An Ethnography of Mick's Sports Card Show: Preliminary Findings From the Field

ABSTRACT - This paper reports the preliminary findings of an ongoing ethnography of a sports card show. This is a unique consumption domain that has yet to be explored empirically in the marketing literature, even though the market for sports cards is significant and continually growing. Participant observation and interviews are being used to study the nature of buying, selling, trading, and social interaction that take place at Mick's Sports Card Show. The emerging cultural themes include a unique language, a unique social structure, and collecting cards for economic and/or traditional and symbolic reasons.


Mary C. Martin and Stacey Menzel Baker (1996) ,"An Ethnography of Mick's Sports Card Show: Preliminary Findings From the Field", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 329-336.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 329-336


Mary C. Martin, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Stacey Menzel Baker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


This paper reports the preliminary findings of an ongoing ethnography of a sports card show. This is a unique consumption domain that has yet to be explored empirically in the marketing literature, even though the market for sports cards is significant and continually growing. Participant observation and interviews are being used to study the nature of buying, selling, trading, and social interaction that take place at Mick's Sports Card Show. The emerging cultural themes include a unique language, a unique social structure, and collecting cards for economic and/or traditional and symbolic reasons.


Following the invention of baseball by Abner Doubleday in 1839 came the introduction of sports cards. In the 1880s, sepia-toned, cardboard-backed photographs of sports stars began to accompany certain tobacco products (Vernon, Burroughs, and Mueller 1988). Thus began a phenomenon that has escalated in recent years, especially during the 1980sCsports card collecting for fun and/or profit. Along with this craze came a proliferation of sports card shows, major venues for buying, selling, and trading sports cards.

This paper presents the initial results of an ongoing ethnographic study of a sports card show. The purpose of this ethnographic study is to explore the nature of buying, selling, trading, and social interaction that take place at a sports card show. A postpositivist philosophy of science produced the research approach taken here, consistent with other ethnographic studies that have been conducted in marketing with respect to the homeless (Hill and Stamey 1990), homeless women (Hill 1991), a swap meet (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988), a gift store (McGrath 1989), a flea market (Sherry 1990), and new bikers (Schouten and McAlexander 1995). As Schouten and McAlexander (1995) argue, studying consumption patterns of subcultures gives us insight into how people define themselves within their culture. We concur and believe that studying the consumption patterns of sports card dealers and patrons offers unique insights into the value of sports card shows.

In this paper, we will first discuss the increasingly popular and tremendous market for sports cards. Second, we review the academic literature on sports cards and related theories and concepts in marketing that will be enhanced by studying the consumption of sports cards. The research approach and why ethnography is appropriate for studying a sports card show is then discussed. Next, data collection and analysis are described which resulted in a set of "working" or emerging cultural themes that are presented. The paper concludes with a discussion briefly summarizing the emerging cultural themes and offers suggestions for future research.


Consumption of sports cards represents a major economic activity in the United States. The demand for sports cards has sky rocketed in recent years as more and more people have become interested in collecting them. Sports card mania has hit the United States as billions of dollars are spent each year on sports cards. In 1990, retail sales of all cards was about $1 billion, up from $100 million in 1981 (Tucker 1991). In 1992, retail sales had grown to $1.4 billion annually with as many as 100 companies vying for a piece of the market (Khalaf 1992). As of 1989, it was estimated that more than 3 million people collect baseball cards, with sports card mania hitting about 50,000 new collectors each year (Morse 1989).

The value of sports cards has escalated as well. For example, a Mickey Mantle card produced by Topps Company in 1965 sold for about $40.00. In April 1995, this same card is valued at $350 to $550 (Beckett 1995). Mantle's rookie card (a 1952 Topps card) is valued at a mere $14,000 to $25,000. As of 1991, the highest price ever paid for a card was $410,000 when hockey player Wayne Gretzky and team owner Bruce McNall purchased a 1910 Honus Wagner card at a New York City auction (Jaffe 1991).

