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Flaten: Why I've lost my passion for sports card collecting

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Mickey Mantle 10

The most-sought after baseball card in the world, a PSA gem mint 10 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card known as the Holy Grail of cards, is put on display in the Hall of Legends at the Rally Hotel in Denver. Topps will lose its license to produce MLB trading cards in 2022. 

A quote attributed to Mark Twain that he probably never actually said is that "golf is a good walk spoiled." I appreciate the honesty of that statement: The pastime you enjoy doing can be ruined by just trying to take part in that very pastime.

Over the past year, I’ve developed the same feelings for my favorite pasttime – sportscard collecting. To me, it has become a good hobby spoiled. 

1910 T51 Murad Cigarettes - University of Illinois

A card for the University of Illinois from the 1910 T51 Murad tobacco card set.

For all intents and purposes, I should be enjoying the renaissance my hobby is currently going through. Decatur has thriving trading card shops, interest in the hobby is higher than I can ever remember and card values are through the roof.

When I went to the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago at the end of July, it turned out to be the most attended conventions since the 1990s, the last time the trading card world went crazy with popularity.

I had been looking forward to the first national convention since COVID ended the big card shows in 2020. Because card flippers online have effectively made it impossible to go to Target and Walmart and buy a retail pack of cards, I couldn't wait to be surrounded by more packs and boxes of cards than a person could open in a lifetime. 

National Sports Collectors Convention eBay sellers

Card sellers line up to list their cards at the eBay booth at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago in July. 

But as I was getting jostled around trying to get through the aisles at the convention, it was clear things had changed drastically in these two years. Prices were outrageous for new product, and more than ever, the focus was on high-end graded cards of prospects and rookies that people hoped they could flip or auction.

More auctions house booths were popping up, and as I worked my way through the tables and was picking up old Mars Attacks cards and Batman cards from the 1960s and a nearly-complete 1984 Topps set for the David Lynch movie Dune, I realized I had gone through a large chunk of the day not actually having purchased a sports card. 

1954 Bowman U.S. Navy Victories Stephen Decatur Burns the Philadelphia

A trading card from 1954 shows Stephen Decatur burning the U.S.S. Philadelphia in 1804 after the ship had been taken by pirates.

I had put down cards before when I was about 10 to focus on comic books. Comics books lasted until I shifted to music and records. Around 2008, I got back into sports cards and that has stuck with me pretty consistently until now. At the show, I was wondering if my interest was going fade again, but little did I know that the question would be answered for me when the very future of the trading card world was brought into question a few weeks later. 

In August, shocking news was announced that Topps, the company that single-handedly created the modern baseball card market as we know it in the 1950s, was going to lose its license to make official MLB cards after the 2022 season. 

The new company taking over is apparel maker Fanatics, who promised to create a trading card division of the company over the next two years. If you have purchased any sort of fan clothing of your favorite team from the official NFL or MLB shops, chances are it was from Fanatics.

Fanatics was also able to secure exclusive deals with the NBA Players Association and NFL Players Association by offering equity in the new company, making Fanatics suddenly a one-stop shop for trading cards in all major sports moving forward, even though they haven't produced a trading card yet. 

2021 Topps Pro Debut No. PD-159 Reid Detmers Autograph

Former Nokomis and Chatham Glenwood pitcher Reid Detmers made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels this season. 

With a few exceptions, Topps has dominated the trading card market for 70 years. Bowman was an early competitor that produced officially licensed cards in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Donruss and Fleer sued Topps for the right to have their own sets and started making cards in 1981 that the market was able to expand beyond Topps.

2021 Topps Now No. 663 Reid Detmers

Former Nokomis and Chatham Glenwood pitcher Reid Detmers made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Angels this season. 

In some ways, it is hard to feel bad for Topps, which has held the monopoly on officially licensed baseball cards since 2009, cutting card maker Upper Deck out of the officially-licensed market entirely. 

It is fitting as well that a clothing maker will get into the baseball card market, just as Topps, originally a candy company behind Bazooka-brand gum, designed cards at first to push gums sales. 

If the first Fanatics set is anything like those early Fleer and Donruss sets, they will be low quality and filled with errors. Those 1981 sets were examples of new set builders learning their trade for the first time and finding their bearings. Collectors can dream, but I have doubts Fanatics can reproduce the same effect Upper Deck did when they released their No. 1 card of their first set in 1989 of Mariners prospect Ken Griffey Jr., the most iconic card of the past three decades. 

1989 Upper Deck No. 1 Ken Griffey Jr.

Competition in the baseball card market is key to innovation and collectors would be best served with more options out there, but we seem to be moving backwards with no signs of improvement. I'm thinking it is time for me to open up the competition for my free time. 

Sportswriter Matthew Flaten's columns

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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten


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