The 2019 National Recap
I attended my first National in Atlanta, GA in 1992. Coincidentally, it has long been considered the largest National on record. If you were at the National in 1992, you experienced the apex of the Hobby that was driven by a series of catalytic moments spanning Jose Canseco, 89 Upper Deck, 90 Leaf, to 92 Bowman. Not only were cards flying off the shelves and out of cases, but so were commemorative plates, starting line-up figures, and even sports themed coins. The Hobby had not just bloomed, it blossomed. Of course, we all know what happened next – overproduction caught up with the Hobby, then an economic recession, then an incredibly soft period that was resuscitated to some degree by LeBron James. Through all of that, the hobby didn’t end. Many passionate collectors and dealers stayed with it, but it was clearly a different hobby.
The Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Chicago this past weekend resembled, if not exceeded, what I experienced with my father and a good friend in Atlanta back in 1992. Much like 1992, the show we experienced this weekend had been brewing for several years, we just saw it fully rev its big engine. The convergence of a strong economy, nostalgia, and passion for sports has collided to create a Hobby rebound that some had hypothesized would never happen. It is hard to underestimate the role the US economy plays across all Hobby sub-categories, not just cards. Hobbies are inherently discretionary, and flow with economic momentum. We have seen nostalgia play a huge role in entertainment and fashion, and it is an understated factor in the Hobby’s resurgence. Yes, many collectors saw their 1990 collections rendered worthless, but many of those collectors loved every minute of the boom and look back on it fondly. For many of us, our first exposure to business was trading with friends, setting up at a card show, or like me, working in a card shop. They loved connecting with teams and players, they loved trying to “flip” cards, and they loved pulling that “big hit.” And in my opinion, that spirit was back at this year’s National, and can carry the Hobby for several years.
So, I hope I have convinced you – it was one hell of a National. Whether it was hobby champion Gary Vee, anticipation for Bowman Chrome, or pending basketball releases, money was flowing, collectors and dealers were having fun, and long-time hobby veterans looked around the convention center and thought to themselves – We have been here before.
As a small business start-up, we have two hopes; 1) The chance to get our business truly off the ground, and 2) the longevity of the momentum that the Hobby is currently experiencing. The first hope is tied to our hard work, allocation of new product, and savvy business decisions. The second hope is much more complicated, and one that I think is worth discussing. We must see leaders in the Hobby invest in:
Consumer Relevance – Without the data and research Topps or Panini might have, but with plenty of qualitative observation, I have to believe the Hobby is driven by 3 Behavioral Segments: 1) The Modern Collector, 2) The Vintage Collector, and 3) The Speculative Collector. Each of these segments overlap to some degree, but their core behaviors are differentiated by collecting approach, ideology, and demographic dynamics. The common challenge across the three segments is one that has been lamented ad nauseum – the Hobby needs young collectors. They don’t have to neccessarilly be 10 years old and putting cards in their bicycle spokes, but we must bring in collectors across age, and ideally, ethnic groups. We saw sparks of that this weekend, and the manufacturers, shops, and dealers must continue to work on it. The four major manufacturers are making nice progress, and we all must hope it continues. With the collector top of mind, manufacturers, retailers, and breakers must also consider segmentation strategies that will be informed by social listening, quantitative analysis, and a willingness to test and learn. Vintagebreaks.com has done a very nice job of creating a differentiated retail position targeted toward a valuable and engaged consumer segment.
Integrity & Market Stewardship – Collecting hobbies unlike sports hobbies have never been “overseen.” There is not the equivalent of the United States Golf Association or American Softball Association looking after the hobby’s long-term best interests or integrity. Nor is there a defined trade group like the Grocery Manufacturers Association that functions to help shepherd synergistic parties like manufacturers, retailers, and suppliers to collaborate with the long-view in mind. The Industry Summit could evolve in this way, but based on the information I have gathered to date, it has been more of a gathering or workshop versus a strategic industry trade group. I believe this might be one of the most critical needs in the hobby, particularly as the hobby navigates fraud, rapid growth, and the role of e-commerce. We need to see manufacturers, suppliers, store owners of varying size, and dealers provide thought leadership that reduces longitudinal volatility which should yield more fun, more profit, and most importantly, stability.
Other than that, a few quick observations & questions from the show floor:
Mike Trout, despite not playing on a winning team, has won the hearts of dealers and collectors that has surpassed our last baseball darling - Ken Griffey, Jr. Dealer pricing might be pushing the edge of reason and price tolerance until Trout can win a World Series. Remember that Mantle, Jordan, LeBron, and Bryant did not reach their lofty value perches until they had dominated and won.
The Jordan RC is undeniably the hobby’s signature card of the last 40 years, but wow, the show was flooded with them.
To my earlier point about segmentation - What will happen as vintage collectors age? It seemed like Mantle cards were moving around the same family of dealers and collectors.
I do not have firm data, but it seemed that sales and interest at raw vintage tables was slower. Would love to hear from dealers if they agree or disagree, and if the trimming scandal was possibly the cause.
Bowman first card and rookie speculation seems out of control. With other parts of the hobby vibrant, will we see this area of the hobby moderate? How many dealers and collectors will get burned before investors are gun shy? Collecting or investing in the next hot rookie will never go away, but it has drifted to high risk gambling.
We would love to hear your thoughts on the National in the comments or on social media. If you would like to read about the 8 guys you are most likely to see at the National, click this link: