Tim’s Take: The 2023 National Sports Collectors Convention

My every-other year visit to the National Sports Card Collector’s Convention wrapped up Sunday afternoon and I wanted to join the cast of thousands that will take to social media to regale you in the fun they had. But I think I’m going to take a different approach from just showing off what I bought because this wasn’t my first trip to the largest, and most important hobby show of the year. It wasn’t my second, or my third, or even my fourth. This was my ninth time participating in this colossal event.

In that time I’ve seen many, many cool things, I’ve met dozens and dozens of cool people, and I’ve developed many hobby friends. In recent years, I’ve met many listeners of the Puck Junk Podcast as well as those that interact on social media. It’s been one of the best hobby experiences that I look forward to annually, and especially every other year when it becomes a “home game” for me.

But there’s no shortage of controversy and discourse in this amazing hobby and that makes it interesting, and fun. So let me get this part out of the way first. There was a popular narrative on social media all week, which was, of course, the abundance of detracting opinions and negativity. The list is long. There was the stuff about breakers getting loaded boxes. There were the instances of the “influencers” seemingly getting most of the bigger promo pack hits. There was a lot of talk about preferential treatment given to YouTubers with large followings for “on-site grading” promotions. There were the countless examples of the seemingly incessant need of “collectors” to suckle the teat of hobby celebrities and brag about how they are all now “best friends”.

Were all of these things true? Maybe. But that’s not the point and I’m not here to discuss that (at least for now). What I will address instead are the two biggest issues people continually pointed out, the “10x comp pricing” and the “extreme heat,” as well as some observations I had.

The Heat Is On

[Photo by Clemente Lisi]
First things first…the heat. It was hot, no doubt. Since we were shoving the most people ever into a space that was also the biggest ever and doing so on some very hot days…something was bound to break…and apparently it did. I heard there were some issues with a few A/C condenser units where parts couldn’t be found and had to be ordered. Old swamp coolers just can’t handle everyone’s hot breath all at once and by the time the fans came out, it was getting toasty.

In my experience on Saturday and Sunday, the main floor wasn’t that bad. It was the extra sections they added this year, including the section beside the Breaker Pavilion and a large part of the other hall. Those had some rough moments.

So, was it hot? Yeah, kind of. I can’t speak for Wednesday through Friday, only the weekend, but it wasn’t enough to be dripping wet and miserable like many would have led you to believe. Annoying? Yes. Uncomfortable? Maybe at times. Unbearable? No. I’m sure something will be done (or at least should be strongly looked into) to prevent that in the future.

The Price is Wrong?

[Photo by Clemente Lisi]
Rule #1 – A trading card is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it.

That’s it. That’s the only rule to pricing. I’ve said this for years and I will continue to. We can’t put pricing into a unitary box. It’s just too difficult to generalize with statements like, “Everything is overpriced.”

Overpriced to whom? If you went to a dealer with prices way above your own perception of comps, of course you would think they are high. But maybe I want that card and I’ll pay that price. There’s much more nuance to interpreting pricing. This is also the biggest card show of the year in the United States. A show that’s been on going annually for 43 years and has grown to the point of being able to fill a 600,000-square-foot convention center in a Chicago suburb for five days at the end of a steamy July. That kind of extravaganza is costly to pull off and there are tons of expenses involved with getting it done; way more than pressing a few buttons, sleeving a card, and popping it in an envelope with a stamp or two. 

Too many folks’ idea of comps comes primarily from an online auction marketplace that people told them was the be-all-end-all to deciding what the market is (remember when they did the same thing with the Beckett Monthly Price Guide?). A marketplace, mind you, that is easily manipulated and functions somehow despite a sell/buy/ship relationship between buyers and sellers that should be symbiotic but is desperately flawed. The system itself, that is essentially a race to the bottom, frequently forces undervaluation (and occasionally overvaluation on more rare items) because of the perceived seller pressure to make a sale. Online card sales exist almost on their own island and largely I think they should be treated as such.

In-person at a show is a different market space for a variety of reasons. No shipping shenanigans as you get what you get right now, right there. There is no hold time for buyer’s remorse. There is no chance of damage from a mail carrier. You generally aren’t going to have 10 other people vying for the same card at the same time. There is no waiting for a tracking number that may or may not be real. Your shipment won’t get stolen. You can see the cards, touch them, feel them, smell them if you like (I don’t recommend tasting). You don’t have to rely on someone else’s poorly-lit pictures. You know what you are getting. This is a live market with real-time pricing. But in order to have this opportunity, again it requires work and lots of expenses that, as you are reading this, I’m sure you can easily think of.

If you can buy a card online for $20, there’s no logical reason (at least to me) to think that same card won’t cost a little more at a show. It just makes sense. Now when that price crosses the line between a little more and A LOT MORE, you have an opportunity to not only educate yourself, but you may also attempt to work with the seller on their prices. It never killed anyone to ask if there’s room to negotiate (or maybe it has?).

Of course, it doesn’t always work, but haggling over a card with a few hundred or thousand between average sales and the sticker price makes way more sense than those that choose to fly their anger flags over a few dollars. If you’re going to do that and aren’t willing to just ask, you probably need to stick to the interwebs or at least keep walking to the next dealer, because unless it’s a super rare card, chances are there are more somewhere on the show floor that might be more your speed.

