By Greg Bates
ROSEMONT, Ill. – Brett Burroughs scanned each display case, going from dealer table to table.
He was on mission.
With more than 1,000 dealers at the 36th annual National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC), Burroughs was confident he could find what he sought: a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.
“I told my boys that if I can find it for $5,000 or less, I’m going to pick it up,” Burroughs said. “The lower end I’m looking for, I’ve seen them range in a PSA 1 from $11,000 at one vender and got one vendor down to $5,500. But $5,000 would be my limit on that, and that would be ‘The Holy Grail’ I don’t tell my wife about.”
Burroughs didn’t end up purchasing a Mantle rookie on the opening day of the National, but the Myrtle Beach, S.C., resident was impressed with what the convention offered.
“The best thing about the National is just coming and seeing everything that is out there – not necessarily baseball cards, but just all the different sports memorabilia you can see, like pennants,” said Burroughs, who has attended four Nationals, his first in Atlanta in 1992. “I picked up a box of ’68 Iron-Ons. I got it for a cheap price. It’s the little stuff that you don’t ever see is the little treasures you want to get.”
That’s what still makes the National the premier show in the industry for collectors and dealers.
“This is the best one to go to,” Burroughs said. “This is the Super Bowl of sports collecting. People come from all across the United States.”
Adam Martin, CEO and co-founder of Dave and Adam’s Card World, first set up at the National 24 years ago and keeps coming back every summer. His company set up one of nine massive booths in the Corporate Pavilion at the National.
“If you’re into new cards and like to buy new boxes and packs, which of course is what we sell the most of, there’s no better place to be,” Martin said. “All the manufacturers really outdo themselves to give you unbelievable added value to your purchase.”
The National is the show to come to every year for Rob Rosen, sales manager at San Diego, Calif.-based Kit Young Cards, who has only missed two events in the past 26 years.
“Without a doubt,” Rosen said. “Unfortunately, shows have taken a decline. There used to be a couple shows every month. With eBay and the Internet and everything, people just don’t have the draw to a show. However, the National still is the place to come. There are some OK shows still around the country, not as it used to be, but the National is always the place to go.”
A couple of the other bigger shows around the country collectors and dealers like to attend include the Fanatics Authentic Sports Spectacular (formerly the Chicago Sun-Times Show) and East Coast National Show. However, neither stack up to the National.
John Broggi, NSCC executive director/event operations, and his co-workers strive to continue making the National the top priority for those who are into buying and selling.
“We have such a long history, 36th annual, and all the pioneers of the hobby have been here,” Broggi said. “Many of these people have done 15, 20, 25 of the shows, and a couple of the dealers have done 36. In addition to it being a great business opportunity, it’s a great social opportunity as well. We’ve tried to grow the event so that there are activities for everybody: the vintage card dealers, the new card dealers, the autograph collectors. That probably all contributes to the fact that people think this is the event to be at.”
The convention, which covered more than 300,000 square feet this year, has thrived during its visits to Rosemont, which is a Chicago suburb. Dealers and collectors seem to like the convention center’s proximity to O’Hare International Airport, a plethora of nearby hotels, plenty of entertainment options and Chicago is just a short train ride away. Organizers like Chicago’s rich sports history and that it’s centrally located, Broggi noted.
The event has been held in the Chicago area 10 times, seven at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. Last year, Cleveland hosted the event for the sixth time.
“Cleveland, the facility was much bigger, but I think there’s more traffic here because it’s in Chicago,” said Darren Styles, who owns Sports Card Direct out of Minneapolis. “You have a drawing power of a lot of cities that people can get to from driving distance: Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis. Whereas Cleveland, you have to fly there. That makes things more difficult.”
The National is scheduled to be in Atlantic City, N.J., next year and back to Rosemont in 2017 and ’19.
The event seems to be picking up steam in recent years. In 1991 in Anaheim, Calif., the show attracted nearly 100,000 attendees. It wasn’t long after, a steady decline ensued. This year, organizers were hoping about 45,000-50,000 people made their way through the entrance. That’s a great reflection on how the industry is getting back to its old self.
“I think the hobby reached a low point several years ago where we had been the darling in the ’80s and then the settling through in the ’90s and the early part of the new century,” Broggi said. “I think we’re now to a point where we’re a stable industry and not a brand new industry like we were in the early ’80s when a lot of people who set up here got involved. I think we’re becoming a maturing industry.”
Dave Weckman from Des Moines, Iowa, went to his first National in 1991 and was amongst the record crowd in Anaheim. The 70-year-old prefers this year’s event in Chicago.
“It’s organized a little nicer now,” said Weckman, who attended the event with his son and two grandsons. “It’s spread out and now they seem to know what they’re doing. Back then, it was just wild.”
Times they re a-changin’
As the National has evolved over the years, so have the tastes of collectors.
“The nature of collecting has changed a lot over the last 20 years,” Martin said. “Still, if you’re a vintage collector and you want to put together a ’57 set, you could just walk around and put the set together here. There’s no other place you can do that.”
Martin, whose company is primarily focused online at www.dacardworld.com, has noticed trend changes over the years.
“Grading has gone crazy and then leveled off and then gone crazy again. There wasn’t a whole lot of card grading in ’93,” Martin said. “Collectors have always wanted rookie cards; they’ve always wanted nice condition vintage; they’ve always wanted to buy the hot, unopened box. I haven’t seen too many changes on the base of collecting.”
Before Rosen took a job at Kit Young Cards, he was a collector in the 1980s. He remembers cards with four sharp corners were considered the cream of the crop.
“It’s evolved now to four square corners, nice surface and centering is key,” Rosen said. “As far as the grading companies, if you’re submitting not centered cards, you’re probably wasting your money, unless you like off-centered cards. It’s all about centering now.”
Styles sees the younger collectors having a different approach to collecting than those who picked up cards in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I think there’s a generational gap,” Styles said. “I’m 44, and people younger in their 20s and 30s, they’re group breakers. They want the Andrew Lucks, the LeBrons, and then they realized when they’re doing group breaks, I can spend $300 on a group break and get one card or I can go to someone’s booth and buy a $350 Jordan autograph and sit on it. That’s Michael Jordan. He’s not going to tear an ACL, he’s not going to break a leg. And it’s going to go up.
“And a lot of guys are getting into vintage again, which is nice to see.”
Added Burroughs, “The vintage stuff has really taken off because that’s the history of America. People want to hold onto it.”
Whatever the tastes of collectors, they are still going to make their way to the National every year. It’s a one-stop shop to pick up any sports-related items.
“If you can’t find it at the National, it probably doesn’t exist,” Broggi said.
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.