May 22, 2020 - Sports

Sports card collecting is back

The Honus Wagner 1909 T206 — the world's most valuable card
The Honus Wagner 1909 T206 — the world's most valuable card. Photo: Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Collecting sports cards, a hobby and business that has spent the past few decades in a tailspin, has recovered much of its old glory in recent years. Still, even as revenues have skyrocketed back to the heights of its golden age, the big question remains — can it last?

The big picture: In the past five years, thanks to smarter licensing agreements between leagues and companies that help put a cap on production, the industry has begun booming once again. In fact, on Wednesday a Mike Trout rookie card sold at auction for a modern-record-tying $900,000.

  • Beyond licensing, though, kids who grew up collecting in the '80s and '90s are now adults with disposable income, and nostalgia is an incredibly powerful driver.
  • Taking it one step further, the pandemic has funneled a lot of 30-somethings back to their childhood homes, where boredom and curiosity have led to the unearthing of old collections, and the reawakening of a long-dormant hobby.

The backdrop: What began in the early 20th century as a way to boost sales of tobacco and bubblegum matured over the years into a business of its own, dominated by Topps, which introduced the first full set in 1952.

  • But through the latter half of the century, popularity gave way to overproduction, which eventually torpedoed demand. By the mid-to-late '90s, the billion dollar industry had become a shell of its former self.

What they're saying: "In the last decade there has been a shift toward exclusive relationships. All the major leagues have exclusive deals. That was a pretty seismic shift," Topps executive David Leiner told The Athletic.

Between the lines: Even if millennials have enough money now to make this a viable business again, what about their kids? Video games and technology have a pretty tight grip on kids' free time these days, and nostalgia can only go so many generations deep.

The bottom line: If this is the last stand for a wonderful hobby whose time has come, then so be it. We'll always have the memories of ripping open packs of cards, crossing our fingers for a rare find and thumbing through Beckett hoping we just hit it rich.

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