When we talk about borders in the sports card industry, we are usually referring to the centering of a Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie card or a Michael Jordan Fleer rookie card.
But the borders currently affecting the sports card industry are the land crossings between the United States and Canada.
On August 9, Canada finally opened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers from the United States. They can come to Canada as visitors and avoid quarantine if they were fully vaccinated 14 days before entering Canada.
The Canadian government also increased the number of airports accepting international commercial flight passengers. Airports in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City and Halifax have joined Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary as Canadian airports permitting international passenger flights.
The news is important for collectors. The Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo, Canada’s semi-annual national sports collectors convention, is scheduled for November at the International Centre in Toronto. Not only will the open borders permit an expected large number of American collectors, but it will also allow companies like Upper Deck, Leaf, Beckett and many other industry corporations to be exhibitors.
Upper Deck is perhaps most happy about the border opening, as they are planning to release 2021-22 Upper Deck Series 1 Hockey at the show. That product will include the first Cole Caufield rookie card in its Young Guns shortprinted rookie subset.
“Having the border open is big for us,” said Steve Menzie, who owns and promotes the Canadian show. “We usually get a lot of American collectors, as well as some European collectors.”
While the show has items from all sports, it is known first and foremost as a hockey show. The show draws a lot of collectors from the strong hockey markets in Buffalo, Boston, New York and Detroit, as well as a few from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Jersey. There are also usually collectors and dealers who make the trip from Finland to walk the floor as buyers.
Menzie operated his show as a virtual event beginning in the spring of 2020. He said he operated the event that way to keep the Expo alive and relevant. He made the trip to Chicago for the National Sports Collectors Convention, which had its second largest attendance in the history of the show. Expectations are that the attendance for the Expo will rival the levels of 1991 and 1992.
“The hobby has been the biggest it has ever been since the border was shut down,” Menzie said. “A lot of older collectors rediscovered the hobby during COVID-19, while a lot of new collectors and investors became involved.”
One of the big differences between this sports card boom and the one in the early 1990s has been online sales. In that era, collectors had to go to shows or hobby stores, or order products by mail. There was no internet then. Now, sports card dealers don’t need a storefront. They can run their businesses through their websites and eBay.
“Business across the border is still happening,” Menzie said. “Everyone in the business is always fighting for their slice of the pie, but the pie has grown. This is a North American hobby, not just a U.S. or Canadian hobby.”
The Expo is not the only event that will draw American collectors to Canada. Upper Deck’s first 2021-22 NHL hockey product will be its annual Tim Hortons hockey card set. It is available exclusive at Tim Hortons quick service restaurants in Canada. In the past, it was not uncommon to see American license plates in line in the drive thru, as collectors and dealers from U.S. border towns and cities would load up on packs to take back to the U.S.
While the Canadian border is now open to vaccinated Americans, the U.S. land borders remain closed. Canadians were fully expecting President Biden to open the border to Canadians when Prime Minister Trudeau opened the Canadian border.
While Canadians are able to fly to the United States, they are still not able to cross by land. The land crossing ban currently lasts until Sat., Aug. 21, but it is expected to be extended. According to a U.S. border agent, the cause of the ban has more to do with Mexico than Canada.
Another complication is the type of vaccines that are approved. Many Canadians received an AstraZeneca shot as at least their first dose. Many then got a Moderna or Pfizer shot as their second dose. The United States recently announced that people who received two doses of AstraZeneca or Covishield, the version of the vaccine made in India, are now considered fully vaccinated. However, the approximately two million Canadians who got mixed doses are not yet considered to be fully vaccinated by the United States.
The restrictions do not apply to air travel, and proof of vaccination is not needed for Canadians or other international travelers flying to the United States. Only a negative screening test is required for anyone arriving in the United States from a foreign country, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.
As a result of the restrictions, Canadians are still not able to drive to American sports card shops or shows. Not only does the travel ban hurt border town shops like Dave and Adam’s Card World in Buffalo, NY, but there are other businesses affected by the ban.
Mike Lira owns the Ogdensburg UPS Store in Ogdensburg, NY. His shop is less than five minutes from the Prescott-Ogdensburg International Bridge, which crosses the St. Lawrence River about 60 miles south of Ottawa. Lira says every month he is fighting to stay open and keep his business alive.
“About 80 per cent of our business is from Canadians driving down to our store and picking up packages,” he said.
Lira said he does not know exactly how much volume he does in sports cards and memorabilia, but he knows it is a significant part of his business. Most of his business comes from Amazon and eBay purchases, or from the websites of businesses that either don’t ship to Canada or have international shipping policies that are expensive and slow.
Because of the extra steps and costs associated with cross border purchases, such as delays at the border and broker fees, many Canadians opt to have their orders shipped to UPS stores in places like Ogdensburg or Niagara Falls, NY. Online sales of sports cards have exploded since Lira last welcomed Canadians into his store in March, 2020. Chances are that when he is able to accept packages for Canadians, his volume will increase.
“We expected the border to be open a lot sooner,” he said. “To say we are surviving is a bit too positive. It’s been extremely difficult. We were expecting the border to open sooner than this.”
With the fourth wave of COVID-19 being brought on by the Delta variant in Canada, just how long the land border will be closed is uncertain. Canada is trying to keep its border open to Americans because they need the tourism and hospitality sector dollars. The border opening is not as much of a priority for the U.S. as a whole, but it is crucial for border town businesses that rely on international customers.
As far as the hobby is concerned, COVID-19 and the border crossings have proven its resilience. Even if the border is closed, Americans will still find a way to purchase Canadian-exclusive hockey card products, and Canadians will find a way to buy products from American shops, dealers and online sellers.