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Hee: The steady decline of collecting baseball cards

If you are a baseball card collector, I am sure you are wondering where the hobby trend is going.

Especially now that sports memorabilia is on the decline.

“Willie Mays items that used to go for $250 or more are now selling for $70-$80,” Mark Hansen of Legacy Sports Cards in Las Vegas said. “There is just too much stuff out there,” he said.

What is going on with this part of the industry and where does this leave card collectors?

For the die-hard collectors, I don’t think it means anything, but then I am not an expert. If you are like me, you just put the shoe box or binder under the bed and don’t look at it for 10 years.

So, don’t listen to me. Listen to the experts.

I am sure most males my age have at one time in their life bought a baseball card and like me found the hobby again late in life. I am even going to include females in there because my sister is a big card collector. I started collecting at the age of six when cards cost around a quarter a pack. That’s when Topps included the worst piece of gum with a pack of cards. At that time Topps were the only cards I collected, but things change with time and I now have more than one kind of card.

My good childhood friend, Steve Celniker of California, got me thinking about the state of sports cards in an email he sent me about his collection. He has been a collector for 50 years.

Celniker, like many collectors, is not satisfied with the direction the sports card industry is going.

The baseball card industry took off in the late eighties and nineties and now has settled down to just Topps again doing baseball.

Overall, there has been a decline in the demand of baseball cards in general.

And if you don’t think this is true, then just look at Las Vegas. Steve Haws of Legacy Sports Cards told me two years ago that during the boom of cards in the 90s there were seventy stores in Las Vegas selling sports cards. Two years ago that dwindled to five stores and now there are two.

Celniker talked about the boom.

“From 1980 and twenty years later there was an explosion of various brands and the growing and popping of bubbles over baseball card values,” Celniker said. “One of the many companies in this era was Upper Deck, which emphasized the quality of photography and paper.” He said there were others too, like Fleer and Panini, to name two more.

Celniker said this boom came to an end with Topps coming out on top.

Hansen said this just meant the sports pie was cut up by the competition.

“Upper Deck now has the rights to hockey,” Hansen said. “And Panini has the rights to the NFL.”

OK, so where is sports card collecting going now? Celniker feels it’s going downhill.

“The baseball card boom of the eighties and nineties met its doom, like many other types of physical media, with the advent of the internet,” he said. “Anyone could look up stats and pictures of their favorite player online without needing a paper collectible. Baseball card companies began failing as sales shrunk. By 2006, Major League Baseball recognized the decline and restored Topps as the exclusive licensed provider of cards of active MLB players. I wonder how much longer baseball cards will continue in their traditional form.”

Hansen agrees there has been a decline but disagrees with the assessment.

“Card collecting is still popular,” he said. “It’s not going to die out and I really don’t even think it will change its form either.”

He added that the collectors have changed over the years.

“It’s a different industry,” Hansen said. “It’s strong still, but there are more player-centered collectors rather than team collectors now.”

In the old days collectors would go out of their way to make team sets and now collectors collect just players, not team sets.

He said this was so because players don’t stay with the same team like they did in the old days.

Hansen has been with Legacy now for over a decade and he now sees less kids and more adults collecting.

“Kids can’t afford the box price anymore,” he said. “Many collectors buy by the box, which goes for $55 for 360 cards. A pack is still affordable for kids at $2 for 10 cards.” He said kids like buying the box sets.

The trend is now buying box sets that are now $490 per box for Panini sets.

“Gone is the bubble gum stick and now card sellers will guarantee at least a piece of a jersey or an autograph in a box,” Hansen said. “They actually put a relic in the card box; it could be a piece of a bat or a piece of a jersey or autograph.”

Hansen said this has created commotion at the local Walmart or Target stores.

“People have raided the Walmart or Target stores and actually felt for the relics because packs would be thicker,” he said. “That’s why I won’t shop in those stores for cards, because they don’t watch for people looking for relics.”

Hansen has seen poor attempts to change by the top card sellers.

“Upper Deck has a deal where people pay to view the cards online that they will buy,” Hansen said. “People pay online and then can choose the cards they want and they will be sent to them via mail.”

He said this has been going on for six months but it isn’t too popular. There have been poor attempts by the card industry to get the computer-savvy kids back into collecting cards.

One example of this is the digital cards for free by Topps. People can get them online for free and trade them.

“I really don’t see the point in this type of card,” Hansen said.

The bottom line is that there has been some changes in the industry but card collectors still want the cards.

“The industry has changed a bit but has done a poor marketing job to get new or old collectors back,” Hansen said.

Contact sports editor Vern Hee at vhee@pvtimes.com

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