Spotting trends early is the name of the game in collecting sports memorabilia. If only it was a snap to look into the crystal ball and forecast which will be the hot teams and who the stars will be in the year 2000. There's always a level of unpredictability in any given season, but there are also some pretty good bets as I see it.

Last year was truly the end of an era in sports, particularly with the retirements of John Elway, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. With the loss of such giants, 1999 became the year of surprises with the emergence of some teams that collectors had previously ignored because of their dismal on-the-field performances. Whether the St. Louis Rams, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Stars, Sacramento Kings or Arizona Diamondbacks will continue to capture and dominate marketing and merchandising appeal in the next 12 months remains to be seen.

Still, I'd say it's a safe bet to watch for the following teams and players to be pivotal for collectors looking to invest wisely in the first year of the new millennium.
Major League Football

The Rams had the best record in the NFC during the regular season and have two of the most successful offensive players in the game with running back Marshall Faulk and quarterback Kurt Warner. Both Faulk and Warner will garner post-season awards and endorsements, making them good bets for collectors in the months ahead. Ditto for Peyton Manning, the Colts's second year quarterback, who has emerged as the quarterback of the future in the AFC.

At the same time, the Rams and Colts are untested in the playoffs, making Minnesota and Jacksonville the more appealing teams to reach the Super Bowl at month's end, and probably the players to bank on in the long run.

The NFL draft last year produced a stable of talented young quarterbacks and was considered a strong draft. This year's draft in April isn't expected to be as deep in top offensive players who always draw more interest from collectors than offensive or defensive linemen and special teams players.

Gretzky's gone and no one single player has emerged as the heir apparent. Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers looked for a while he would help fill the void, but injuries have prevented him from reaching superstar status. Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selane are my hot picks for 2000, but pale in comparison to the interest stirred by Gretzky for nearly two decades. Detroit may be the team to beat in the Stanley Cup in May.

For most of the 1990s, the Phil Jackson-coached Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan were the number one merchandising team in the league, drawing the most attention at card and collectors' shows and the highest prices in collectibles. Their demise was swift, however, clearing the way for Jackson's new team, the Los Angeles Lakers, to reclaim their throne as America's Team in the NBA.

Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant had been singularly popular among collectors over the past several years but with the Lakers' dominance on the court (and added television exposure now that the Bulls have fallen) make them a great investment for this year. The Lakers are the favorite to get to the NBA finals and dethrone Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in the spring. Meanwhile, look for Toronto's Vince Carter to climb up the ladder to be among the elite for collectors as the Raptors become a playoff team in the spring.
Major League Baseball

Ken Griffey is staying put in Seattle for now but collectors who have had a love affair with the Mariners' outfielder for the past several years will be wise to grab as much Griffey as possible. If he isn't traded by Opening Day in April, he will be a free agent after the end of the season and appears headed to a new team, probably Cincinnati.

The Yankees and Braves are the teams to beat again in 2,000 but the big stories should continue to be Pete Rose's fight to be readmitted into baseball and the likely retirement of Cal Ripken, Jr., after the 2,000 season. Rose's profile will be raised if baseball changes its mind and lets him back into the game; Ripken's retirement will inflate prices for his memorabilia in the months ahead.

Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa III? Doubtful. McGwire has a better supporting class in St. Louis, meaning Cardinals will likely be in race longer and he won't have to go up their hacking for homers in September. He's also been healthy for two straight years -- something that hadn't happened in his career in the 1990s. Sosa, too, has a better Cubs' team along side of him and will be a long shot to hit more than 60 homers in three straight seasons.

Okay, Tiger Woods may be overexposed but his eight PGA wins in 1999 make him the most bankable star in pro golf. Woods-mania won't drop off in 2,000, even if the soon-to-be- 24 year old isn't able to match his performance of last year.

It's that time again, 2000 is an Olympic year, which will mean collectors should think about who could be the next Mary Lou Retton or Carl Lewis. Dream Team memorabilia was a good item for collectors in 1992 and 1996, and this year's collection of pro basketball players will again make the U.S. a heavy favorite.

Collectors should note that the Olympics will be held later than normal -- late September -- because it will be early spring in Sydney, Australia. The time of year may also effect performances, athletes may peak too soon, or have more time to rest, or more injury risks, depending on the sport, which will make these games interesting to follow. Media attention will also focus more interest on less popular sports, and medal-winning performances will create new collectibles possiblities.