The Imminent Rise of the Non-Sporting Collector
Non-Sports Cards Primed to Become the Next Big Thing
The American Kennel Club categorizes "non-sporting" dogs as a class of diverse breeds with varying sizes, coats, personalities, and overall appearance that come from such a wide variety of backgrounds it is hard to generalize them as any specific group. The same could be said to describe collectors who are attracted to cards that don't bear the image of an athlete.
As everyone in the hobby knows, the complete domination of sports-related cards has created a category - "sports cards" - that provides a moniker that doesn't exist with any other collectible.
"I have no problem with the phrase 'sports card,'" says Josh Evans, the founder and chairman of Lelands.com, the world's first sports memorabilia and card auction house.
"However, the use of the term 'non-sports' is one I find to be somewhat reductive," he continues. "It's like there are sports cards, but anything else that's non-sports-related is just lumped into being in the non-sports category. It doesn't matter if it's music, classic TV, or comic book characters; they're all just bunched together. To me, that's like saying everything that goes on in the world is either a sports event or a non-sports event."
A pioneer in the sports memorabilia and card collecting hobby, Evans has been involved in the sales of hundreds of millions of dollars of the most important sports memorabilia and cards in the world.
The son of antique dealers and auctioneers, he once set up a table of his own at one of his parent's shows and sold his first collectibles: a book for a dime and a toy for a nickel. He was eight years old.
From that humble beginning, Evans went on to establish Lelands.com which has bought, sold, and appraised collectibles worth over a half-billion dollars. Having appeared on countless national TV shows, he also helped build collections for numerous celebrities and appraised, consulted, sold material, and created auctions for many professional athletes, their families and estates including Lou Gehrig, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson.
With more and more sports card collectors becoming curious and delving into the non-sports card genre, Sports Market Report felt the timing was right to tap into Evans' deep knowledge of this area of the hobby that, to a large extent, is an enigma, even to longtime knowledgeable collectors.
We began our conversation with Evans by asking him to provide us with an overview of where the non-sports hobby is today.
Josh Evans (JE): It has been emerging slowly for some time, and we are now beginning to see a marked uptick in interest. The reason it has been on a slow pace is largely due to dealers. Let me explain. I'm a child of the antiques business, so I grew up being into all sorts of collectibles. I collected comic books, sports cards, non-sports cards, things related to comic book characters, anything I found to be interesting. So, I've always been greatly diversified in what I like and collect.
But when it came time to become a dealer, sports were not only something I loved, it was also the most commercial collecting genre. Back in the 1970s, if we were at an antique show, a flea market, or any sort of collectibles event and we displayed something related to baseball, it would sell ten times faster than anything else - Civil War memorabilia, movie memorabilia, comic books, you name it. What became clearly apparent was that sports, and baseball items specifically, were something special and they seemed to appeal to the greatest number of people.
When I started my business, I got into sports because it generated the highest interest. But I always had a love for other things: entertainment-related collectibles, music, rock 'n' roll, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, concert posters, all sorts of things. I always wanted to delve more into that sort of material, but I found it difficult and I'm sure other dealers felt the same way. I would have loved to deal with items that held my interest as a collector, but I was running a business, and I could sell a Babe Ruth game-used jersey for $4 million dollars, while much of the music or entertainment items would bring in, maybe, $400 per lot.
That has changed. While the interest in sports memorabilia and sports cards is as strong as it's ever been, today we are seeing people with the desire for more diverse items. I've seen the interest and the prices begin to take off on non-sports-related collectibles such as those pertaining to Star Trek, Mickey Mouse, anything Disney related, Star Wars, and classic television. That's where we are today, and that's led me, and other dealers, to dive deeper into the non-sports card market. I've always offered non-sports cards. It's just that in the past it wasn't my focus. Now, my company is much bigger and we're seeing collectors with more diverse interests. That gives us the opportunity to offer a wider variety of items.
Sports Market Report (SMR): So, you're just responding to the demand in the marketplace?
