Collectibles: Baseballs soar, but high-end apparel slumps in recession

autographed baseballSigned baseballs are still flying straight and true. But expensive team jackets often have a hard time getting off the bench.
One-of-a-kind baseball cards and antique scorecards? They always have a place in the lineup for high rollers and history buffs.

These are some of the trends in collectibles and sports apparel in the Great Recession, gleaned from the Jan. 15-17 Cubs Convention in downtown Chicago, the country's oldest -- marking its 25th anniversary in 2010 -- and probably still-biggest off-season fan convention. Some 15,000 fans gather in the dead of winter at the giant Hilton and Towers hotel, where vendors know they can juice their sales to an often-captive audience kept inside by the usually frigid weather.

A tour through the exhibit halls in the Hilton's lower level revealed merchants dealing with more discriminating fans, sometimes prompting them to lower prices. A head count also resulted in 18 fewer dealer tables due to the increased labor costs in setting up the convention.

Chicago's Mike Gomez, who runs a collectibles business that bears his name, has been operating for a quarter-century, just like the Cubs Convention. He has manned his booth at the convention for at least 12 years.

"I've come down on my prices a little bit to aid the economy," Gomez said of a typical 10 percent cut. "But it hasn't had that big of an effect on the memorabilia business as people would think. I believed September 11 would hurt it, too, but it held up through that."

Autographed baseballs formed the core of Gomez's booth. "Baseball's would hold up the best," he said. "The higher-end items would be affected, but anything that ranges from $20 to $40, something that's reasonably priced, still moves."

Down the hallway was a table for David and Dad's Sports Cards and Memorabilia of Glencoe, Ill., a 15-year convention veteran. "Dad" is Paul Leeds.

"We're dealing with older stuff for the most part, and that holds its value," Leeds told WalletPop. Sales are down overall, but older collectors will still pay around $100 for a 1930s or 1940s scorecard in good condition. David and Dad's had a table-full of scorecards, old photos, pocket schedules and buttons from throughout the 20th Century.

Across the aisle was Gadjets Galore of Arlington Heights, Ill., heavy with team apparel. Owner Alex Zajac has slashed prices of sweatshirts from $50 to $30. The satiny $150 Cubs jackets were being peddled for as low as $115. "We're just trying to break even," Zajac said of his six-year-old business. "'On sale' is what the fans want."

Next door was the convention outlet for the Sports Authority sporting-goods chain. The booth sold Cubs sweatshirts for $19.97 -- "final price cut." Youth Cubs apparel was being advertised as 25% off. The booth's manager said he's witnessing the proverbial green sprouts in his business.

"Probably over the last few months we've seen an increase in traffic," said Tom McNeff, who doubles as manager of the downtown Chicago Sports Authority. "Compared to this time last year, you see a lot more people shopping."

The Cubs Convention is considered lucrative enough to draw vendors from 400 miles away, like All-Star Cards of Minneapolis. Manager Derek Wagner said changing up his business is key to staying afloat in the economy.

"There's people out there who make a million dollars doing cards, just because they make changes," Wagner said. He has dropped prices up to 20% based on particular cards.

"The older stuff, if it's in mint condition, stays in its value," he said. "If it has a crease on it, forget about it." A top value item Wagner handled was a 1952 Andy Pafko card worth $8,000. He has sold an old Mickey Mantle card for $500. All-time Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew's rookie card sold for $150.

Meanwhile, Dave Abrams, longtime proprietor of his Skybox on Sheffield rooftop clubs (one across Sheffield and one across Waveland avenues) outside Wrigley Field has to hustle for business like in his early days. The recession put a dent in his corporate business, where one company would rent out a rooftop for a game. The clubs, ringing Wrigley Field, pay the Cubs 17% of their gross revenues in order to not be hassled with charges of poaching the view of the field and game.

"2008 was a terrific year coming off the '07 playoffs," Abrams said at his booth. "Last year was a little difficult. The majority of our business was corporate. The paradigm changed a little bit. We had more people at a lower price. Like everyone else in the world, you have to go down in prices. We probably put 15,000 into the skyboxes."

No matter what they sold or promoted, Cubs Convention vendors endured an increase in the cost of doing business this year. Suddenly, they were forced to pony up at least $125 extra for Teamsters to carry their materials and products to and from the exhibit area. That cost formerly was included in the booth rental fee. As a result, the convention suffered a loss of 18 tables. At least one longtime exhibitor said he might have to drop out next year due to the increased costs.

One longtime convention observer noticed a decrease in traffic among the booths. Indeed, the Saturday afternoon crowds, normally the peak time of the convention, seemed thinner than ever. Many convention attendees likely were upstairs attending programs involving Cubs celebrities, but the traffic flow of people indicated fans are keeping a lock and key on their wallets more than ever starting out 2010.
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