Is the Sports Card Hobby Dying? Not According to Leaf and Panini
It was a high-profile weekend for the sports card and memorabilia industry. On Saturday, the reality show, Ball Boys, debuted nationwide on ABC. This was followed up by a feature story about baseball cards on CBS Sunday Morning. The piece, which was done by Armen Keteyian, used the backdrop of a small show in Parsippany, New Jersey to paint a grim near-future for the hobby. It concludes by suggesting that baseball card collecting may even be on its deathbed. Leaf's President Brian Gray and Panini, both manufacturers entrenched on the front lines of the business, strongly disagree.
Here's the piece in question:
"I am disgusted by this story. It’s your typical slanted take from mainstream media," said Gray. "To say that the hobby is dying because card shows are weaker is ignorant. They took the worst show there is in Parsippany. Had they shown more of Chicago, it would have been a little better. I publicly challenge Armen Keteyian to debate the business."
Gray did acknowledge that traditional card show business is down. But from that, online trading and selling has replaced it.
"The new card show is the Internet. Seventy-five percent of the entire industry happens online," said Gray, suggesting that the hobby has merely evolved.
Panini echoed a similar response in a public statement made on their blog, "If you look at any business over the last 20 years, you are going to find that the consumer and the market strategy has evolved. The manufacturers, hobby and collectors have all stepped up their games and have become more savvy in this industry," said Panini's Vice President of Marketing. "It’s why we have seen and celebrated some of the most unique, one-of-a-kind cards selling for thousands of dollars over the last year, along with new innovations."
Keteyian's piece compares the hobby at its peak to what it is today, at least at one small card show. The late-80s and early-90s had more of a gold rush mentality where many collectors were looking for quick riches. They were investors, not collectors. During the fever, the basic laws of supply and demand were thrown out of whack. Today, many of those so-called collectors are left with piles of largely worthless cardboard thanks to ridiculous print runs and pure speculation.
A major voice in the CBS story is Alan Rosen. He was a major face for the hobby back during the boom times. His buying sprees and handfuls of cash led to feature stories in major publications like Sports Illustrated. Mr. Mint, as he was dubbed, was probably the closest thing the hobby had to a household name other than an athlete.
Gray challenged Keteyian's use of the dealer as a centerpiece for the story, "Alan Rosen is no ambassador to the hobby anymore. He’s no longer relevant."
Gray continued to point out another missing piece in the CBS story, the fact that new releases generate a lot more revenue today than vintage cards, "Vintage is barely relevant. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s small potatoes."
"New releases are 95 percent of the hobby today," Gray claims.
But the hobby is so much more than that. The Internet has taken the regional card show and given collectors a global base with which to buy, sell and trade. Retail stores like Walmart and Target continue to make cards available in places where there are no hobby shops.
"Going to a hotel for a show and saying that’s the category is inaccurate. Look at mass retail, hobby and the Internet," comments Panini on their blog. "Go to The National in Baltimore in August and see a cross section of card companies and retailers and watch how much money moves."
And what about the kids? The CBS story uses iconic pictures to paint a nostalgic period where everything was black and white. I can only imagine the sound of The Andy Griffith Show playing in the background with the smell of apple pie wafting from a window sill in the kitchen as well. I've collected for nearly 30 years and, for me at least, it was never like that. Yes, there were more young kids collecting when I started, but both Gray and Panini point back to the hobby's evolution.
"There are still kids in the hobby. They’re just 18 to 30 now. Do I wish we had more kids? Sure," said Gray.
Panini also acknowledged the demographic shift in their blog, "Fewer kids does not equal category dying. It’s evolved. Males 18-55 drive the category."
This isn't to say that there aren't some truths to Keteyian's piece. The hobby has had some struggles since the inflated boom two decades ago. However, the hobby, the cards and collectors have all adapted. This hobby isn't dying. It's changing. It always had been. And if it wants to thrive and prosper, that evolution needs to continue.
We reached out to Topps and Upper Deck for comments as well but neither have responded to the CBS story.
UPDATE: Upper Deck posted a response on their blog.
What are your thoughts on the CBS story? Feel free to leave a comment below.