Events such as O.J. Simpson’s alleged attempt to retrieve ill-gotten booty do more than place professional athletes’ freedom in jeopardy and give people something to talk about; it increases interest in the sports memorabilia and collectibles business.
Simpson, an NFL Hall of Famer, was charged with robbing two sports-memorabilia collectors of $80,000 worth of goods – including items signed by Simpson, an autographed photo of NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana and a baseball signed by Pete Rose – from a Las Vegas hotel Sept. 16.
In a business where a 1960 Mickey Mantle baseball glove was scooped up by Billy Crystal in 1999 for $239,000 and a baseball-card collector can demand hundreds of dollars for a single card, collecting sports memorabilia isn’t a child’s hobby anymore.
But part of the $1 billion-a-year industry is directed at children.
“There has been a rebirth in collecting (sports) trading cards. There has been a dramatic increase and turnaround in the business the past two years. I attribute that to us dedicating our resources at attracting more kids into the market,” says Clay Luraschi, spokesman for New York-based Topps Co.
Topps began producing baseball cards in 1952 and now features basketball and football cards as well as other collectible merchandise.
“The only way for this to grow is to get kids involved,” Luraschi continued. “There is always a segment of the market collecting something that has value to them. Getting younger kids involved means we will have a new base for our products as the younger collectors get older.”
Although he sells some sports memorabilia at his store in Glenbrook Square, Barry Krumlauf isn’t just a sports collector.
The owner of A-Z Coins and Stamps Inc. prefers collecting coins, but says, “I’ve been in the business for 31 years. Business is really starting to pick up from where it was 10 to 15 years ago. Sports collectibles go in cycles. The hottest thing we are selling right now is (Indianapolis) Colts rookie cards and (Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback) Brady Quinn cards. A number of years this was down, but it’s starting to come back up.”
And as business starts to increase, Carlos Gonzalez knows there are people willing to spend money, especially this time of year.
The North Carolina dealer owns Authentic Signed Sports Co. He says his average customer pays about $100 for an item, but one customer paid $2,600 for a New England Patriots jersey signed by the team.
He’s making money, but Gonzalez had no intention of starting a sports-memorabilia business.
“I have been collecting my whole life. I love doing it. I enjoy doing it. I started selling as a way to supplement my income, and it all grew from there.
“This is a big business. It’s a billon-dollar-a-year business. It’s been a little slow, but we are about to go into our peak season,” he says. “Everybody has a sports fan on their Christmas list. We can give them a one-of-a-kind gift that is different than anything else out there.”
It’s not unusual that people want to collect items from their favorite teams and players, and many companies are banking on that fact.
In 1989, Upper Deck began making baseball cards. The California company’s card roster is now a who’s-who of the sporting world. Tiger Woods, LeBron James and seven of the top 13 NBA draft picks for 2007 are on the list, says Don Williams, the company’s public relations manager.
Even if fans can’t be Mike, Williams says everyone can own a piece of Mike – Michael Jordan, that is.
“We signed Michael Jordan in the early 1990s. We signed LeBron to his first professional contract. The players know we have an excellent relationship, a premium product, and we will protect their likeness,” Williams says. “Consumers know what they purchase from us is authentic. We witness every autograph.
“Not everyone can play the game, but when you buy a game-used item, you are a step closer to being on the field. You get to live through them through that item. When LeBron wore the throwback jersey in the (NBA) Finals and had a big night, the next morning the jersey was sold out on our Web site.
“Whenever a player has success, we see an uptick in sales the next day.”
And sometimes a player’s bad behavior can trigger that uptick.
During O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in the mid-’90s, Reggie Clem, of Clem’s Collectibles on Coldwater Road, says “people were coming in here requesting stuff and we were selling it. There was a little demand for it. It seems when (athletes) get in trouble, people want some things, but now they are staying away from it.”
Clem, who runs the store with his father, says that right now collectors are big on “football. Football is tops. Everything football: autographed cards, photos, footballs, you name it; especially if it’s the Colts. We have $600 autographed Peyton Manning footballs and 8-by-10 autographed Manning photos for $195. Those are our top-sellers.”
Clem began collecting Michael Jordan and Dan Marino items at age 10. He has been in the business for 15 years, and the 33-year-old says “it’s been up and down for a while, but right now it’s going good.
“When baseball went on strike, it was a down time, but that’s when football took over. It has built back up now to a good business.”