Will Fanatics Upend the World of Sports Collectibles?

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, thousands of people filed into a dated convention center near O’Hare Airport to participate in the very American pastime of buying and selling sports trading cards.

The Chicago Sports Spectacular, one of the country’s biggest and oldest card shows, is like a rummage sale from the days before eBay, but with way more money involved. The 400 or so collectibles dealers set up well-worn cardboard boxes packed with cards of various players past and present from various sports, their prices handwritten on Post-it notes: $45 for a Luka Doncic card, $100 for Zion Williamson and so on.

To get inside, collectors paid a $15 cash-only admission fee, then spent hours lugging briefcases and wheelies through the maze of tables stacked high with cards. They rifled through boxes and piles of merchandise looking for rare finds like signed Mickey Mantle baseballs and Michael Jordan rookie-year cards as they tried to cross items off their wish lists.

The eclectic — some could argue eccentric — dealers kibitzed about business trends and marveled about how quickly kids’ interests were changing as groups of boys sat on the floor showing off their favorite cards.

These very analog shows have been the backbone of the multibillion-dollar hobby, as people involved call it, for decades. But this musty corner of the sports retail world may soon be completely upended.

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