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Baseball card collectors find ways of enjoying a hobby now worth billions

Baseball fan Michael Bier sorts his baseball cards before a Texas Rangers game in 2018.
Jeffrey McWhorter/AP
FR170451 AP
Baseball fan Michael Bier sorts his baseball cards before a Texas Rangers game in 2018.

Located just outside Ellsworth, Coastal Sports Collectibles is hard to miss. The bright orange bungalow storefront sits alone on the roadside and stands out like a hunting vest from the surrounding trees.

Travis Dorr opened the sports card shop less than a year ago, although he himself has been collecting for decades.

"My grandmother got me started collecting baseball cards in 1986," Dorr said. "I liked sports as a kid [and] she was collecting cards before I did. She showed me the cards and I jumped on board."

Collecting baseball cards is almost as American as the sport itself, conjuring images of overstuffed binders and dusty shoe boxes under the bed. In recent years, sports card collecting as a whole has found new life and emerged as a multi-billion-dollar industry while attracting a new generation of passionate collectors.

The first baseball cards date to the 1860’s. In those early days, the cards were a way to market cigarette cartons and, later, chewing gum. The hobby spilled over into other major sports and evolved over the years. Having stalled in the mid 1990s due to overproduction, the hobby experienced a major resurgence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many collectors see their collections as a reflection of their own past. A study from 2022 estimated the sports card industry to be worth $12.6 billion and for the market to surpass $23 billion by 2030. Amidst the growth, the ritual of ripping cards in the hopes of getting one's favorite player has remained constant.

"A lot of [my] cards have been handed down through the family or gifted to me," said James Spencer, a baseball card collector from Glenburn. "It’s fun to have and look through on rainy days, and remember my uncle gave me that card for my 16th birthday. Like, 'hey, this is the special Ted Williams card!'"

Rarity is the driving force for these cards, both in its spirit, and the price assigned to them. Two years ago, a 1952 Mickey Mantle mint-condition rookie card sold at auction for $12.5 million. While million-dollar evaluations are reserved for the highest echelon, rare and coveted sports cards will regularly sell in the thousands and tens of thousands of dollars.

A mint condition Mickey Mantle baseball card which sold for $12.6 million in 2022. The 1952 rookie card is the most expensive card ever sold.
LM Otero/AP
FILE - A Mickey Mantle baseball card is displayed at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, on July 21, 2022. A mint condition Mickey Mantle baseball card has sold for $12.6 million, blasting into the record books Sunday Aug. 28, 2022 as the most expensive ever paid for a piece of sports memorabilia. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

In their modern cards, sports card companies like Topps and Panini recreate that rarity by inserting limited edition cards into packs. One may find an autographed card, or a relic card that's embedded with an artifact like a piece of a player-worn jersey. Manufacturers further drive demand by printing highly desirable cards with different colors and textured backgrounds.

“Not only are you chasing a rookie card, but you’re also chasing the rarest of the rookie cards," said John Holden, a business professor at Oklahoma State University and an expert on the sports card industry. "Companies are really now latching on to that, and sort of artificially creating rarity within that already desirable area. It’s like, ‘Okay, where can we create more value here?’"

Nowadays there are more entry points than ever to engage in the hobby. In-person card shows provide an opportunity for collectors to meet and buy cards from vendors. Northeast Card Expo hosts card events throughout the year across New England. According to the expo's organizers Tom and Steve Pepdjonovic, their show at the Portland Expo last fall attracted 120 vendors and a few thousand attendees.

Digital connectivity further spread the hobby through the internet. Ebay and other online marketplaces allowed for anyone to build a collection no matter their proximity to a hobby shop. Social media posts featuring sports cards helped spark reinterest amongst viewers at home during the pandemic.

JC and Mary Roberto, a married couple in Boston, run the card influencer account @tcg.jc on Instagram and other platforms. The pair livestream card pack openings on social media, often incorporating carnival-like games to further engage with their viewers. One example is their 7 foot tall prize wheel which people can spin to win cards and packs. Mary said the prize wheel is especially popular amongst the youngest card collectors whom she enjoys seeing at in-person card shows.

“A lot of young girls specifically go to the show with their families or their fathers [where] they’re talking to us about the cards that we have," Mary Roberto said. "I’m a teacher full time, so seeing the kids come over to the table, win a prize and light up just makes my entire day.”

But there are a few dark clouds on the sports card horizon. A few years ago, sports merchandising behemoth fanatics went on a corporate shopping spree – buying the exclusive card manufacturing rights for Major League Baseball, acquiring the Topps brand and company, and inking a 20-year exclusive deal with the NFL and NBA. That has stirred fears that a Fanatics-Topps monopoly could have total pricing power over the market and stifle the hobby.

The card company, Panini, filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Fanatics last August, to which Fanatics filed a countersuit. Both are currently awaiting trial.

Nevertheless, the sports card collecting hobby has proven resilient over the years, having survived previous monopolies, and booms and busts alike. Enthusiasts will tell you that it’s still a great way of connecting with your idols on the field.

"That’s the fun part about this hobby: there’s no right or wrong approach," Travis Dorr said. "Whether you like to rip boxes or you like to collect singles there, there really is no right or wrong way to do it."

Nick Song is Maine Public's inaugural Emerging Voices Fellowship Reporter.

Originally from Southern California, Nick got his start in radio when he served as the programming director for his high school's radio station. He graduated with a degree in Journalism and History from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University -- where he was Co-News Director for WNUR 89.3 FM, the campus station.