Collecting sports cards used to be thought of as a children’s hobby.
However, at the Toronto Sports Cards and Memorabilia Show held at downtown’s Irish Embassy Pub on Saturday, it was apparent the business is changing.
“What had historically been a kid’s hobby became one for the masses,” said Frank Williamson, the founder of the Toronto Card Show series. “But since then, the hobby has become less accessible for kids whereas other options have become easier to get into or have grown in popularity much like sports cards did at one time.”
While the demographics of collectors may be shifting, it doesn’t mean that the business of sports memorabilia is suffering. Williamson refers to Saturday’s event as a “pint-sized” show, compared to Toronto Card Show events that will be happening throughout September, including appearances by Roberto Alomar and Jesse Barfield.
Eight years after founding the series, Williamson is expanding in 2014.
“The Toronto Card Show was established in April 2006 and has gradually grown year over year and we are now in the process of expanding to two new locations,” he said. “Another one in Toronto at the Amsterdam Brewery in Leaside not far away from our original location at Leaside Gardens in September. In October, we’re expanding to Newmarket.”
While interest in collecting sports cards remains strong, there is a developing concern that collectors are actually getting too good at the hobby. Chris Paunovski, a Toronto-area collector selling cards at the show believes that cards coming out now won’t retain value very well because so many of them will stay in excellent condition.
“Now everyone knows how to collect. Back then almost no one cared,” he said. “In 50 years things will be different because so many of today’s cards will be around.”
Sport card bust
In an industry where value is determined almost exclusively by scarcity, that could be problematic. There was already a significant sport card bust in the 1990s due to a surplus of cards in circulation.
“[Collecting cards] became so mainstream that the manufacturers vastly overproduced,” said Williamson. “This resulted in no value for many who had thought they could put their kids in college with their collections.”
The current rarity of vintage cards can be attributed to time-related attrition, but the way those cards were used also plays a factor. In the 1950s it was commonplace to use baseball cards to play games, or stick them in the spokes of a bicycle to add cool noise effects. These customs caused cards to wind up in terrible condition.
As a result, cards from that era with immense value were diminished. The Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra cards in Paunovski’s collection have been valued at $1,000 and $600, respectively.
Paunovski also believes that part of their value is derived from collectors’ appreciation for older athletes, who he perceives as harder working and more admirable characters.
“It’s easy to play hockey for eight million [dollars], or baseball for 16 million,” he said. “Back in the day it was hard. A lot of the Leafs players had to have part-time jobs.”
While it remains to be seen if an overabundance of cards, or a lack of iconic athletes could lead to another bust, for now Williamson sees a business that continues to thrive, even if it is doing so in a different manner.
“People will always be sports fans and there will always be people collecting sports cards and memorabilia, even if it is less mainstream and a niche market.”