(This story originally appeared on www.azcentral.com)
Sports memorabilia is a holiday staple at Paradise Valley Mall, where Sports Collectibles opens a few months before the holiday season and closes shortly thereafter every year.
The northeast Phoenix shop has had a challenging year, and owner Jeff Thalblum doesn’t think it’s solely because of the tough economy.
Sales at Sports Collectibles have decreased about 70 percent since last year, and Thalblum blames the poor performance of the Valley’s professional sports teams.
He is not alone.
Other Valley entrepreneurs in the sports-memorabilia industry have seen their business decrease and don’t expect it to change until Valley teams start winning again.
"The teams are not doing well, so the people start jumping off the bandwagon," Thalblum said. "Especially around the holidays. The wife or girlfriend or mom or dad asks, ‘What do you want?’ And they kind of cross off the Cardinals stuff they wanted."
Thalblum attributes the fickleness of Valley sports fans to the relative youth of Arizona’s professional sports teams. Arizona teams haven’t existed long enough to earn the loyalty of Valley residents, many of them recent transplants.
"With the Chicago Cubs, you have grandpas taking their sons and their sons taking their sons," Thalblum said. "Here in Arizona, we’ve only had the Cardinals since 1988, and they’re not even our team. They moved here. So people like other teams, and since (Valley) teams aren’t doing well, they jump off the bandwagon."
Because of that, to keep income coming in, Thalblum has brought in former athletes from non-Arizona teams, such as New York Yankees pitcher Don Larsen and Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench.
"I actually did not bring in any Arizona Diamondbacks because they were doing so bad. I didn’t even go out and get anybody," he said.
Thalblum acknowledges that there are a few teams that, despite having poor seasons, are doing well simply because of the franchises’ history.
"My Dallas Cowboys stuff is selling, but that’s because they’ve been around for a long time," he said. "It’s like the Chicago Cubs. If they’re losing, it doesn’t matter, because the Dallas Cowboys fans love their Cowboys."
Success does affect sales, said John Eaton, a marketing professor at the Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business, who researches sports marketing. Eaton cited a recent surge in sales of San Francisco Giants merchandise following the team’s World Series win.
But several factors are affecting declining sales, Eaton said, besides poor performance. The economy, Internet competition and a declining interest in collecting memorabilia have impacted the industry.
"The baseball-card boom of the early ’90s and late ’80s has subsided substantially," he said. "The number of cards and card manufacturers has decreased significantly, and I think it has a lot to do with the price of a particular type of card. It’s more a niche than a mainstream hobby like it was 20 years ago."
Eaton said challenging economic times help people realize that collecting sports memorabilia is a luxury.
Phil Ryan, owner of Home Plate, 12802 N. 19th Ave. in Phoenix, said the price of trading cards has increased over the past two decades, making business difficult. Most of Ryan’s business is done by selling new, unopened boxes of trading cards. Because buyers do not know what cards will be in the box, the purchase is a risky one. Valley residents aren’t as willing to take those chances these days, Ryan said. Business at Home Plate has decreased about 80 percent over the past two years.
"When the Cardinals made their Super Bowl run, we sold a lot of Cardinal cards and memorabilia, but we haven’t sold much since then," he said.
Home Plate does some of its business on the Internet, but online sales aren’t as high as in-store sales.
Most people like to have the card in hand before purchasing, Ryan said.
Some of Home Plate’s card-selling competition comes from people who have purchased cards at his north Phoenix store.
"We sell them the product and they open the product, and whatever they get out of the box they put on the Internet," he said. "It opens up a way for collectors to get the cards that they want, so it kind of helps sales."
Scottsdale Cards is an online shop that specializes in vintage cards. Owner Brian Marcy mainly sells cards from the 1900s to the 1970s and said that current teams’ performance doesn’t have much of an effect on his business.
"Most of these guys weren’t even born in the years I deal with. I wasn’t even born," he said.
Marcy said this year’s sales have been consistent with last year’s.
"It’s been a really good year for us. It actually might have been a little better. It’s just luck of the draw," he said.
"I have some nicer collections this year, and when you have better inventory, you’ll have better sales."
Marcy is connected with the Valley’s sports-memorabilia business community and echoes Thalblum and Ryan’s laments.
"From what I’ve seen, from being around the stores, there’s been very little interest in Diamondbacks stuff or Suns stuff, outside of Steve Nash, because he’s a Valley hero," Marcy said. "With the Cardinals, there’s still some interest, mostly in Larry Fitzgerald and a few other stars, but not much."