Darren Rovell’s mind is always in constant motion.
He tries to stay one step ahead and identify the next big thing to hit the market.
“For me, it’s all about trying to do things that are a little bit different from other people,” said Rovell, a former sports business reporter for ESPN who is now a senior executive producer and reporter for The Action Network.
Case in point: Dwayne Johnson’s 1994 Bumble Bee football card when he played for the University of Miami. With plenty of wrestling cards on the market, this is the lone sports card of “The Rock.”
Johnson was part of the Hurricanes team set that was distributed as complete sheets. There were 20,000 sheets — each card has perforated edges — given out for free in Miami.
“Then you start working back and ‘The Rock’ wasn’t anyone really until like 2000,” Rovell said. “That’s a six-year period of time where he’s a no one. Then you have the complication that you have Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis on the sheet, so people are then ripping those cards out and throwing the other ones out.”
Cards of Johnson have become rare and really tough to track down in high grades. As of the end of April, PSA had only graded 123 Bumble Bee Johnson cards. There were 30 in gem-mint 10 and 32 graded a 9.
Rovell knew he had discovered a diamond in the rough. On June 29, 2020, Rovell purchased a PSA 9 Johnson for $730.
“Then I started to tell the world why I thought it was a great card, then the world bought it,” Rovell said. “And I’m sitting here with a PSA 9.”
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In hindsight, Rovell should have purchased one of the few 10 versions, because one sold via an eBay auction for $45,000 on Super Bowl Sunday. Just eight months earlier, PSA 10s of that card were going for $1,500. On PSA’s website, its price guide values a 10 at $60,000 and going up. PSA 9s are valued at $7,500.
Rovell calls finding the Bumble Bee card of “The Rock” his greatest success of the pandemic. He’s also discovered great odd-ball cards such as a 1978 Superman sticker, a 1987-88 Entenmann’s rookie card of Michael Jordan, and a Sam Vincent 1990 Hoops card with Michael Jordan in the background wearing No. 12. That was the only time Jordan wore that number because his No. 23 jersey had been stolen from the Bulls’ locker room prior to the game.
Rovell loves to show off his treasures to his 2 million-plus Twitter (@darrenrovell) followers and swoon of followers on Instagram. He’s having a fun time collecting.
“I’m loving this right now, just telling you the stories and how I obtained them,” Rovell said. “I think some people find it interesting. I think to some extent, having just a bunch of cards is not that interesting to me.”
Rovell came up with an interesting idea late last year that became a fun little project.
“I really thought that at the PSA 1 level that a lot of these things are art and while you have Gary (Vaynerchuk) and all these people talking about things, there’s a disconnect,” Rovell said. “People can’t spend the type of money that the people who are talking about can spend. It’s ridiculous. And so, I just had a passion project where on a single day on eBay, I bought every single PSA 1 of a great card. The idea is, no one’s talking about the PSA 1s. But to be honest, those are the ones that aren’t going to be flipped.”
On Nov. 16, 2020, Rovell spent the day purchasing 23 cards — there was no significance to Jordan or LeBron James, it just happened that way — for about $23,000-$25,000. He bought the biggest names from the four major sports.
He picked up a Jordan 1986-87 Fleer rookie for $1,650. By the end of April, that card had skyrocketed to around $3,000-$4,000.
“The average person is now out, cannot even buy the crappiest Jordan,” Rovell said. “One that looked like it was dropped in a toilet bowl sold for four grand. It’s understanding that these cards are art.”
Rovell purchased a Wayne Gretzky 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee rookie as well. But the most expensive card he bought was a Gordie Howe 1951-52 Parkhurst for $3,000.
Rovell put the cards into an old shoebox so it looked like they were found in his mom’s closet. His plans were to sell all 23 as a set at its current market value at some point. At its highest, the combination of those 23 cards reached about $50,000. But by mid-February, Rovell noticed a dip in the market, so he decided to sell every one of those cards individually on eBay. He sold them for about $35,000, so he saw about a 50 percent increase for his return on investment (ROI).
“I kind of felt like the market was going the wrong way, and I basically sold off every part of it,” Rovell said.
Rovell was hoping to hold onto the cards longer than three months, but it didn’t work out that way.
“I wanted to keep it longer and tell its story — that’s kind of what I do,” Rovell said. “I’m willing to sell everything, but I want to own it long enough to show it to people. Especially in corona, I thought I’d own it for a couple years, but unfortunately, I felt I had a fiduciary responsibility to myself. And I don’t really love cards as much as I love the checks and the tickets.”
