David Rima sat cross-legged on the concrete floor of the Anaheim Convention Center this week, gazing at a dozen century-old baseball trading cards. The corporate headhunter had just spent about $300 to augment his collection of the tiny cards that were distributed long ago by tobacco companies, and he still had more money to spend.
“They’re so beautiful, so fascinating,” Rima said.
No matter, he conceded, that it is virtually impossible for “a working man” to snare all 700 cards in the 1909 set that is best known for the mint-condition Honus Wagner card that in 2001 sold for $1.25 million. That card is on display at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, the biggest collectors show of the season, which runs through Sunday.
This year’s show is expected to draw about 35,000 visitors, a stark contrast to the 1991 event that was held in Anaheim at the height of a sports card collecting frenzy. More than 100,000 treasure seekers in 1991 jammed the convention center, forcing a harried fire marshal to repeatedly close the show doors.
The sports memorabilia industry continues to suffer from the glut of new baseball cards that entered the market and overwhelmed many longtime collectors who simply stopped collecting. And the industry that is synonymous with bubble gum suffered a classic speculative bubble that burst, leaving many hobbyists saddled with cartons of essentially worthless cards.
“There was a fascination with sports trading cards that was fueled by the belief that you could get rich quick,” said Tracy Hackler, an associate publisher with Dallas-based Beckett Media, which publishes sports collectibles magazines.
During the 1991 Anaheim show, thousands of youngsters scrambled to grab free promotional cards being distributed by manufacturers. “They’d get 10 of their friends to stand in line and collect 10 bags,” said Jeff Rosenberg, president of Houston-based Tristar Productions, which produces sports collectible shows and authenticates memorabilia. “Then they turned around and sold them to collectors inside the show who were paying hundreds of dollars.”
Although there are trading cards for other sports -- football, basketball, hockey and tennis -- baseball cards have long dominated sales. In 1991, the wholesale value of all new sports trading cards soared to a record $1.2 billion; last year sales fell to $250 million, according to Card Trade, an Iola, Wisc.-based trade magazine. The card glut can be tied to a 1981 court decision that stripped Topps Co. of its exclusive contract to produce baseball cards. Donruss, Fleet, Upper Deck and other rivals quickly issued their own baseball cards.
By the late 1980s, many collectors had embraced a risky strategy. Rather than buying cards of proven players, they spent freely on cases of cards to find rookie cards for promising newcomers, hoping that their value would skyrocket if the players enjoyed successful careers.
Bo Jackson’s 1987 rookie cards by Fleer and Donruss sold for $15 to $20 in 1991, according to Card Trade magazine, but his cards plummeted in value after a severe hip injury forced him to retire. Today, they sell for about $1. Todd Van Poppel, touted as a pitching phenom when he was drafted out of high school by the Oakland A’s, saw his Upper Deck rookie cards sell for $3.50 in 1991. Van Poppel’s career fizzled and his rookie card now sells for less than a dime, according to Card Trade.
Card companies also fed the trading card frenzy by introducing multiple 700-card sets of the same baseball players. “A lot of companies felt like they’d struck gold in 1991,” said Don Williams, public relations manager for Carlsbad-based The Upper Deck Inc. “They were trying to get the fast buck by continually putting product out there, which got the marketplace out of alignment.”
The industry still is trying to recover from the burst bubble. Last year, Fleer was forced to sell its assets to Upper Deck. And venerable Topps on Friday agreed to nominate dissident shareholders -- some of them former card collectors frustrated by the company’s business strategy -- to its board of directors.
To try to revive interest, players and sports leagues are reducing the number of licensed manufacturers and product lines sold. Topps and Upper Deck are now the only card companies licensed by Major League Baseball, and Upper Deck is the only licensed hockey card distributor.
Despite the widespread slump in sports collectibles, some older and scarcer items continue to increase in value. The 1909 Wagner card that sold for $1.25 million in 2001, for example, last sold in 1996 for $640,000. In December, the bat Babe Ruth used to hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium sold for $1.256 million, the most ever paid for a baseball bat.
Some collectors say the card and memorabilia industry is trying to manufacture scarcity.
Older memorabilia, critics say, is scarce by its very nature. But there’s no way to tell the long-term value of “game-used” jerseys, bats, balls and other gear that’s being pushed into the market by active players.
The industry also is struggling to coexist with the Internet, where shady operators compete with established dealers and use TV commercials to lure youngsters who’ve grown up with digital toys and seem flummoxed by the thought of playing with pieces of cardboard.
Many existing collectors are “increasingly disenchanted with the modern game, what with the steroids, the price of tickets and the whole bureaucracy it’s turned into,” said Michael Hefner, president of Lelands, a Seaford, N.Y.-based company that in 2005 auctioned off $15 million in sports memorabilia. “They want to get back to a simpler time.”
Still, at the Anaheim show it was clear that some athletes continue to have a magnetic appeal.
Alan Shih, a Corona-based doctor, paid nearly $300 Wednesday for a pair of autographs from former USC football stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. Shih doesn’t view the autographs as an investment. “It’s simply nostalgia,” he said. “It’s something for me to hold onto.”
But the sports memorabilia industry could find it difficult to control supply and demand, said Robert Shiller, a Yale economics professor who published “Irrational Exuberance,” a book that took its name from the phrase made famous by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.
“Alan Greenspan and, now, Ben Bernanke have been charged with managing the scarcity of our currency,” Shiller said, “and some people are pessimistic about their ability to do even that.”
If the powerful Fed chairman can’t control the economy, the concept of a baseball card price bubble shouldn’t surprise anyone. “Fundamental value is so intangible in this industry and speculative bubbles are especially likely,” Shiller said.