ROSEMONT, Ill. — It was Wednesday, July 28, just a couple minutes before 3:30 p.m. local time and collectors were ready.
The doors to the National Sports Collectors Convention were opening momentarily as about 3,000 people jockeyed for position.
In what resembled the start of a highly-contested marathon, the gates opened and the flood rushed in. A large chunk of the crowd raced to be first in line to get cards submitted at grading giants Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) and Beckett Grading Services (BGS). Others wanted the first look at cases of cards and memorabilia.
The five-day event at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center July 28-Aug. 1 had a little bit — well, a ton — of everything for every kind of collector.
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The crowds each day were massive, packing the 450,000-square-foot venue, as collectors got to experience The National for the first time in 24 grueling months. The show was cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going to say it’s the second best ever behind Anaheim,” NSCC Executive Director John Broggi said about the attendance at this year’s event.
The bar for the annual convention has always been the Anaheim show in 1991. Exact attendance numbers for that year aren’t known but estimates of 100,000 have always swirled around. This year’s show produced similar numbers.
It proved the hobby is absolutely on fire right now.
“I think it’s as strong as it ever could be,” Broggi said. “We’re going through one of those cycles which says this is now the place to go, the thing to do. Sports card collecting is the vogue.”
After missing last year’s show as the hobby exploded during the pandemic, it was paramount that organizers of The National get the show in this year, the 41st in convention history.
“It was unbelievably important,” Broggi said. “We’ve postponed the show twice now. If we would have postponed it a third time, it would have been very, very difficult, I think. We would have lost a number of our corporate sponsors who just couldn’t commit to doing it any other time.
“We were lucky we were able to fit it in right at the time the delta variant [of the virus] was not as strong in the Chicago area. But it’s very, very possible in the next couple of weeks you’re going to see some restrictions put in place.”
The National notes: Big crowds and big deals from the show floor
Long-time collectors and people who just latched onto the hobby over the past year and a half provided a nice mix at The National. According to Broggi, when collectors purchased tickets prior to the event, they were asked how many Nationals they had attended prior to 2021. An eye-popping 46.4 percent who responded said this was their first National.
“It tells you the hobby’s alive and flourishing,” Broggi said. “We’re amazed.”
The hobby is on another level right now. Collectors couldn’t get enough of the 569 dealer booths, 30 corporate sponsors that set up impressive displays and the largest-ever Case Break Pavilion.
Phil Hammitt, a longtime collector from Manhattan Beach, Calif., was attending his sixth show in 25 years. The 50-year-old loved the atmosphere of the convention.
“It’s spectacular,” Hammitt said. “It’s overwhelming. They’re all overwhelming. You go there and have your list of things you want to find, and then next thing you know, it’s like drinking from a firehose.”
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Hammitt ended up picking up some random items, including a Bo Jackson Topps Tiffany rookie, a few Kobe Bryant autographs and a couple of unopened Elvis Presley packs for $5.
“I’m like, ‘How bad can that be, right?” Hammitt said.
Collectors and dealers alike found few negatives with the show.
“You see so many kids again here and you see women and you see so many new collectors,” said Derek Grady, Heritage Auctions’ vice president of sports auctions. “It’s really cool to see the hobby grow like this. It’s in a great location in Chicago — everybody loves this location, easy to get to. To me, I’ve only heard people saying how great it’s been. No dealers complaining about sales. Maybe the lines at the grading companies, but other than that, everybody seems to be enjoying the hobby.”
There was a fresh face — but a familiar one to many sports fans — on the Mike Berkus Main Stage at the Ripping Wax Case Break Pavilion. Longtime ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kevin Negandhi broke some product on Saturday afternoon with some buddies from StockX and The Coffee Breakers.
In the past year, Negandhi has gotten back into sports cards after collecting as a teenager in the late 1980s.
“In the pandemic I opened up a box, I think, like a lot of guys who are in their 40s, and said, ‘Let me just look at what we have in storage,’ and found all this stuff,” Negandhi said. “I have two young boys, three kids. But my 9-year-old and 7-year-old were with me and we went to a card shop and started looking and we fell in love.
“I went all-in in August and I’ve been into it, started my own Instagram account, Negandhi Cards. I drop a line every now and then about a specific card. If there’s a player on a highlight [on SportsCenter], I say, ‘Popping like a PSA 10.’”
Negandhi was a little wide-eyed at The National since it was his first time.
“Some people told me it was going to be big,” he said. “It’s been bigger than I anticipated or expected. It’s been awesome — the whole experience, the vibes have been extremely positive. I think all the dealers do a phenomenal job. I think the companies that are behind it too, from like PSA, The Coffee Breaks, Stock X, it’s just great running into people you talk to over the internet, over Instagram, over social media, then you get a chance to meet some of them.”