A Wide Spectrum of Collectibles
Rovell has a refined palate when it comes to collecting.
He collects six varieties of items: cards, which only make up about five percent of his collection; video games, complete in box and sealed; sealed music; Black history; checks and tickets, which are the biggest chunk of his collection; and tech titans — interesting items from Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos.
“Once PSA started slabbing tickets, I said, ‘Well, the ticket is now becoming the card, and the ticket is going away,’” Rovell said.
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Rovell has a lot of fun collecting checks and tickets. Items with historical significance reign supreme. He has about 100 checks in his possession.
“I noticed that a lot of check collectors were just collecting checks because they felt better about the authenticity of the autograph, and not anything to do with what the check was for,” Rovell said. “So, I started kind of my own fun of getting checks that tell stories. Of all the things, when I show people this, they’re like, ‘Holy … this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.’
“People have seen a Jordan and you see a Jordan 10 and you say, ‘Wow. That’s awesome.’ But on the checks, people are like, ‘Get the hell out of here.’”
Rovell noted that celebrities generally sign checks nicer than an autograph for a fan because they aren’t rushed.
Rovell set his sights on a Babe Ruth check and contacted a reliable source who had access to some of the best Ruth signatures.
“I said, ‘I need one of three things: I need Babe Ruth paying a prostitute, which probably wouldn’t be on a check; Babe Ruth eating too much, like a humongous dinner; or Babe Ruth drinking too much.’ Those are the three that you remember Babe Ruth.”
What Rovell ended up with was a doozy. He scored a Ruth check to Park Circle Liquor Shop in Manhattan in the amount of $502.80 in 1940. That hefty check is the equivalent of nearly $10,000 in 2021. That’s a lot of booze, even for “The Bambino.”
After he purchased the check, Rovell went to the liquor store, which is still located at 38th Avenue and Madison. He asked if the store still had receipt records from 80 years ago, but, unfortunately, it didn’t.
Rovell has a check for Marlo Brando from when he got paid for starring in “Guys and Dolls.” Rovell considers it the nicest Brando autograph in the world.
He has a check from Reggie Jackson paying for tickets to the 1977 World Series. Jackson wrote in the memo: “50% of those are for business” for tax purchases.
“Someone sold this to me as a Reggie signature check, and I’m like, ‘Wait a second. He’s playing for the New York Yankees and the memo says, ‘World Series tickets’ and it’s Oct. 11, 1977,’” Rovell said.
One week after Jackson wrote that check, he crushed three home runs in Game 6 and became known as “Mr. October.”
There have been only about 15 checks signed by John F. Kennedy Jr. that have ever surfaced. Rovell found a JFK check for $11.70 for a Washington Post subscription six months before he became president.
“These are showstoppers,” Rovell said.
Rovell possesses a check from Jay Leno paying for comedic material during his second year as a comedian. The check is for $10 to Larry Charles. Charles was good friends with Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David. The check is made out to Charles but on the back, it is endorsed by David. Rovell finds it hilarious that David signed it and turned it into a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.
Rovell really enjoys adding to his check collection.
“Pretty much, I’m so deep into that if I see something that’s crazy, like money becomes no object,” Rovell said. “I know ultimately the collection’s just getting so big and it has such a through line to it that no matter what I pay, it being part of that collection just adds on.”
As for tickets, Rovell put together a list of 50 tickets he had to have. His sentimental prize possession is a memento from the 1986 World Series.
“This is the highlight of my childhood, Bill Buckner and Mookie Wilson signed Game 6,” Rovell said. “You see the population of this and I think it’s like 15 that are signed by both, and Bill is not around anymore.”
Rovell also has tickets from: the 1979 NCAA men’s basketball championship game that’s signed by Magic Johnson; Game 1 of the 1965 World Series in which Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax sat out because of Yom Kippur; George Brett’s pine tar incident game — it’s a full, unused ticket; Game 1 of the 1954 World Series in which Willie Mays made his famous catch. The most unusual ticket in Rovell’s collection is from Game 4 of the 1945 World Series in which the “Billy Goat” curse was cast on the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“I love tickets,” Rovell said. “I think they have just such an amazing upside.”
In early 2021, the market for tickets exploded. That’s made it tough for Rovell to pick up some of his favorites.
