Sports Cards on the Decline? Guess Again.By
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that bad news sells. After spending two in-person sessions with a Sports Illustrated journalist named Luke Winn, I was excited to see the story he had written on the 20th Anniversary of the Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. After sharing all the exciting positives in the industry and how excited we are about the future, the editorial ended up being a total hatchet job on the industry.
One of the points (in bold, no less) included in the article was so far off base, I felt like I got sucker-punched by a buddy. They printed, “Card shops have died off at an alarming rate, down from some 5,000 in the early ’90s to 500 now, according to Sports Collector’s Digest.” I know this to be inaccurate because I currently send out more than 1,200 marketing mailings to active sports card shops in the United States and to more than 300 sports card shops in Canada each month. Mind you those are just the shops Upper Deck works directly with as there are plenty of other shops that don’t work directly with us who carry sports cards along with other products. There was also an assertion made by Sports Collector’s Digest about what the total revenue was in the market in years prior and what it is today. As a privately held company, Upper Deck doesn’t release any financial information so how did they get this and why did those numbers seem so off base? We were mystified and got on the phone with F+W Publications, the parent company that publishes Sports Collectors Digest.
We found that T.S. O’Connell, a senior reporter for Sports Collector’s Digest who specializes in vintage trading cards, had provided this data to Sports Illustrated. On the phone we asked him how on earth he came up with these figures that have since been quoted in publications like Forbes and by news agencies like Fox News. O’Connell simply responded: “I got them from off the top of my head.” My boss and I looked at each other flabbergasted. When we pressed him about why he didn’t think to contact us or fact-check those numbers that make the trading card industry look like it’s on the brink of extinction, he said that he was “sorry.”
I’m sorry too that the thousand-plus shop owners of sports card outlets throughout North America working to promote the hobby got the short end of the stick with this highly questionable reporting. The truth is sports cards and sports card shops are doing okay and collectors are still enjoying the hobby. Things are not great, but they certainly aren’t terrible. Sports trading cards have been around for more than 100 years; they are not going anywhere.
Here’s the truth per sport on the current status of sports cards that I know firsthand working in the industry, talking daily to these shop owners who are selling the products. Basketball sales have been down the last couple of years, but there is still a following. Baseball has been status quo in terms of sales, but prospects like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper have collectors chomping at the bit. Football has seen steady growth and continued demand over the last two years in particular. The biggest surprise of all has been hockey. Blockbuster players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have international appeal and there is high demand for their collectibles. Niche sports like golf and mixed martial arts have also caused quite a buzz as of late with new collector groups emerging. Upper Deck sales on new sports card releases has been strong.
But what about the shrinking number of hobby shops? Yes, there are fewer today than there were 15 years ago. Absolutely. Commerce has changed and the way people buy and sell products has been revamped. How many cards were being sold on e-Bay in 1990 when sports card shops were at their peak? Zero, because there was no eBay. Online auction sites like eBay and online marketplaces like Beckett.com offer a new stream of e-commerce for collectors and dealers so fewer retailers are needed in the category.
And I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that those shops that are still catering to collectors’ needs are fantastic. They run special promotions in their stores and have celebrity athletes make in-store visits to sign autographs. They also make collecting cards a real experience in a fun atmosphere. Upper Deck sponsored more than 30 promotional nights at hobby shops in September alone where we sent out prizes, apparel, gift certificates for refreshments and everybody walked away happy.
You still don’t believe me? I know, I know, you saw it on Fox News recently. Well here is my list of the Top Ten Reasons Why I Know the Sports Card Category will be Fine:
10. You don’t have to wait 30 years before the cards you buy today are worth something. There are Upper Deck cards that sell for thousands of dollars, pulled right from today’s packs. So many cool innovations have now made opening a pack of trading cards a thrilling experience. Upper Deck randomly inserts high-value cards into packs with swatches of the player’s actual game-worn jersey, autographs, multi-signed autographs, cut autographs of deceased legends, fossils from dinosaurs, hair from thoroughbreds. So many unusual finds, you just won’t believe it!
9. Go to YouTube and search for “Upper Deck Box Break” and you’ll find more than 15,000 videos of collectors opening up Upper Deck products and showing collectors online what they got. People are now sharing the collecting experience through video and the crazy thing is, people are watching them – thousands of people are watching them.
8. Last week when Upper Deck offered up a product called 2009-10 NBA Exquisite for the low, low price of $600 per pack, the entire run sold out in less than four hours. That’s right, I said $600 a pack. In this economy. Three-pack cases of the product are now selling for well over $2,100 on eBay. How can things be so bad if people are spending over $700 on a pack of Upper Deck basketball cards?
7. Hockey cards have been huge over the last four years in particular and the category has seen double digit growth. We are poised to have one of the best rookie classes in years and retailers are very excited about it. Can you believe it? Hockey cards. If you don’t believe me, call Wayne Wagner at Wayne’s Sports Cards in Edmonton, AB and ask him how hockey cards sales have been for him. He can be reached at (780) 483-3177.
6. Four years ago Upper Deck started a loyalty program called the Diamond Club for the top collectors in the industry. This group of 125 elite collectors distinguished themselves first and foremost by spending at least five figures annually on Upper Deck cards for their collections. But just spend five minutes with these passionate advocates for collecting and you’ll start opening packs without even realizing it. It is now a program where we receive bins of applications to try to get in each year from collectors spending tens of thousands of dollars each year on trading cards.
5. Other media are blown away by the fun of the sports collectibles industry. Click here to see what Bill Simmons from ESPN thought about the same industry show I spent time with Luke Winn at.
4. Upper Deck has embraced new technologies and online opportunities. We developed an online interactive community catering to kids designed to make trading cards relevant called Upper Deck U; check it out at www.upperdecku.com. So while Sports Illustrated went out of its way to report that the category is on the decline, it was okay with putting UpperDeckU on the cover of Sports Illustrated for Kids earlier this year. Maybe they’re not on the same page.
3. Kids still think sports cards are cool which is very important. The coolest kids I know are the 2009 Little League World Champion Park-View All-Stars. Click here to see what they thought about appearing on an Upper Deck trading card.
2. Eighteen months ago we were bracing for the worst with the recession really kicking in. We concerned like every other industry and we were concerned we could lose as many as 30-to-40% of hobby shops. We only lost about 5% over that time period and actually saw new shops opening up. We continue to get new applications to open up accounts with us. When the economy is bad, collecting can survive because people don’t give up on their hobbies. With more and more people electing to take “staycations” these days, card collecting offers the perfect at-home activity for families.
1. Wait till you see 2010 Upper Deck Baseball releasing next February. We announced just this week we will be investing a tremendous amount to add a high-end line of inserts called “Exquisite” to the product and that the content is going to be amazing. We’ll be announcing even more exciting promotions around it in the coming months, but 2010 Upper Deck Baseball – in a word – is going to be awesome!
During this recession we have seen banks fail, the automotive industry on life support and newspapers folding. But trading cards go on. There is something indescribable about the bond between a father and child where fond sports memories are intertwined with that 2½-by-3½ trading card. There is something wonderful about trying to stop your hands from shaking after you open a pack of Upper Deck cards and discover an autograph card of your favorite player. It’s an experience to some, an investment to others, a business to the rest, but everyone with an affinity for the hobby got involved with it because it’s fun. And industries that provide their consumers with fun are not going anywhere. They are here to stay.