Night at the Museum

[Photo by Clemente Lisi]
Something that I think gets forgotten in all the wheelin’ and dealin’ on the show floor is that the National is not only a card show but it’s basically a sports memorabilia museum that, if the price is right, you could potentially own a piece of. If you were building a sports card museum, every iconic card you would want on display can be found at this show.

If you were to build a sports memorabilia museum, some of the most interesting and important pieces are probably at this show. From vintage to modern, there is no shortage of anything at the National, and this year was no different. In fact, one thing I noticed was that game used memorabilia items were super-hot and people clamored to get their hands on things from their favorite athletes, especially when they had real life authentication. For me, although I get it, I still wish memorabilia wasn’t so expensive. I’m clearly not the market for a lot of these items, but just to be afforded the opportunity to see some of it in person is amazing.

Leave Some for the Kids

It’s been said already but I will echo it again. There were a lot of kids at the show. I don’t recall being at a National where there were this many, except maybe my first one back in 1993. I’m talking under the age of 18, kids, not the proverbial kids I normally refer to that equate to anyone under the age of 35.

There were tons of families, many with multiple kids. There were gaggles of young teens going from table to table looking for deals and trades. It’s not a surprise now that we know attendance records were broken (RIP Anaheim record) but to see that many younger people interested and actively engaged in our hobby is certainly promising to me and shows potential strength going forward. Plus, all their cards locked away in their portable vaults are worth way more than mine were when I was their age.

Vintage is the New Modern?

[Photo by Clemente Lisi]
There were so much vintage cards. There is always a lot of vintage cards at shows like these.  The National specifically has been around long enough to accumulate a large number of dealers cut from the vintage cloth. Their longevity has afforded them the real estate in the front few aisles of each and every show. I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just is. But it’s seemingly to their advantage now, as vintage has become a hot commodity in today’s hobby as more and more people have seemingly woken up to the stability of older cards.

Vintage holds value as there’s little to no weekly/daily performance numbers to live up to or career stats to build on for the players. Then again, it hasn’t hurt that many popular content creators have seemingly pivoted their ultra-modern themed content to push more for vintage acquisition. I like to see that because generally with vintage comes education on the players, the cards, the sets, and the history behind them. But on the flip side, many of these dealers are deep in a rut of recycling stale inventory. I’ve been to enough of shows to recognize some of the same items that weren’t selling 15 years ago, still sitting in cases with the same pricing labels from 2008. Maybe it’s time for an overhaul but I’m hardly the authority on that.

Break Dancing

Breakers are still hard at work in their house and with the costs of sealed wax continually on the rise, I can’t see that changing anytime soon. But it may be time for a remodel. In the few walkthroughs I made in the Breaker Pavilion, it seems that there was less of the Crazy Eddie, Don West, P.T. Barnum carnival barker breaks going on. Maybe I just missed them all but that break style might be running its course.

Of course, that’s speculation based on my own observation, but with Fanatics busting down the door to the live breaking space of the hobby, it may be the sign of something new. Clearly, the money seems to still be there, and the popularity has probably never been higher.

So, here’s a novel suggestion from someone that has participated in a few breaks but doesn’t regularly partake. If you’re going to break, become an expert on your product rather than simply screaming “LET’S GO” every time you pull a low serial numbered card or one of the “whoever is hot at the moment” guy. Anyone can do that. It hasn’t seemed to happen yet, but I feel people will only continue dumping money into something, that they get very little in return for, for so long before it becomes bland enough that they go looking for the next shiny thing. If Fanatics somehow can cultivate that, take the best practices, and bring in the knowledge and education, it’s easy to see where I would put my money if I was interested in that space.

It’s clear that there is something for everyone at this show. Whether it’s the endless exhibits of sports memorabilia, cards galore, vendor incentives and giveaways, or the general circus environment, there’s no denying that the National brings it.  I had the most fun I have ever had at a National this year and that’s because I went with no expectations probably for the first time ever. I didn’t have a goal. While I did buy some things, I didn’t intend on buying anything specific. I put no pressure on myself to accomplish anything other than to just go and take it all in.

Mission accomplished.

Tim Parish is a writer-at-large for Puck Junk. Follow him on Twitter @therealdfg.

Top photo courtesy of Ray Schulte / National Sports Collectors Convention.

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Author: Tim Parish

Tim is a hockey nut and music aficionado who, despite a busy life, somehow still finds time for collecting. He's been a sports card collector for over three decades and his collecting habits have evolved many times over the years. Tim has collected all the major sports, but has always come back to hockey and hockey card collecting. It’s a lifelong hobby, so he’s in no hurry and not going anywhere anytime soon. Highly opinionated and never wrong, Tim’s world view of hockey is as keen as any talking head or insider on a major sports network; the only thing missing are the “unnamed sources.” Sarcasm is also his strong suit. You can find Tim and his warped ramblings on Twitter @TheRealDFG.

3 thoughts on “Tim’s Take: The 2023 National Sports Collectors Convention”

  1. Great article. Wish I could have gone to the National. Went to Atlanta in 1992. Long time ago. It was unreal then.

    1. Thanks. My first was the following year, at McCormick Place in Chicago. It was like when you go to Disney as a kid. The wonders and amazement were quite overwhelming back then. Now, it’s still pretty overwhelming but I know how to quell my emotions way better than I did as a teenager. Well, maybe slightly better.

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