“That’s really surprised me,” Rovell said. “As cards have kind of gone down a little bit, you see something like the ’82 Jordan shot full ticket that a year ago, even with the hype of ‘The Last Dance,’ you could get for $1,000. Now it goes for $8,000-9,000. I’ve faced pressure in that I have not been able to get some of the tickets that I’ve always wanted to get. So, to me it’s like this situation where I never expected to have a market come to me and for me to be a little disappointed. I don’t want to sell any of these things.”
Recently, Rovell picked up a ticket from the 1954 Indiana state championship boys’ basketball game between Milan and Muncie which inspired the movie “Hoosiers.” He also just purchased the best condition ticket — PSA has only graded two — from the “hand of God” soccer match in the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
“I’ve gotten more aggressive with trying to find things that have zeros in PSA’s registry, which is also the fun of it,” Rovell said. “I now own the only soon-to-be PSA graded, because it’s at PSA right now, Randy Johnson bird explosion ticket. Someone said they had it on Twitter and we wrangled and we got it. And then to accompany that I have the only Dave Winfield seagull ticket, where he hit a seagull in 1983. I’m trying to do like cool collections. I have an ‘Ice Bowl,’ a ‘Monsoon Game’ from Tampa, an ‘Earthquake Game’ — I’m trying to do weather combinations.”
More Odd-Ball Items
Part of Rovell’s Black history collection includes some interesting Martin Luther King Jr. items as well as what Rovell considers the best Jackie Robinson autographs he’s ever seen.
The Robinson piece is a postcard to a young girl postmarked from Chicago on Aug. 29, 1952. The Dodgers had played the Cubs that day. Beckett graded Robinson’s signature a 10.
Rovell was searching on eBay for a Robinson signature and came upon the postcard. It had the “Buy It Now” option, so he quickly clicked on it.
“The person said, ‘Did I make a mistake? Because you’re Darren Rovell,’” Rovell recalled. “My name doesn’t appear until I buy it and maybe 5 percent of the time, I have an issue, because people are like, ‘Wait a second, you cover all this. What did I miss?’ And it becomes this awkward situation. I got ascended to myself. … Sometimes, I’ll get these amazing notes.
“One time I put an offer in for a Northwestern jersey — because I have the biggest collection of Northwestern football memorabilia in the world — and it was for Dwayne Bates, who was a wide receiver for us, his jersey for the Notre Dame game. I put in an offer and the guy goes, ‘I don’t love the dollar figure, but the fact that I know your collection, I’ll sell it to you.’”
Rovell, who is a Northwestern alumnus, has some big-ticket Wildcats items. He owns star running back Darnell Autry’s game-issued jersey from the 1996 Rose Bowl. Rovell has about 20 game-used Northwestern jerseys and footballs.
One of his odd-ball prized possessions is a headset Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald wore during the game in which he became the school’s all-time winningest football coach. During the 2020 game, Fitzgerald got upset, chucked the headset to the ground and it broke. Rovell asked the equipment manager if he could have it.
As a public figure, Rovell knows his collecting habits are being watched by his followers on social media. He loves the entertainment part of his job, showing off his latest finds.
“I don’t want to be in the position to tell people what they collect,” Rovell said. “I don’t want to be a pumper and dumper, I hate that. I hate that part of the industry. So, I take pride in saying, ‘Hey, these are the things I’m collecting right now.’”
Rovell is always trying to improve his collection. He works constantly on his budget as well for what he wants to spend on his hobby.
“I think a lot of people have gotten out of control on their budget,” Rovell said. “I am in a position where I don’t have to sell anything, and I always want to be in that position. I don’t want to stay awake at night, being like, ‘I’ve got to sell this.’ I also don’t want to be on eBay all day seeing what something sold for. I think the amount of mindshare that takes is insane.”
Just like many other collectors, the pandemic has really pushed Rovell to go after items on his priority list.
“I’ve definitely ratcheted up,” Rovell said. “I would say that’s based on nostalgia and wanting to go back to times when things were great. I think what people are seeing here, the ramp up has been wanting to go back to normal times, wanting to go back when you’re a kid, your parents cleaning out their closets, needing to have that dopamine or adrenaline going — that results in eBay auctions and stuff like that.
“Honestly, I think for a lot of us, this stuff is keeping us alive. I’m not joking about that. From a mental health standpoint, it’s giving us joy.”