Bits About the Business of Baseball Cards

THE 15th National Sports Collectors Convention concludes a five-day run Sunday in Houston.

It is the world's largest ``yard sale'' of baseball and other sports cards, with about 870 tables, cards, and other memorabilia spread over an area the size of five football fields. The convention, open to the public as well as dealers, is expected to attract between 30,000 and 50,000 hobbyists.

* For years, Topps enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the baseball card business. In the late 1980s, however, the Upper Deck Company of Carlsbad, Calif., gained a license to produce cards from Major League Baseball and became the pace-setter for a suddenly dynamic industry. Upper Deck attributes its success to ``cutting-edge photography, high-resolution lithography, eye-catching formats, and the highest quality materials.''

* Major League Baseball keeps a tight lid on the number of companies licensed to regularly manufacture cards. Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss, and Pinnacle own licenses. Union Pacific has permission to produce bilingual cards.

* The major retail outlets for sports cards are hobby stores and baseball card stores, of which there are tens of thousands of mom-and-pop businesses and national chains, most notably Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where impulse purchases introduce newcomers to collecting.

* Insert cards, similar to the prizes in Crackerjack boxes, help drive the industry today. These are the more limited collectible cards, which industry observer Bob Brill says can sell for ``$100, $200, or $300 right out of the box.''

* There are high-, low-, and mid-range products; the mid-range sell for between $1.50 and $2.50 per 12-card pack.

* A glutted market and consumer confusion are two of the industry's biggest concerns.

* Emerging trends: cards with computer chips to make them interactive; global marketing.

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