JE: Exactly. I've been doing this for a long time at the highest level. Because I have been involved in the collectibles world for so long and have been extremely successful at what I do, I can now delve into whatever I want. With cards, I love Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packages because I had them as a kid. I always loved parodies - Mad Magazine and, later, Saturday Night Live - so cards like that appeal to me.
But the interest in non-sports cards is generational. When it comes to Magic: The Gathering, that's not my era, but I understand the appeal. The people who had those cards as kids will always have fond memories of them and, as adults, they will want to collect those cards, just like I want the Wacky Packages I had as a kid.
SMR: Are you seeing any age group showing more of an interest in non-sports cards?
JE: Not really. It's just like sports cards. To get into the hobby on a serious level it takes a lot of discretionary income that young people don't have. That's why most card collectors, sports or non-sports, are in their 40s, 50s, or older.
SMR: Can you provide a breakdown of what collectors of various ages are interested in?
JE: Most of the people who collected [1938 Gum Inc.] Horrors of War cards as kids are significantly older now or have passed away, so very few, if any, of those people are likely still collecting them. But, the more astute a card collector is, the farther back they will look. Today, there is no one around who both collects sports cards and saw Honus Wagner or Ty Cobb play, but there is still great interest in them. So, if you start by collecting the cards of the players you remember as a kid, you tend to develop an interest in the items from a historical perspective.
Both sports cards and non-sports cards are the definition of our culture. They were a huge part of our past, just like they are now. And when it comes to non-sports cards, there are many unique things about them to consider.
Here's an example: Most Americans who are 50 or over relate to the Batman character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Well, I have this one card that just blows me away. It's a 1936 Wolverine Gum card that is called "The Batman." Now, as Batman fans know, 1936 predates the Batman we all know that was created by Kane and Finger. That is a fascinating card. You are going to be hard-pressed to find that level of fascination in sports cards because, for the most part, we all know what's out there. With non-sports, there are all these unique finds yet to be unearthed by collectors.
SMR: What material is generating the most interest?
JE: Vintage collectibles will always garner significant interest, but believe it or not, a lot of the modern material has started to take off. Sets like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon have started to do well. Then you see it going back even farther to Star Wars. I'm seeing some collectors - the sharp ones - looking at items that are greatly undervalued right now.
Today, everybody is a dealer, a market strategist, and a financial speculator when it comes to cards. With sports cards, per se, it's for the most part a competitive hobby in which, thanks to PSA, grading and values are extremely important.
Today, it's not just about the fun or challenge of putting together a complete set of 1957 Topps cards. That's a big part of it, but now it's about trying to get every one of those cards in the best condition and in the highest grade, so it can be compared to other collectors on the PSA Set Registry who are attempting the same feat.
The Set Registry is phenomenal. It has completely changed the hobby. It rules the hobby in an amazing way that collectors of the past could have never imagined. It has brought the element of competition into the hobby.
SMR: The hobby has certainly evolved over the years. But how about the collectors themselves? Has the general demographic of the non-sports collector changed at all?
JE: It has been my experience that the card hobby - sports cards and non-sports cards alike - is male dominated. Now, I have seen a higher level of ethnic diversity arise within the hobby in recent years, but women still represent a very small segment of the hobby.
Every person involved, especially from the business side, would love to see diversity and inclusiveness overtake the hobby. We would all love to see the market open to more people.
SMR: Speaking of diversity and inclusiveness, are there any signs that the established hobby has started to embrace non-sports cards?
JE: The sports card industry would be wise to do that. That embrace would be great for the hobby and for business. And yes, that is happening. Smart dealers see that. PSA has certainly seen that. Do you know that non-sports cards are the fastest growing product line in the hobby? Do you know why? Because it's a hugely undervalued segment of the hobby.
You can buy a full box of Star Trek cards from 1976 for $5,000. Now, think about what a full box of 1976 Topps baseball cards would cost. I sold a set of 1976 Topps cards in PSA Gem Mint 10s for $170,000. Just think of what you could buy in the non-sports genre for that kind of money. Savvy collectors have started to see that.
