Collecting Sports Cards in Australia

By Darren Smythe

More than half a day may separate the two nations, but Australia has a very active group of collectors who buy, sell and trade American sports cards.  You’ll find them on eBay, in online forums and in the customer databases of the hobby’s biggest dealers.  Most have to buy their cards online since the number of card shops in the ‘Land Down Under’ is very limited.

The sports, and players, that are collected have been influenced by the coverage the sports have received in the Australian media.  More than any other sport, NBA games have gotten network TV exposure in Australia and that is why it is more popular among collectors here.  Michael Jordan was the player everyone wanted, and after he retired, the players collectors are looking for are usually those who are popular with collectors in the USA.

Before the introduction of pay television to Australia, the only way to watch American sports was usually on the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  Midnight on a Friday night was one of the time slots for the NBA and sometimes the game was repeated Saturday at lunchtime.  The ABC would also show a weekly NFL game.  Television stations rarely had any baseball or hockey, and if they did it was shown in the wee hours of the morning.  During the early 1990s the ABC did show some American college basketball and football.

During this time the Aussie professional league, the NBL, saw crowds of 15,000 at some of its games.  Due in large part to mismanagement by the league,  that number is now closer to 1,500 and many of the teams have folded.  The league has provided a pro career for many former American college players and collectors who want cards of basketball players from specific schools may want to look at the checklists for the NBL card sets from trading card makers Futera and Stops.

From 1992 to 1995 there was a boom period in American sports cards collecting around Australia.  Upper Deck packs with Shaq rookies were among the items available among the chocolate bars and other impulse items at the cash registers at K-Mart stores.  New shops dedicated to NBA, as well as other sports, cards were opening everywhere but most only lasted a year or so.

Collectors in Australia usually have to pay more for their cards. Postage is always an added extra that can’t be avoided.  There are also stores and private sellers who don’t ship overseas so that does put some cards out of reach.  Mailing cards to Melbourne, Australia is as safe as mailing them to Melbourne, Florida but some feel it is too big of a risk.

Fortunately there are some collectors in the USA who will purchase those cards for people in Australia, have them sent to them and then forward them to Australia.  Those ‘middlemen’ have really contributed to the collections of many around Australia.   Something that made it more difficult to buy boxes or cases of cards was when the USPS stopped their surface mail option.  While air mail does get packages to Australia more quickly (two weeks compared to two months by boat), it does add an extra cost.

An educational part of collecting cards in Australia is learning about international financial markets and currency conversion rates.  During the boom times for NBA cards, the mid 1990s, an Australia dollar only bought approximately sixty American cents.  So that meant cards were much higher in cost than in the USA.  It was still cost efficient to have boxes sent over from the United States than buying the packs at local stores.  The American dollar and Australian dollar are close to parity at the moment, which helps Aussie collectors buy more.

While hobby shops aren’t as prevalent as they are in the U.S., there are several stores in Western Australia, and a scattering of sellers around markets in other states.   Prices, due to competition from the availability to purchase over the internet, are now similar to what they are in the USA.   Panini is starting to distribute to some sellers so Australian collectors can get new products on the same release date as it is in other countries.

In the past, one of the few places to find American sports cards was at Collector Fairs, which are held several times a year in the major cities.  Among the hundred or so sellers would be one or two with NBA cards and a small number of NFL ones.  A place that now keeps track of when fairs are on, and provides a lot of other information for sports card collectors in Australia, is OzCardTrader.  This site also has news from Panini and other card companies, a section for trading and selling cards and also an area for the posting of pictures and videos of box breaks.

Australia does not have a tradition of sports card collecting, like the one that exists in the USA and Canada but there is variety. In this country, there are cards for cricket, Australian football and rugby.   With only eleven players on the Australian cricket team, there have not been any large sets to collect.  Rugby, both league and union, is popular in the northern states of Queensland and New South Wales.  Aussie Rules cards, for Australian Football League players, are collected more in Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

Australians playing in the North American sports leagues have not really created a lot of extra hype for the hobby.  Luc Longley may have won championships with the Chicago Bulls and relief pitcher Graeme Lloyd and catcher Dave Nilsson had success during their careers but few were seeking out their cards.  Andrew Bogut and Kyrie Irving were both top NBA picks, and were both born in Melbourne, Australia.  They may have some extra fans due to that but not enough to push prices up here.

Ben Graham is unique.  He is the only person to have lost the championship game in the Australian Football League, the AFL’s Grand Final, and the National Football League, the Super Bowl.  He also has cards, at low prices, for both sports.  He has a variety of AFL cards from his time playing for the Geelong Cats and was also on NFL cards during his time at the New York Jets, appearing on the 2006 Topps Total card # 208 and the 2007 Topps Total card # 413 and the parallel versions of those cards.  Graham has since played for the Saints, Cardinals and Lions.

 -Darren Smythe is an Australian-based writer and avid collector of American sports cards.