Twenty years ago, promo card mania was in full bloom. Everyone wanted the latest baseball card product. Regional sets were a big deal. The internet was a futuristic blurb on a magazine's technology page. If you'd said the word 'e-mail' someone probably thought you said 'female'.
The sports collectible hobby is still here, twenty national conventions later, looking much different and conducting business far differently from the early 1990s.
"The market changes," said David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions. " The buyers change. The people change, but the one constant is that it's the one time of the year when people from all levels of collecting, buying and selling are in the same room. Just from that, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for buying and selling, consigning, making contacts."
Going to the National is a must for those who are now in serious competition for consignments and bidders. It's a huge expense for anyone who signs up for booth space. Regular booths run $1050 to $1295. That's rarely enough space for auction companies who want to make sure they're noticed and more space=more expense. Dealers often arrive Monday or Tuesday and stay through Sunday night. 5-6 nights in a hotel for several employees plus meals, display case rental, incidentals and promotional materials add up in a hurry. Figure $15,000 minimum for most of the larger companies at the show.
“I would say if you’re a full-time dealer or an auction house, you’re looking at a two to three-month process from start to finish to prepare for set up, to put your marketing plan together, to get out here and do your set up, deal with the public for five days, then pack everything up, head back to the office and unpack it all," said Auction Report's Ryan Friedman. "Then you have the post-National business. Then you have to follow up with customers you met at the show, some of whom may be potential consignors as well as new bidders. It is a huge commitment."
Having eye-catching displays of vintage sports memorabilia means a lot of planning.
“We’re very organized," said Josh Wulkan of Huggins and Scott. " We have to have everything labeled, catalogued and inventoried. It's about a 17-hour drive in a rented truck. We order the showcases in advance. They (the union workers inside the hall) drop them off at your booth and it’s up to you to move them around. We come with an idea of how we want to set the whole thing up and then it’s literally just going box by box and figuring out what we want to be put where. It's just the nitty-gritty of placing pieces in a semblance of order with labels that help it all make sense.”
Signing up new bidders is vital to auction house success and so is showing off some of the items to bidders who tend to spend more if they've touched an Al Kaline game worn jersey or seen a rare card up close.
“We have a lot of people who bid with us and look forward to coming to the show so they can physically handle pieces and have an idea of exactly what they’re bidding on," Wulkan explained. "With cards, they can get a close look at the condition. We also have people who come in and say ‘oh, a 1953 Mickey Mantle. I have one of those’, and they want us to sell it for them. So it’s a little bit of both."
“Having done it for so long and doing it on a national level now, people will contact us and say ‘are you going to be in Chicago? I’d like to bring these old programs to you'," said Hunt. "Other people who consign with us will be sort of saving things for us because they haven’t seen us in six months or so."
Responsible for several big events each year, including the baseball All-Star Game and Super Bowl auctions, Hunt also showed off items from its upcoming Louisville Slugger Auction and brought along a few items for sale out of its online store. Unlike some of its events, the National is catered toward serious collectors. There are endless conversations before, during and after about pieces that might be available for consignment and how to snare a potentially lucrative piece.
“It’s a big show to prepare for," said David Hunt. "It’s a big show to be involved in. We’re usually busy every day.”