By Eric Fritz aka emfritz10

Ever since I was a young child, I was always enamored with the sport of basketball. Growing up in Indiana, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. This is where the “Milan Miracle” took place, where Reggie Miller single-handedly brought New York to its knees, where Indiana University built its legacy, and Butler made two improbable NCAA runs. This is also where my love of basketball cards began in the late 1990s.

There has been a lot of talk about how the hobby has changed, especially in the past 15 years since I began collecting. The proliferation of game-used, ultra rare inserts/autos, and high-end products certainly has influenced a shift in the collecting demographic. My local hobby shop, once dominated by youth, is now mostly comprised of adults at least 30 or older. By no means am I saying this is a bad thing. However, how will the hobby thrive in the future if I (25 years old) am among its youngest consumers?

For my sociology senior thesis in 2010, I decided to investigate if these recent developments (fewer youth in the hobby and the growing number of high-end product offerings) had an effect as to “why” we collect sports trading cards today. I will admit that my previous experience in the hobby made me biased. I hypothesized that most collectors nowadays were only interested in making profit or looking for the latest card from the Beckett “Hot List.” I had seen people spend hundreds of dollars on Upper Deck Exquisite or Ultimate Collection, just to lament about how they didn’t pull the ultra rare LeBron James auto/patch/refractor/RC/numbered to 10. All the while, they couldn’t appreciate the artistic quality of the cards or the fact that they just pulled 15 autographs from some of the most skilled basketball players in the world.

To figure out “why” individuals collect sports trading cards, I traveled to several card shows across the Midwest and researched articles found in newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. The vast majority of the sociology and economic literature mentioned how capitalism had influenced everything that was dysfunctional about the industry: including the lawsuits between card companies, the greed of counterfeit operations, how eBay had put card shops out of business and the fact that people often do not collect for the love of the hobby anymore. These findings certainly were in the back of my mind and seemed to confirm my initial hypothesis.

Upon arrival at the first hobby show, I was immediately inundated with flyers, coupons, and business cards of local retail shops. Some of the stores had advertisements with bold lettering and incentives such as “spend 100 dollars and get a free replica jersey.” Negotiating with some of the shop owners reminded me of an episode of Pawn Stars. These initial interactions convinced me that the hobby may very well be in serious decline. That was until I encountered a few individuals during my travels.

Toward the end of the first show, I decided to purchase an item for my personal collection. I instantly became fixated on a Topps American Pie John F. Kennedy Jr. card containing remnants of the Berlin Wall and commemorating his 1963 visit there. This historic speech assured the citizens of West Berlin of America’s support in their fight against Communism. The card to me was absolutely priceless and I thought it would be cool to show off to my sociology professors!

 

 I had observed the owner for most of the day and he appeared cold and calculated on the surface. My initial interaction with him was impersonal and purely-business. After pondering his offer for a few minutes, the owner stepped away and let his son run the store for a little bit. I was touched by what his son told me that day. “My father has two of those [JFK] cards. He really enjoys them and sees them as a piece of history. Instead of selling them both, he held onto one of them to pass on to me when I get older.” It was at this moment I realized that I had judged this man too quickly. I labeled him as a greedy collectibles retailer, but not as a caring father. Shortly after, I witnessed another father and son at a nearby booth. The son was looking to purchase a lot of cards that cost about 10 cents each and had a bag of coins. He asked his son to find the coins he needed to make the purchase and they slowly counted them out together. It was absolutely amazing to see this man use the hobby as a way to teach his son math skills. These two examples demonstrated the power of trading cards to bond a parent and child.

 At another show, I began talking to a card trader who was in his early 30s. We negotiated for several minutes about a Danny Granger card and ultimately, I was frustrated that we could not reach a deal. Once again, I assumed this man was just another greedy card trader. I then posed a simple question to him: why do you collect sports trading cards? He replied, “ I’ve been collecting for about ten years now. I buy so much more than I sell and I estimate that in the long run I have probably lost thousands of dollars doing this. But I’m not really concerned with making money, I just love coming to these shows and talking “hobby” with all the other guys.” Once again, I was simply amazed how my first impression was so misguided.

 My experiences at these trading card shows taught me a valuable lesson about humanity. Never judge anyone at face value, but rather take a few minutes to get to know them. It is these encounters that have restored my faith in the hobby and make me believe that it will survive long into the future.