EVANSVILLE — Clinton Fenwick has a fond memory of his first experience with sports trading cards.
His grandfather took him to St. Louis Cardinals games as a kid. Players such as Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee and Tom Herr — the guys he grew up watching on television — were immortalized in his brain.
As a Cardinals fan, his grandfather wanted him to have some memorabilia of his favorite team. Not a hat, shirt or some other type of clothing. But some kind of collectible of the players he loved.
That’s how he got the idea to buy Clinton his first pack of baseball cards. The two headed down to a Marathon station at the intersection of Indiana 61 and Indiana 64 in tiny Arthur, Indiana. Who knew that a 50-cent pack of Topps purchased for a 6-year-old in 1985 would spark an interest that would resurface 30 years later?
“Things always seem bigger when you’re a kid,” Fenwick said with a laugh. “Back then, I was always interested in chasing rookie cards and error cards. It’s always been fun. I have a good time with it.”
The sports trading card industry has experienced peaks and valleys over the years. There was a boom in the 1990s in a variety of sports. Cards from the 1970s and earlier have maintained popularity due to the rarity of certain ones.
For most of the 2000s and 2010s, collecting sports cards just didn’t seem to be as popular. Only rookie cards, autographed cards and cards featuring star players drew much interest.
Then COVID-19 hit.
While people were stuck at home, many returned to old hobbies. Fenwick was one of them. He estimates he hadn’t been serious about the card collecting game in well over two decades.
“I was home more, cleaning up old stuff. I found all of these old boxes of cards and I was wondering, ‘I wonder what this stuff is worth?’,” Fenwick said. “After I found out some of it was worth stuff, I was like ‘Whoa.’ I was back into it.”
The lockdown boom for sports cards inspired David Nguyen. While he’s been collecting his whole life, he had only ever sold cards as a side job. It was a way to make a small amount of money but never something he would consider a full-time gig.
In fact, sports cards are now a $5.4 billion industry.
Nguyen, who had dreamed of owning his own sports card shop, opened his business in 2020. He bought The Hobby Den in the Village Commons shopping center in Evansville. The store specializes in buying, selling and trading sports cards, Pokemon and other memorabilia.
“When the market boomed last year, I saw people making thousands of dollars. I saw the market was open here (in Evansville) and I decided to go for it,” Nguyen said. “It was the perfect time to open. Do things the right way and be more customer-focused. I’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction out of it so far.”
Nguyen sells a variety of boxes, packs and individual cards both in his store and online. He also does virtual “box breaks,” where interested parties can purchase a spot for $20 and land cards revealed in pack-openings on Facebook Live. He’s also plans to eventually sell “mystery boxes” that have random individual packs.
He believes the industry saw a resurgence for a variety of reasons. But one of the primary factors was simple: People saw it as a way to make money.
“It’s a physical way to do the stock market. That’s the best way I can describe it,” Nguyen said. “If you go buy stock in Disney or something, you’re like, ‘Cool, I have Disney stock.’ But there’s no other way to invest in that company or make it entertaining. When you watch sports and keep up with these players, that’s kinda like real-time movements and market right there.”
Geoff Gentil got into the card collecting game as a kid. While he’s stayed involved over the years, it’s become something he’s passed along to his 13-year-old son, Seth. The two went to the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago together where they received some social media fame for pulling a rare card of MLB superstar Mike Trout.
Even though he’s dabbled in selling, he considers himself a collector. But he understands why there’s been a surge, especially among people who may not have ever considered getting into the resale market.
“When COVID hit, I think there was this phenomenon of the ‘side-gig’ economy,” Gentil said. “I think people gravitated to the sports cards side of it as a quick-flip to try and make money on it during that boom.
“The demand is still out there because you can’t run into Target or Wal-Mart anymore and find a pack of cards.”
That’s still the case. If you make a stop at a chain big-box store, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find boxes or packs, at least for the big three sports leagues. Soccer and hockey are all you’re often able to find.
These boxes, which often sell for as cheap as $20 or $30 retail, are often bought as soon as they hit the shelves. Then, they’re sold for double, triple or even more the original price on the secondary market. For example, a 2021 MLB Box was found selling for almost $500 at an Owensboro flea market.
While most won’t sell at a price that high, people had to purchase them at higher costs than they’re accustomed to. That’s happens when the product becomes harder to find.
“It’s understandable. It’s basically free money to people if they know how to do it properly,” Nguyen said. “If they can buy this box for $20 and sell it for $35 or $40, I don’t see why they wouldn’t do that. But now, the companies are raising their prices so something that used to sell in a day is now taking weeks.”
Certain cards will always be expensive, no matter how the industry looks. For example, Nguyen is currently selling a graded rookie Michael Jordan card for nearly $6,000.
But the lack of finding those cheap individual packs or even reasonably priced boxes has had an impact. Especially on kids. It’s not as easy for them to get involved with the hobby due to a lack of affordable product.
“Thirty years ago you could buy a pack of cards for 50 cents. You can’t do that today,” Gentil said. “Just the entry point to get into the hobby anymore is mind-blowing with boxes going for $400. But I think it’s always been a hobby geared toward adults. We just didn’t realize it when we were kids.”
Contact Courier & Press sports reporter Hendrix Magley via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TweetsOfHendrix.