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Chase Hatchery Group

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Sevastyan Karpov
Sevastyan Karpov

People Who Buy Sports Memorabilia

By the end of 2018, according to the Epstein white paper, the sports memorabilia market was outperforming the S&P 500 by 232%. Yet according to Howard Epstein, no wealth management company was taking advantage of the opportunity to help clients liquidate their sports memorabilia when the want or need arises.

people who buy sports memorabilia

I'm a freelance sports journalist from Ireland. I've been writing about European soccer for several years and previously worked for Football Italia. I also lived in Italy for a period of time and have also written for the likes of FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and various other online publications.

I'm based in Vancouver and have written about hockey for The New York Times, The Hockey News, The Canadian Press and more. Other areas of interest: international hockey, women's hockey and sports media.

Perhaps no single incident more captures the gold rush moment we're in when it comes to sports memorabilia. The incident wasn't the first example of chaos in the aisles at a Target store, and it led the retail giant to immediately halt all in-person sports card sales across the country. That ban remains in place.

It's been a wild two years of ups and downs (but mostly ups) in the sports card and memorabilia space. And this week, when card geeks and autograph hounds from around the world converge on Chicago for the 41st National Sports Collectors Convention for the first time since 2019, they're walking into an entirely different era from what the hobby was two years ago.

The memorabilia business has been on a rapid rise over the past 24 months or so, with record-breaking prices, historic scarcity and an NFT craze that has become an almost daily part of the always changing sports news cycle.

Skepticism about sports memorabilia -- especially in the NFT (nonfungible token) space -- isn't just relegated to those looking in on the hobby from the outside. Insiders scratch their heads, too, especially since a slight cooling of the market over the past three months.

The pandemic played a giant role. Digital purchases overall in the U.S. surged by $200 billion in 2020, accelerating an already-growing trend of people buying things online. That's how eBay saw a 142% increase in sales from 2019 to 2020, and how Goldin Auctions, which has emerged as the largest auction house in memorabilia, pulled in $100 million in 2020 -- and has doubled that amount already in 2021.

"The people I've spoken to have said the upper echelon market, where you've got people paying millions of dollars for cards, that's still going to happen," says John List, a University of Chicago economics professor and longtime collector himself. "But the lower, mid-level market where people are paying $500, $400... people aren't going to be quite as interested coming out of this pandemic." -- Dan Hajducky

The most expensive piece of memorabilia, the original Olympic Games Manifesto written by a French aristocrat in 1888, sold at Sotheby's for $8.8 million in 2019. But cards remain the driving force behind most of the astronomical numbers. Since February of 2020, there have been at least a dozen $1 million card sales, including six cards that sold for north of $3.75 million.

According to Chris Ivy of Heritage Actions, sports collectibles is perhaps the strongest financial market that exists right now. "The global pandemic added rocket fuel to the collectibles market -- a combination of the restriction upon spending on other luxuries like travel and fine dining, and the growing acceptance of the legitimacy of collectibles around the globe as an investment vehicle," Ivy says. "We've seen more million-dollar sales in the past year than in the twenty years preceding it."

And don't forget that through all of the ebbs and flows of the hobby over the past 30 years, the most sought-after sports cards and memorabilia have never really bottomed out. In fact, back in 2010, well before the most recent uptick, the Wall Street Journal found that sports card investments largely outperformed the best Dow Jones stocks over the long haul. -- Kelly Cohen

Jesse Craig, director of business development at the popular PWCC Marketplace, thinks there's a better chance that some of the massive buys, often from anonymous purchasers, may not be seen again for awhile -- and perhaps ever. The constant buzz about giant sales helped fuel the gold rush, but the stability of big buyers hanging onto memorabilia is better for the long term health of the top-tier of the industry. "You might never see this card again or it might be 20, 30 years," Craig said. "You're going to keep seeing record numbers for these rare assets [and these guys] will die with them or pass them on to their kids."