I am in a unique position being able to see what is happening in the hobby, and I foresee big growth in the non-sports cards market. The non-sports genre is where sports cards were 30 years ago. The investment opportunity is clearly there. It's why I personally collect non-sports cards. [Collectors Universe CEO] Joe Orlando and PSA totally get it. They have steered the ship in the right direction. They did it with sports cards and are now doing it with non-sports cards. As I said before, the PSA Set Registry has completely changed the hobby, and that will play a big role in the future desirability of non-sports cards.
SMR: So, spill it. What do you collect?
JE: [laughs] Okay, what I collect is very specific. I love unique things like that Batman card I mentioned. I paid a lot for that card: $1,400. It's not in great condition, but it is so rare and so unique that a card like that could be worth $14,000 someday. I love extremely rare and unique things like that.
SMR: Can you give us an idea of what you think may catch on with collectors from the non-sports genre?
JE: Let me first say that non-sports cards are just like any other collectible. If you go with rarity, high quality, and condition, you can't go wrong. As far as sets that could potentially grow in demand, I would say the 1978 Donruss Elvis set is a top contender. It's not the most attractive or desirable set, and there is a lot of material out there because it has not been widely sought after up until now, but that will change. Today, you can buy a case of those cards for $500, but I believe that it will become a big-money set one day because Elvis is a very popular and highly-collected pop figure not unlike The Beatles.
SMR: Can you share some additional thoughts about Beatles cards in general?
JE: They're amazing. They are great cards, and there are a lot of them - from many different sets. In the long-term, you can't go wrong with The Beatles and Elvis. Their time will come, but it isn't here yet. Music cards just haven't had their day yet. But believe me, that day is coming soon.
SMR: What cards are showing desirability right now?
JE: Without question, it's the classic TV sets. They are the ones proving to be most desirable right now. The 1960s material in particular. In my opinion, they will become the crème de la crème of the non-sports genre. The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, Star Trek, that kind of stuff.
SMR: You mean the ones with the picture puzzles on the back?
JE: Alright, stop right there [laughing]. I hated that! I would like to formally go on the record and say the picture puzzle backs were the worst idea any card company ever had. First, it made each individual card very unappealing, with just someone's nose, eye, or something random on the back. Who wants that? I want the stats. I want to know how many times Marcia Brady brushed her hair before going to sleep [laughs].
SMR: What can you share about political cards?
JE: Right now, there's very little interest out there for them. But let me tell you about a great set from 1932 that was released by U.S. Caramel. This is a quality issue that non-sports collectors should keep on their radar. That is the king when it comes to political sets. I have that set, and there's some interesting background information regarding it: If you collected all 31 cards and sent them to the company, they would return them to you with a box of chocolates.
That set has always appealed to me because I somewhat built my career on the 1932 U.S. Caramel Freddie Lindstrom card, which is one of the missing links in the sports card hobby. That is an impossible card to find, and it had the same premium offer on the back. With that card they gave you a baseball or a baseball glove. Well, come to find out, the company never wanted to follow through with the prizes, so they never released the Lindstrom card.
I located one of those cards early on in my career and offered it for a million dollars. In the U.S. Caramel political set, they did the same thing with the William McKinley card which has become a missing link in the non-sports cards hobby. They kept that one out of distribution. As a result, the McKinley card today sells for between $25,000 and $50,000, which, compared to the Lindstrom card's current value, is a bargain.
As far as other political material, the 1964 Topps [John F. Kennedy] JFK set is another worthwhile issue that is highly undervalued and has the potential to gain desirability in the future.
SMR: What else is out there that you believe may have great future desirability?
JE: Unopened complete boxes from shows like The Outer Limits, or basically any classic TV show. I have been buying a lot of that material and tucking it away. I believe that in the next five to 10 years, collectors will finally realize their collectability and begin aggressively pursuing them.
SMR: Many sports card collectors fall in love with certain cards because of their eye appeal. What cards in the non-sports genre do you feel are beautiful?