Negandhi’s looking forward to the next convention so he can bring his two sons with him. The young collectors are big fans of Fernando Tatis Jr., Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Russell Wilson. Both sons had a few requests for dad before he left home for The National.
“‘Look for [Justin] Herbert cards,’” Negandhi said. “And I’m like, ‘They’re not going to be cheap.’”
Nick Pruitt, a collector from Dallas, came into town for the opening day of the show. Having been to The National three times, he had an idea what to expect with the crowd, but the size still blew him away.
“The hobby’s getting bigger and it’s crowded,” Pruitt said. “I love seeing everything. Everything’s really hot right now. I’m having a good time.”
Pruitt came to Rosemont in the hope of adding some Dirk Nowitzki cards to his collection.
“Everything’s just so overpriced right now, it’s hard to get good deals,” Pruitt said. “A lot of people are buying, though, which is good for the hobby.”
There was a wide range of ages among collectors at The National. Plenty of young kids, but also some seasoned veterans, such as 68-year-old Jim Jeurink. The Jenison, Mich. resident has been a collector since he was 10; he’s attended the last five Nationals in Rosemont and one in Cleveland.
“It’s always nice to see the different variety of items that they have,” Jeurink said. “From the first time I came to a show, you have big-ticket items that they’re showcasing from auctions and stuff like that, that’s neat. It’s stuff you wouldn’t normally see.”
For the second National in row, Jeurink came up empty handed on the items he was most interested in tracking down. He collects Who’s Who in Baseball magazines, which were printed from 1912 to 2016. Jeurink has a copy of every year except for 1920, which featured a young Babe Ruth on the cover. That issue goes for about $300-$500. Jeurink has an issue from 1912 that displays Ty Cobb on the cover, but there are two versions, so he was hoping to find the alternative cover as well.
“I knew my chances were slim, but that’s alright,” Jeurink said.
SELLING OUT EARLY
Even a number of weeks prior to the show, Broggi and The National staff knew interest in this year’s show was off the charts.
“It kept growing,” Broggi said. “We saw that there was a continual push to buy tickets even before we had announced in the beginning of June that we were definitely going to run the show. Then once we announced that in June, it just snowballed.”
The National sold out of VIP passes early. A mix between regular and Super VIP, it was capped at 3,000 people.
“The reason we do that is the gifts and everything we give out are limited by the product that the manufacturers commit to,” Broggi said. “We went back one time and said, ‘Can you bump the number?’ And everybody said, ‘Yes.’”
The National staff also created a five-day pass that didn’t include any gifts or an autograph package, it was just for collectors to get into the event before general admission. That option sold out in less than 24 hours.
David Gelfman, who runs the Ripping Wax Case Breaking Pavilion at every National, saw his expanded area this year absolutely crawling during show hours.
“There’s been tons of traffic in here. All the breakers are bringing in all the customers and customers are sitting down in booths all week and talking with the people they do business with regularly,” Gelfman said.
Gelfman, who owns RippingWax.com, was relieved The National took place after such a tumultuous time for folks during the pandemic.
“The attendance, the enthusiasm — I’ve seen families walking around,” Gelfman said. “It’s great to be back and see the hobby as strong as can be. It’s never been stronger, not any time that I’ve been around.”
There were close to 50 breakers booths at the show, but the Case Break Pavilion was limited in space. Gelfman noted he could have sold out the area “three times over” to breaking operations that were interested in attending the show.
The Case Break Pavilion at The National in Atlantic City, N.J. next year will have about double the amount of space, Gelfman said. Not only will it be bigger for the 2022 show, the entire show floor will increase.
In anticipation for next year’s event on July 27-31 — mark your calendars — all 592 booths are already sold out as well as the entire 30-booth corporate area.
“Had we known that the demand would be as strong as it is, we would have taken even more space in Atlantic City,” Broggi said. “They have like 500,000 square feet and we’re probably using 475,000 of it.”
With the state of the hobby the way it is, Broggi and his staff are trying to think of new ideas to incorporate into next year’s National. One thought is to have a sanctioned trade night at the convention center where after dealer booths are shut down, collectors can have a big swap meet. That idea stems from a couple of impromptu trade parties that took place at hotels near the convention center in Rosemont this year. A large number of collectors were trading in the lobby at the Hyatt on Thursday night and the next night the same thing happened down the block at Loews hotel.
Card collectors don’t shut down just because the convention has wrapped up for the day. Because, as all collectors know, a big part of the hobby is about the people and connecting.
“As corny or cliché as it sounds, it’s the truth,” Negandhi said. “When you run into so many people that love the industry, that appreciate what you do, you appreciate what they do, you can have great relationships and develop that. …
“It feels like this event is on the cusp of exploding even more next year in Atlantic City, and I can’t wait.”