But most other sports have taken a dip, and prices in that upper echelon of cards are all over the place. The good news for collectors is, the pitfalls of the industry's collapse in the early 1990s are less likely to repeat. Overproduction, the single biggest reason the market crashed decades ago, has been quelled by serial numbering and (relative) transparency from card manufacturers. Most experts predict that the highs are unlikely to be as consistently stratospheric and the bottom is unlikely to fall out in the coming years. -- Dan Hajducky

But trimming and sprucing up cards has been happening for decades, and is virtually guaranteed to continue. A positive of the modern age: Digital photographs of high-profile cards can be shared widely, and close examinations by online sleuths have outed alterations on a regular basis. Class-action lawsuits still pop up every so often, and purveyors and auction houses are dragged online, though there have really only been two large-scale FBI memorabilia busts since the October 1999 takedown in Operation Bullpen (which ultimately resulted in 63 charges and convictions, 18 forgery rings dismantled and more than $15 million in economic loss prevented).

One was the raid on Donald "D.B." Henkel's 4,000-square foot north Michigan warehouse in July of 2020. Henkel had allegedly produced counterfeit older memorabilia of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays.

The other was the arrest of Arkansas' John Rogers, who was sentenced to 12 years in 2017 for masterminding a $23 million fraudulent memorabilia gambit. Rogers had 529 bats seized in an FBI raid and pled guilty to one count of wire fraud relating to a multimillion-dollar sports memorabilia scheme.

Said FBI agent Brian Brisokas in that Washington Post story: "I tell anybody I deal with within the hobby that it's built on trust: Trust with the buyers, dealers, sellers, graders, auction houses. In order to grain trust, you have to deal above board. If you're not, other people may make it known you shouldn't be dealt with." -- Dan Hajducky

Perhaps no NFT producer has had as much recent success as NBA TopShot, a community and marketplace of specific players and specific plays from NBA games. TopShot figured out how to take commonly-viewed plays, easily accessible on SportsCenter, TNT and YouTube, and turn them into lucrative must-have digital memorabilia. TopShot users can collect or sell moments after purchasing packs from the website, and Dapper Labs, which has the brand under its umbrella of digital properties, is already moving forward in the next steps of the user experience.

"You can see how excited people get when an athlete retweets them on Twitter," says Caty Tedman, head of partnerships at Dapper Labs. "But imagine if you had the best Trae Young collection and then Trae Young gave you a call and brought you to a game. The whole concept of true authenticity means you can verify the biggest fans and you can reward them." -- Tom VanHaaren

Atallah also notes that the sports in highest demand thus far mimics that of physical trading cards. Basketball is currently leading the way in volume, followed by baseball, football and soccer. What's interesting, however, is Atallah notes volume in digital soccer cards and NFTs is higher than the physical soccer cards as of now.

Yes, a digital asset cannot be hung on your wall. But it's not that hard to show off NFTs -- remember, 97% of American adults (and 5.27 billion people worldwide) have smart phones these days. "I don't think that young people have the same outlook on [having a physical object], that something has to be on the wall of your house to have value," Tedman said. "It's much simpler for the things you love to be online and go everywhere you go."

And let's also not forget the ultimate way humans show off these days: Social media. Buyers can flood Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok with videos and images of their NFTs in a way nobody can shuttle people into their living room to look at a game-used jersey or autographed ball.

There are also smart industry people thinking about broader digital showcase opportunities, too. TopShot has online places where users can browse other collections on the website, and some collectors have set up their own virtual reality galleries of sorts. -- Tom Van Haaren

That's why the Target shutdown hurts so much. The big retailers used to be a salve -- people could participate for $50 or less and be buying blaster boxes and other affordable releases that still had potential to make big pulls. Consumers can still get those economical releases online, but they're competing with bots and an ever-expanding trove of breakers and flippers, who buy troves of lower-priced products to turn them around immediately for steep profit.

It can be difficult to determine the value of any sports memorabilia, specifically an autograph, and it can fluctuate greatly over time or in response to trends. In general, the value of any memorabilia depends on: 041b061a72


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