Baseball cards in a slump

Hobby: Card collecting has waned in popularity, with sales sliding nearly 80 percent since their peak in 1991.

July 15, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

The crash of the American baseball card industry became official yesterday in a lawyer's office in New Jersey.

Twenty-five years after breaking the Topps Co. Inc.'s monopoly on the industry, Fleer Corp. - bankrupt and $33 million in debt to a list of creditors, including $12,800 to Cal Ripken Jr. - was expected to be sold at auction last night, the most visible casualty of a pastime that has suffered sharp declines and a significant demographic shift over the past decade.

What was once a hobby for boys, who stuck cards in the spokes of their bikes or flipped them on neighborhood playgrounds, has become an exclusive marketplace for adults. Grownups are swapping high-priced cards that contain everything from holograms to pieces of autographed bats, jerseys and balls - a far cry from the cardboard bubble-gum packs of the past.

This year, sales of new cards, of which baseball remains the principal sport, will reach $260 million, according to Scott Kelnhofer, editor of Card Trade, an industry trade journal. That's down 35 percent since 1999, and nearly 80 percent off its $1.2 billion peak in 1991.

Despite a potential record-setting year in attendance, Major League Baseball and the Players Association see the pricing out of a generation of young fans who have nothing but their weekly allowances to spend, and there are plans to announce in the next few months - possibly the next few days - a scaling back of product lines in an effort to stabilize the market.

Jordan Stern of Havre de Grace remembers walking to the corner store 40 years ago as a child to buy a 50-cent pack of cards. But most packs now cost about $4, and some are as much as $20, $50, $100 and even $500. "Kids just can't participate in this hobby anymore," said Stern, 46, who owned a Bel Air card store for 16 years. "They're priced right out of the market now."

The collapse of the market has made those corner stores harder to find for young fans such as Jordan Brody, a 10-year-old receiving hitting instruction at the Rich Jenkins Baseball Camp in Ellicott City.

"I would collect them, but I don't know where to get them," he said. "The places near us, they don't sell them anymore."

Area card stores have been closing or sharply cutting back hours, and Internet auction sites such as eBay have provided less costly channels to peddle merchandise.

Sports trading cards became hot in the late 1980s, as older generations of fans dusted off their childhood collections and revisited hobby shops, suddenly making thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, a new generation started their own collections, figuring they, too, could someday make mini-fortunes if they took better care of the cards than their fathers did.

The card industry took notice and began mass producing. More than a dozen new companies entered the marketplace, and card shops sprouted up around the country. Mike Tanner said four new stores opened within a quarter-mile of his Eastern Avenue store, the Baseball Card Outlet. And at discount stores such as Kmart, fans snapped up cheap boxes of baseball cards that were stacked 6-feet-high in aisles.

The backlash of that prosperity has seen the demise of most of the startup companies. But yesterday's liquidation of Fleer gives the decline a sense of finality, according to those in the card industry. There are just three companies left: Donruss Playoff LP of Texas, the Upper Deck Co. of California and New York-based Topps.

Meanwhile, cards from the 1980s and '90s, preserved in plastic cases and binders under collectors' beds, are worth next to nothing, according to some card vendors.

"You can bring someone a binder of those cards and they wouldn't touch them," Stern said. "There were so many of those cards produced, and there's millions around."

The market is largely driven by older collectors' thirst for memorabilia, Kelnhofer said. The high-priced packs guarantee players' autographs or dime-sized slices of bats, jerseys and stadium seats, built into the cards. The companies pay fees to current and retired athletes for signatures and jerseys, which can be sliced up and packaged into 1,000 cards.

Meanwhile, younger children have gravitated towards fantasy card games such as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, while teens spend their time playing video games - a $7.3 billion industry, according to researcher NPD Group Inc.

Annapolis resident Chris Smith, 34, remembers collecting baseball cards as a child for two reasons: the Orioles and the gum.

Like many young collectors, Smith set a goal of getting all the cards of his favorite player and building team sets, something that's virtually impossible today. According to the Beckett Price Guide, five different kinds of Ripken cards were produced in 1986, which could be purchased today for $20.

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