Nation & World

Baseball-card collecting goes digital

The hobby's connect to youth has declined

Chicago Cubs baseball cards sold for a dollar each at Elite Sports Cards and Comics on March 28, 2018 in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Chicago Cubs baseball cards sold for a dollar each at Elite Sports Cards and Comics on March 28, 2018 in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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CHICAGO — Elite Sports Cards and Comics has been in the same simple storefront in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood for 23 years. Owner John Merkel has seen baseball stars come and go. And he’s watched as his competitors have closed, one by one.

In 1995, when his store opened, Merkel thinks there about 10 card stores in Chicago, maybe more. Today, Merkel estimates there are just two shops dedicated to baseball card collecting left in Chicago. A number still exist in the suburbs.

Another thing’s missing these days, too: “You don’t have kids any longer. Kids just don’t collect,” Merkel said. “Could be lack of interest. Could be for other activities. Could be price point.”

Baseball card collecting, once a popular hobby for people of a certain vintage, has changed. It’s no longer the domain of shoebox-toting adolescents looking to trade cards with friends. It’s become a speculator’s game and a business where a single case of 50 cards — housed in an aluminum briefcase — can sell for more than $25,000.

“There’s serious money,” said hobbyist-turned-dealer Andy Park of suburban Palatine, who sells cards though Facebook and rediscovered baseball card collecting after the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

Park was selling a Kris Bryant rookie card for $600 at a recent card show.

“You see the money that’s involved in it. Hundreds or thousands for just a card. It changes perspective,” he said.

There always has been big money in baseball cards. The famous 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card, featuring a Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, sold for $3.12 million in 2016, and Topps, a leading producer of cards, reportedly is valued at around $400 million.

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While there are no definitive sales statistics, dealers and experts say the baseball strike of 1994 drove a stake into the heart of card collecting, alienating a generation of baseball fans. The average Major League Baseball viewer is now 57, according to a study conducted last year based on Nielsen television viewing data.

Fewer youngsters are picking up bats and gloves. Video games, extracurricular activities and technology have further siphoned off potential card collectors.

Overproduction in the late 1980s and early 1990s also saturated the market, driving down the value of trading cards from all sports, experts say. The industry contracted, with Topps, Panini America and Upper Deck left standing, as brands such as Score faltered, and others like Fleer and Donruss were acquired.

In 2009, Panini America acquired Donruss, which was once part of the now-defunct confectioner Leaf.

But these days, collectors have more options than ever, as trading card companies seek to find new customers and recapture those that lost interest for one reason or another.

“I wouldn’t say it’s back to where it was in the ’90s, but it’s certainly rebounded to where it was after the strike,” said Brian Fleischer, senior market analyst for Beckett Media, which sets prices for trading cards.

Companies suh as Topps, which produces cards for Major League Baseball, and Panini America, which makes cards endorsed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, sell more than ever, but often in limited editions.

Buy a pack of cards today, and you just might find a star player’s autograph or part of a jersey or bat embedded in a card. Panini America sells cards embedded with gems. A limited edition Bryant rookie card, which includes a small piece of his jersey, is selling for more than $1,000 on eBay. Easter eggs like that are highly coveted by collectors, but can be unattainable for many collectors — especially kids.

Jason Horwath, Panini America’s vice president of marketing, said there is a reason why shopkeepers see fewer young collectors: “There’s definitely kids out there. They’re collecting. They’re just collecting differently.”

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Translation: They’re going digital. Panini, which also creates cards for the NBA, NFL and FIFA soccer, offers mobile apps. With the World Cup a few months away, Panini’s soccer app is “going crazy right now,” Horwath said.

“I think kids collect and consume differently. From a Panini perspective, we want to allow people to collect however they want to collect,” he said.

Topps sees great promise in its six-year-old Bunt app, in which collectors can buy and trade digital cards and play fantasy baseball with other users.

According to Topps, the app’s 2.5 million users have opened 612 million digital packs of cards.

“It may not be that same experience, but users still get an opportunity to open their digital packs in the palm of their hand whenever they want,” Kinton said.

Collectors who aren’t going to hobby stores may be camping out online, where there are endless opportunities to buy, sell and trade cards.

Baseball can be a leisurely affair — some might say that’s one reason it’s having trouble attracting younger fans — but baseball card collecting is fully enmeshed in the digital space, where people expect instant gratification.

Fleischer, the pricing analyst, sees that demand play out in real time. When he started at Beckett in 2003, the company published a monthly price guide, the card collectors’ bible.

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Now his team updates their online price guide daily to satisfy collectors eager to see how a player’s performance has affected his cards’ value.

“If you’re not producing, they’ll ride that wave and move on to the next guy,” he said. “It’s a real what-have-you-done-for-me lately attitude.”

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