1991 show in Anaheim that featured 100,000 attendees. Thursday, Friday and Saturday saw the most traffic, while Sunday saw the lightest turnout given that many hobbyists had decided to leave by the afternoon. For those who did stay until the end it turned out, as is typically the case, the best day for deals on cards and unopened wax.
There’s a lot you can learn about the hobby we love by attending the National. Here are five takeaways from this year:
Sprawling Floor PlanThe biggest National ever was overwhelming. The bigger floor plan – with the show carved up into dealers, corporate booths and breakers – had something for everyone. It was very easy to get lost and looped around (even if you were there for multiple days like I was). It took me three days to finally feel comfortable.
More room, however, did not mean more space to move around. The corporate area was crowded for days. Upper Deck did many giveaways and once again offered up redemption packs to those who brought hockey wax boxes from authorized sellers on the showroom floor.
The bigger area also made it impossible to see everything, forcing attendees to prioritize based on interest. It was easy to skip past vintage football, for example, if you were interested in hockey. The game we all love had a presence, albeit a small one, spread out across the convention.
Yes, there were plenty of Wayne Gretzky rookies, but there were also other stars that showed up in showcases. I was happy to find a Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin rookie cards from the 2006-06 Upper Deck Victory set. I paid $30 for each card – a very good deal – and consider it one of my best purchases from this National.
I also used this National to purchase more soccer – buying most of it during a Trade Night at a nearby Marriot on Friday – and scoured dollar boxes over the weekend portion of the show to pick up other cards I needed for my collection.
Vintage Hot, Modern NotOne of the biggest trends confirmed by this year’s National was the higher demand for vintage across all sports. Modern cards, especially ones issued since 2018, saw ridiculous increases during the pandemic. In a post-Covid world, prices have come down a bit and flippers have all but disappeared. In addition, recent injuries and legal woes has been a sobering reminder that spending four figures or more on young athletes can be a risky proposition. Why not spend your money on established stars and Hall of Famers?
This cooling was reflected in the prices. The volume of visitors also seemed to please dealers and there was room for some negotiating. Dealers also sold to each other before the floor opened to the public, another thing that made it easier to give attendees deals.
This trend was also noticeable when it came to wax. Unopened ultra-modern boxes, such as anything released since 2021, was available at deep discounts. I didn’t end up buying any wax, but lots of people around me did.
There were also other trends of note. Athletes like Connor Bedard (more on him later), baseball star Shohei Ohtani and soccer’s Lionel Messi were all hot. Used ticket stubs, Formula One cards and trading in hotel lobbies were not a thing this year.
Waiting for BedardConnor Bedard mania is definitely here! Everyone is waiting for the player coined a once-in-a-generation talent to take the ice this coming season with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Bedard was the first overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft, making him the most-exciting player to sign with the Blackhawks since Patrick Kane, also drafted first overall, back in 2007. It also helps that Bedard signed an exclusive deal with Upper Deck and the company had his image plastered all over the place at this show. That he will play in Chicago added a layer of hype.
Bedard’s cards, on the other hand, were harder to come by. His CHL cards (which I wrote about in a previous column) were exchanging hands at the show with hockey collectors asking for them. The demand was high, another sign of the palpable hype.
Bedard’s 2023-24 rookies, including his Young Guns cards, aren’t expected to be available until Upper Deck Series 2 in the spring. That’s because the NHLPA requires a player to have played a shift before a card with his photo or likeness can be issued. In the meantime, collectors are scratching that Bedard itch by gobbling up his Regina Pats and Team Canada cards.
Not Making the GradeNot everything at this National was positive. The hot weather throughout much of the five days – with temperatures outside in the 90s – meant the air conditioning struggled to keep up. The area where dealers shared space with breakers got particularly hot amid the crush of the crowds.
Another negative was the Tri-Star Autograph Pavilion. Sure, long lines and wait times were an issue, but the prices were even worse. It was bad enough when a few years ago when athletes started charging more to sign their rookie cards. It was a chance to exploit the secondary market.
At this National, a new upcharge was added. Former Los Angeles Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the most-popular signers, left some frustrated. Abdul-Jabbar, 76, has not done many public signings in recent years due to poor health. The only wrinkle to his appearance was that those who did purchase autograph tickets were then subject to an upcharge based on his rookie card’s grade. That grade was determined by Abdul-Jabbar’s rep, not a card grader.
The other disappointing part of the signers present this year was the lack of hockey stars. There were only two – Jaromir Jagr and Murray Bannerman – on the list. Only two in a big NHL market like Chicago was a shame and left hockey collectors out in the cold.
To make up for the lack of hockey signers, Upper Deck had Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Joseph Woll on hand to sign free autographs at their booth. It was a puzzling choice for UD considering they could have had a bigger name such as Alexis Lafreniere of the New York Rangers.
Chicago – or more specifically Rosemont – has proven again to be an ideal location for the National. I had been to Rosemont before (twice for the Chicago Sports Spectacular) and can attest to the ease with which shows can be held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. The area around the convention hall is safe, only minutes from the airport by shuttle bus and plenty of hotels and restaurants.
It was a major improvement from last year in Atlantic City, although I did prefer the convention hall there. Despite being near a beach, Atlantic City is not nearly as pretty and safe compared to Rosemont.
The National moves in 2024 to Cleveland’s I-X Center. It returns to Chicago in 2025. After that, there are a few candidates out there vying for it, including Atlanta and a potential return to Atlantic City.
We have to wait another year for the world’s largest card show to return. In the meantime, we have the memories made at a National that will be talked about and remembered for some time. It was truly a National for the ages. It may also be the most fun I ever had at a card show. It’ll be something I’ll never forget.
Clemente Lisi is a lifelong Rangers fan who first started collecting cards in 1986. He collects both vintage and modern with a focus on rookie cards. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.