In the cards: Arizona show puts blossoming collecting industry on full display
Inside the Phoenix Convention Center over Labor Day weekend, rows and rows of sports card tables took center stage in Hall A for the Arizona State Card Show.
Ranging from cards in boxes for $1 each to autographed Kobe Bryant cards going for thousands of dollars, the show had cards for all budgets. Throughout the cavernous 48,600-square-foot space, modern and vintage card lovers alike could find something valuable for their collection.
The show, which featured more than 350 different dealers, would not have been possible without the vision of Cole McAuliff.
McAuliff saw a major lack of sports cards show in Arizona in 2018 while he was a student at Arizona State University. The market gap inspired him to start an organization called Collectibles on College.
The organization holds card shows in Tempe on the first Saturday of every month. These shows have been highly successful, McAuliff said, and inspired the launch of the Arizona State Card Show in April of 2021.
“We actually have to maybe consider moving up a venue,” McAuliff said of the monthly shows. “It’s been exciting, the growth.”
The success of the Arizona State Card Show over the past two years as it moved from the 9,000-square-foot Kachina Ballroom of the Marriott Phoenix Resort Tempe at the Buttes in 2021 to the Phoenix Convention Center follows the industry’s rise on the national stage.
The industry boomed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic as people turned to sports cards during the 2020 lockdowns. Some of the most prominent card breakers on YouTube saw exceptional gains in subscriber numbers. Layton Sports Cards, for example, gained 20,000 subscribers from March 2020 to the end of 2021.
Nine cards sold for at least $3 million last year. Six of them sold for at least $4 million.
Record sales continue to soar. Last month, a mint condition 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card sold for a record $12.5 million. That sale took the sports card record from a $7.25 million sale of a 1909 Topps T-206 Honus Wagner card earlier in the month.
Even one of the Arizona State Card Show’s guests seemed surprised by how big the sports card industry has become.
Marcus Bagley, a junior forward on the Sun Devils men’s basketball team, was one of two autograph signers at the event. He said he saw the power of managing his own brand through the collecting industry.
“I just got to keep branching out, keep building my brand,” Bagley said. “This is a new world of college athletics, so stuff like this will only help.”
McAuliff said Bagley’s appearance, only made possible by new name, image and likeness (NIL) rules, can benefit both sides.
“People want to be able to meet these guys and these guys need money to be able to continue and go to school,” McAuliff said. “It’s nice to be able to have some homegrown guys and you never know who’s going to be the next draft pick.”
Sports cards, though, were far from the only thing on offer at the show. Plenty of other sports memorabilia, such as autographed footballs and baseballs, cleats and jerseys, were also on display and available.
This show was not limited to sports collectors, either.
Plenty of other cards from games like Pokemon were also among the show’s dealers. Funko Pop! figures were also highly prominent at the show.
One dealer in particular, Chris Cobo, had a wide variety of figures in all facets of pop culture on offer. He began his collection when he came to Arizona from San Francisco during the early stages of the pandemic. However, he sold a lot of his figures at the Arizona State Card Show to raise funds for a baby that was on the way.
He said the figures became his most expansive collection after having smaller collections throughout his life, during which he has lived in Los Angeles, New Jersey and the New York City borough of Queens, where he was born.
“It’s a bit of my personality,” Cobo said. “This is not just for selling, it’s stuff I enjoy. So, to look at them, it gives me a little bit of a smile. It reminds me of good memories.”
McAuliff said even he was surprised by the variety of items at the show.
“It helps to keep a little bit of a system, but at the same time, the kids and adults and families like to see everything,” McAuliff said of the vast assortment at the Arizona State Card Show. “I was spending 20 minutes looking at old video games, Game Boy games, DS games and I didn’t know people collect these.”
McAuliff said he is already looking at the 2023 Spring Training schedule to find a good weekend for the next Arizona State Card Show. He also said he “highly anticipates” running a special show surrounding the 2023 Super Bowl to coincide with the big game in Arizona in February.