Are you familiar with Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous line: “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it”? Well, don’t feel bad because it appears most involved in the sports memorabilia business never heard of it either.
I wasn’t really a collector until I took over the editorial reigns of Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly about five years ago and since then my collecting habits would be modest at best. So unlike others who have been in the industry for decades, I don’t know all of the history that has shaped the hobby into what it is today. But one thing I have learned about the sports card industry during my time here is that too much of a good thing is almost always a bad thing.
When the hobby boom took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, new card companies jumped into the fray and the existing card companies cranked out set after set until the supply far outweighed the demand. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie but when the smoke cleared, the hobby was left with an over-saturated market and millions of worthless cards. Collectors eventually figured this out and shifted their collecting focus from cardboard investments to pretty much anything else, as the heavily populated market had people leaving the hobby in much the same they would a burning building.
After years of industry experts screaming for brand proliferation and a drastic reduction in the numbers of card sets they wanted produced, the card companies eventually relented and put the brakes on. In recent years the trend has continued with fewer card companies being licensed by the leagues which ultimately led to fewer, and in theory, better products available to consumers.
While all that was going on, many collectors shifted their focus from new cards to vintage materials and as card shop owners struggled to survive in a lean market, they shifted their focus as well. In the early days of the sports memorabilia business, auctions featuring high-quality vintage material were reserved for the elite. It featured a few lots of big-dollar items to bid on and the frequency of the sales and the companies hosting them could be easily tracked. But as some of the big auction houses spread their inventory out to include items that wouldn’t break the bank and afforded the average collector the opportunity to jump in and slam down the gavel, the auction business grew as exponentially as the new card market dried up.
Targeting new auction customers, most of which were collectors looking for more stability than the basement full of new cards that weren’t worth enough to ship to a potential trade partner, the auction house boom led by eBay, was born. Record prices for vintage materials were being realized online and throughout country, as everybody caught auction fever. With everybody looking to “win” items with the highest bid, everybody and their brother was starting up their own auction business.
Initially, there was plenty of great memorabilia for everybody to prosper but eventually many of those businesses who had missed the boat when it initially left the dock were folding up like beach chairs on a rainy day. And that takes us to today’s market where many are still looking to cash in on the auction craze but the wealth of materials available is running a little thin as everybody tries to grab a piece of the pie.
If you do a Google search for sports memorabilia auctions you’ll get a whopping 102 million results. It seems that many involved have forgotten a valuable hobby history lesson and might just be condemned to repeat it if they’re not careful. Sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing and today’s auction market might just be the perfect example of that.