JE: The comic character cards of the 1930s and 1940s are beautiful cards, especially the 1940 Gum Inc. R83 Long Ranger set.
The Mars Attacks cards that Topps released in 1962 are amazing looking cards. Anything that was done by the artist Norm Saunders is great. Saunders is the Andy Warhol of card artists. He also did paintings for pulp magazines, paperbacks, adventure magazines, and
There are also great-looking sets like the 1969 Cadbury Strange But True cards, and of course, the 1938 Gum Inc. Horrors of War set, which is one of the most famous non-sports card sets of all time.
SMR: What about pin-up model cards?
JE:That's a whole other thing; almost a genre unto itself. The old Vitascope cards are amazing. They were created by a lot of the great pin-up artists like Rolf Armstrong, Gil Elvgren, and George Petty. And Olivia [De Berardinis] has produced great cards as well. It is wonderful art. They are beautiful cards.
However, while these pin-up cards may be beautiful, they do have a limited appeal, primarily because they were never made for kids. Card collectors, more than anything, love to collect the cards they had as kids, and no 10-year-old kid had pin-up cards.
There are also some more risqué French cards out there and, while they are great, they are kind of out of the trading card genre because most of them were made as postcards.
While we're on the subject of foreign material, it can also be very interesting. In the late 1960s, Topps produced a U.S. test set called Superman in the Jungle, which was an unpopular concept and didn't go over well. But an English card manufacturing company called A & BC, who has made some great sets, later released a Superman in the Jungle version that is unique. A & BC produced a lot of interesting cards, and not many American collectors even know about them. So those are sets that could really catch on and take off as well.
SMR: One of the burgeoning interests in sports card collecting is original photos and artwork that was used for cards. Is that sort of material out there in the non-sports genre?
JE: Original artwork for non-sports cards is highly undervalued right now. One of the reasons for that is a lot of the original artwork is not as good as what you see on the cards. There are exceptions like the Mars Attacks artwork, which is phenomenal. The rule of thumb with this segment of the hobby is to get quality, iconic material, especially works by artists such as Saunders. You can't go wrong with works that are iconic and high quality.
As far as original photos for music or TV cards, most of it was not commissioned by the card companies. They were just existing publicity photos. There are exceptions, but for the most part, the photos were never taken specifically for the cards. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, studios, production companies, and networks made their money on the shows, not on card production, so producing original photos for a card set just wasn't warranted.
SMR: With sports cards we have seen insert offerings that include swatches from game-worn uniforms or slivers from game-used bats. Is there anything like that in the non-sports card world?
JE: I've seen a few things, but not much. I have seen non-sports autograph cards, but not many inserts.
SMR: You would think guitar picks, strings, drum heads, or swatches of stage-worn outfits would be big in music cards.
JE: I think that type of material will eventually come. The big card manufacturers have not yet seen collectors really show the interest in non-sports cards to make them focus on it, but they will as soon as they begin to boom in popularity. It's just a matter of time, and I think it will happen soon.
Listen, I don't believe non-sports cards will ever surpass sports cards in popularity. They've always been overlooked. I think to some extent that is because the cards have never had the proper name. The phrase "sports cards" tells you exactly what you're getting, but when you say "non-sports cards," what does that mean? It could mean anything.
I don't know what the right nomenclature should be - pop culture cards, entertainment cards - but that exact distinction will probably never happen. So, the cards that do not carry the image of an athlete will always be known as "non-sports" cards.
SMR: What advice would you give to someone who is a sports card collector but is looking to get into non-sports?
JE: That this is the time to get into it. I mean, right now! Prices are low, and the boom is coming. But remember, just like with any other collectible, don't do it to make money. Buy what you love. If it goes up in value, great. If it doesn't, you still have something you love. And as soon as collectors start learning about what is available, they are going to find there is a lot of non-sports cards out there to love.
For more information on non-sports card sets, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#7non-sports-cards.
Please feel free to contact SMR at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments