by Craig Paulson
America loves football. The most profitable sports franchises are NFL teams. Despite the weak economy, football stadiums regularly have sold out their stadiums for their games.
Baseball is not quite so successful.
Weaker teams often play in front of small crowds and in many markets, it is rare to have stadiums with more than half their seating capacity filled during non-promotional days. Why then does the apparent popularity of football as compared to baseball not translate into more football card collectors than baseball card collectors?
Collecting sports cards has been around since the late 19th century when both football and baseball cards were first produced. Baseball cards caught on quickly while football cards remained as the second sister in terms of popularity. In fact, with no major pro league until the early 1920s, the sport was basically regarded as a collegiate pasttime. There are a number of theories that might explain the disparity that has remained even while football exploded in the post-World War II era.
An Early Start
Kids are indoctrinated into the sport of baseball at an early age. They start playing tee ball as pre-schoolers. Seven and eight-year-olds play the sport in their backyard or at school. They get into organized Little League competition soon after and develop a love for the game.
Conversely, before high school football, a much smaller percentage participate in organized football leagues. The disparity shows up in the kids’ interest in the two types of sports cards.
Baseball was king in the 1950s, especially in New York, where Topps debuted in 1952 and ramped up the industry. Until the 1960s, pro football teams were few and far between. Kids who grew up in the decade recalled baseball card collecting, flipping and trading among their best memories. When the values of cards began growing in the mid-1970s and beyond, those ’50s kids rediscovered their cards, further strengthening the baseball card “brand”. Much less was known about football cards because fewer kids collected them or had memories of watching players.
Football players notoriously have very short careers. Baseball careers average 5.6 years. According to the NFL Players Asociation, the average length of a football player’s career is just 3.3 years. Astounding, but understandable, considering the propensity for serious injury, intense pressure to win and the continuous competition from upcoming college stars.
The stars of the NFL – quarterbacks (4.4 years), running backs (2.57 years) and wide receivers (2.81 years) have short careers. Short careers mean less chances to build a collection around your favorite players and a continuing evolution of new stars.
Helmets and Uniforms
Football players are less identifiable to the average fan because of the uniform and helmet they must wear. Their faces are hidden by helmets and they appear more like characters than people with their big shoulder pads and heavy padding. It is harder for the average fan to relate to a football player than a baseball player who usually appears like the guy next door in his baseball uniform.
Baseball cards are traditionally a late spring and summer pasttime. Kids have more leisure time and so do adults. The arrival of the new baseball card products signal the start of a new season and it’s something collectors have looked forward to all winter.
Card collecting is, for the most part, something done by white America. The majority of the stars in football are African- American. In baseball, there are many more white superstars and they fit the collector’s mindset better than the equally great black players. Despite parallel careers, Mickey Mantle cards outpace Willie Mays.
The gap has been closing as more adults get involved in the hobby. Baseball is still number one, but football card collecting does appear to be gaining a little ground through the eyes of those who have only been alive long enough to know football as the top spectator sport. With a lot of history to overcome, the prospects of exceeding baseball in the sports card market is daunting. Perhaps with some better marketing by the NFL, collecting football cards will become number one.