Baseball cards: 10 business lessons from my time in the sports memorabilla bubble

In middle school, I collected baseball cards. A lot of baseball cards.

In third grade, I tried pogs before they were outlawed in class when it was found we were effectively gambling with them. In a naive, youthful pursuit of seeing every movie ever made, I amassed piles of them on VHS and DVD. My grandparents gave me some collector coin sets, somehow I ended up with a few beanie babies and, being a recovering pack rat, I ended up with little collections of Simpsons merchandise and sports jerseys as a pre-teen, political campaign signs and pro sports team paraphernalia in high school and old books and vinyl records through college. Yes, as a kid, I’ve collected a lot — Lincoln logs, Legos and inherited stamps, too, fill my basement.

But, in truth, the largest collection I ever amassed was little pieces of printed cardboard, baseball cards, and to a lesser extent, other sports cards. In my memory, anything I didn’t save, I spent on them, starting with the occasional checkout-line pack purchase at the former Shelby’s dime store.

Of course, I’m not alone among the youth of the 1980s and 1990s. Entire books have been written about the baseball card bubble that came from an over-saturated market, so much so that many think error cards were created to fuel demand.

In love with sports and trading and playing with friends, I dove headlong into the hobby bubble. More specifically, from about the age nine in 3rd grade to about 14 in 8th grade, I likely spent less than $1,000, and, if I was able to more accurately estimate, it might likely be much less. In truth, my time was spent more on trading the cards with friends. Before high school, I had mostly set aside the indulgence, though I’d still sometimes take out that collection to marvel at my investment.

Still, my sports card collection was the first foray into business I made, and so I learned plenty. Here’s my sharing some of that.

  1. Maintain liquidity — I thank my parents for a lot. They instilled in me a lot of habits and qualities that I take great pride in. In my days of sports cards, I worked for money — household chores, refereeing soccer games and other gigs — and would also get a few packs as Christmas and birthday presents. Despite all of this, I remember vividly never spending all of money on anything, even sports cards. From as early as I can remember, I had a savings account, and I would take a portion of whatever money I earned or was given and put it away. I was frugal in my card purchasing, seeking out deals and largely depending on trading to get what I wanted. I can actually remember being in 7th grade in spring 1999 at age 13, riding in the backseat of a car driven by Jordan Maslowski’s sister, whom I adored. She told me and her brother that she’d care about baseball cards when she could use them to pay for clothes at the store — at first I thought what a cool concept that would be, and my second thought was that I better keep some savings in case that didn’t come to pass. ….It didn’t.
  2. Metrics matter — The most important part of any business is reliable analytics, the kind of information that can offer a relatively unbiased view of your industry. As has been written, the sports pricing guides were a sham. Moreover, I didn’t keep detailed track of what I purchased, so it’s hard to evaluate even my own waning interest. Know how to most accurately evaluate your investment.
  3. Keep a trade simple to get it done — The real fun that followed the pack buying and trade-show hunting was gathering a group of friends and having sports card trade marathons. We’d have sleepovers or steal time during homeroom to look through each other’s cards and offer deals. I loved the occasional multi-party, many-card deals, we could bring together, but mostly, the simpler and more straightforward the deal, the more likely it was to happen. I look back with great fondness on all that I learned during the hours of trading. You need to have experience and savvy to get deals done.
  4. Market-based scarcity matters — Many are rightly critical of the value of things like online advertising, but surely we can agree there is more inherent value in audience than pieces of cardboard — particularly considering in most cases, there was no sense of how many were actually ever printed. Indeed, sports cards could be made en masse, something I’ve since learned. By the time of the introduction of signed and ‘game-worn jersey’ cards, the market was likely already crumbling, so no industry-fabricated scarcity could save itself. Know why what you sell is valuable.
  5. Less is More — Like most boys, I had a quantity of cards and some quality. The style among my friends was to put together a ‘special binder,’ which was your collection of best cards you’d be willing to trade. It was a great thrill to add something to that binder. Though we all now know we have too many junk cards, even in my pre-teens, I recognized this, and would often try to trade multiple mid-level cards for one great card. I’d pitch it as a way for the other person to hedge his bets on three different players, rather than one, which had some truth to it. Really, though, I recognized that while diversifying your investments is good, in each of those investments, it’s better to have fewer more valuable items, than more less valuable. The margins make for it, and, well, it keeps the basement less cluttered.
  6. Don’t oversell — Some friends started refusing to trade with me. I was too overbearing, they said, though perhaps not using that word. I sold too hard — pushing a friend into a trade every time we spoke, from homeroom, to lunchtime, to passing by in the hall, to after school. I took the fun out of it for some, so, while I can still be overbearing, I’m far more sensitive than I once was to where that line is. Know your customer and treat him well, so he’ll come back.
  7. Appearances matter — I can remember looking on rather dubiously as friends who took worse care of their cards would parade their collections. They weren’t organized by sport — or by anything — and their binders were dusty and they didn’t know what they were talking about. I dealt mostly with those I respected. Repeat customers come from mutual respect.
  8. Product looks matter for sales — When I was in middle school, there were roughly two types of cards, in our own language: old, rare cards and new, shiny cards. All of us in my group of friends would have a few older cards — either from our fathers, or trade shows or through trading — but we all pursued the newer cards, even though they were, we know now, being far more massed produced. Still, with some exception, the prices of all sports cards went down, even the rarer, older cards. Why? Because kids mostly drove the industry and they wanted what looked good. When what looked good proved to be bogus, the whole system went down.

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