In 1980 a group of sports collectors gathered in a Los Angeles hotel for the first National Sports Collectors Convention. In the 30 years since, the annual convention has brought thousands of collectors together for what is known as the nation's premier showcase event for the multi-billion sports and entertainment collectibles industry. For the first time, The National event will be held at the Baltimore Convention Center, Aug. 4-8.
The exhibiting dealers will include professional league licensees, game-used and vintage memorabilia dealers, new and vintage card dealers, auction houses and authentication companies, plus Hall of Fame and current athletes from every sport signing autographs at the Tri-Star Autograph Pavilion.
PressBox caught up with the man who started it all, Mike Berkus, as he prepared to bring his 31-year-old brain child to Charm City.
PressBox: What is the biggest thing that has changed in The National over the past 30 years?
Mike Berkus: The single largest change I’ve noticed is instead of every dealer having only baseball cards or football cards sitting on their tables, now, it’s all about memorabilia. Autographs, uniforms, programs, bats, helmets, hockey pucks, everything imaginable connected to the sport has now grown like a weed and become more popular than trading cards. The show itself is more of a sports experience.
PB: How many athletes will be in attendance?
MB: We advertise 80 but it always ends up being closer to 100. … There are times where it’s very intense. The 30,000 square foot autograph pavilion has got every space occupied; it looks like Grand Central Station. And sometimes it’s a little more relaxed, where you can wander up and down the aisles and see plenty of athletes.
There is so much to do and see. If you spent five minutes in front of every exhibit … you never got an autograph, you never went to the bathroom, you didn’t get anything to eat and you were there every single day, you’d need five more hours. It's a little intimidating when you walk in. It’s the largest event of its kind, and the longest running event in sports memorabilia. I can’t explain it well enough, it’s just something to behold.
I think the average sports fan will walk in, find that hours went by and start to panic, “I gotta come back. I haven’t seen anything yet.” It’s just overwhelming.
PB: What does a show like The National mean to the city of Baltimore?
MB: It is a major economic boom. First of all, every major hotel room anywhere near the show is gone. And then, even more so, it’s printing needs or signs being made, or all the pre-show type of stuff, or transportation, cars rented, the main things. Then it’s breakfast, lunch and dinner (in downtown Baltimore). … It's a two-hour wait for any decent restaurant when we’re in town. It’s unbelievable how busy the restaurants and the bars get.
PB: What do you tell people who are thinking about attending the event?
MB: It’s a day at the park. Instead of just being able to point and look, you can point and buy if you want. When I went to the Hall of Fame for the first time, I’d say, “Boy, I’d like to own that,” or “Boy, I’d like to have that.” But that stuff wasn’t for sale; this is. I equate it to the Hall of Fame, only about 10,000 times larger. If you just want to walk around, it’s more astounding than the Hall of Fame, with the items you’ll see, more astounding because it’s from grassroots.
I’m accustomed to the average collector and the avid fan. That’s the base population of the show. Goes anywhere the show is. But it’s the fan that’s in the town where the show’s being held and said, “Hey this kind of looks interesting, I think I’ll stop by.” It’s the look on their face when they walk up to a table and see stuff they had when they were a kid, whether it was a program, a trading card, an autograph, a ball or something. Or they look at something and go, “I didn’t even know that existed.”
Interview conducted by Kevin Heitz
Issue 151: July 2010