A recent example illustrating sports cards mania involves the highly publicized O.J. Simpson case. A hall-of-famer (and now an accused murderer), O.J.'s football cards are worth quite a bit. Before the murders, his rookie card, a 1970 Topps, was worth about $125. Currently, this card is valued at $90 to $175 (Beckett 1995). During the first week after the murders, one card shop owner in the Midwest experimented by putting all of his O.J. cards out for sale at double the value. Within one day, all cards had been sold, no questions asked. While this dealer had been successful at getting double book value, other dealers and collectors are trading O.J. cards at half of book value. O.J. cards are being pulled at both ends of the price spectrum, an unusual phenomenon (Hitt 1994). Simpson himself, however, is only benefiting from the publicity. In jail, he has autographed about 2,500 of his cards under a $100,000 contract with Signature Rookies Trading Cards (Ellis, Benet, Stambler, and Cunneff 1994).

The sports card business has grown to be so significant that SportsNet, a computerized network of card stores and dealers across the country, was developed and has become the final arbiter of going rates for sports cards. SportsNet functions like a commodity exchange in that dealers, after applying and being accepted into the network for a $49 monthly fee, post buy and sell orders. Up to $5 million worth of cards are exchanged daily. Some dealers even hire employees whose sole responsibility is to watch prices and look for deals on SportsNet (Roush 1994). Thus, the business of sports cards is tremendous and increasingly popular.


Though the sports card business is significant, we found only a few studies in the academic literature which have specifically looked at sports cards. Dodgen and Rapp (1992), for example, studied the personality differences of baseball card collectors. They used the Myers-Brigg Personality Inventory to determine if personality influences whether a person collects baseball cards for investment or leisure time activities. The authors found that an investor tends to be more of a "thinker"-type personality, whereas a hobbyist is more of a "feeling"-type personality.

Nardinelli and Simon (1990) and Regoli (1991) both looked at racism in baseball card collecting. Nardinelli and Simon (1990) examined whether race directly affects the value of a player in the market for baseball cards. Their results support the contention that consumer discrimination exists in the baseball card market. For example, the cards of nonwhite hitters sell for about 10 percent less than the cards of white hitters of comparable ability. Regoli (1991), however, found that race and the value of a player's rookie card are not related.


No studies in marketing have specifically addressed sports card consumption. However, a deep understanding of this type of consumption would enhance our understanding of consumer behavior and "how consumer behavior contributes to our broader existence as human beings" (Belk 1988, p. 139). For example, the phenomenon of buying, selling, and trading sports cards has implications for the self. The role possessions play in contributing and reflecting the self is important to understanding consumer behavior. For example, in the marketing literature, Belk (1988) has suggested the notion of an "extended self," the self that is symbolically extended through possessions. The inclusion of the study of sports cards as a means to extend one's self will enhance our understanding of consumer behavior. As an example of the possible special meaning that sports cards have for one's self, Boswell (1992) describes the transition from wanting to sell sports cards for profit to wanting to give the cards to friends or wanting to keep the cards for his son:

Then something funny happened. I found myself asking friends if they had any favorite old players. And I began giving away cards. My friends' gratitude was instructive. They loved the cards the way baseball cards were meant to be loved. But what really started to heal me was that, card by card, I regained misplaced parts of my childhoodCparts I needed more than I knew. Finding the cards, and the cigar box I'd kept them in, help me realize that I had never gone through my parents' house since my mother died. Like most families, we had painful arguments and imperfect reconciliations. But I never understood the degree to which my memories of growing up had been diminished in sweetness by the distance and independence I had gained. Until I found the baseball cards. Through them, I reconnected with the sincerity of my parents' love. Just being around the cards made me feel cared for and appreciated.

Belk (1990) has expanded his notion of the extended self to include the dimension of time. Specifically, he suggests that besides being defined by our immediate circumstances, we are defined by our pasts and our futures. Sports cards offer a unique link to one's past. This link is illustrated by Boswell's (1992) quote above. In addition, Vernon, Burroughs, and Mueller (1988, p. 124) suggest that "baseball cards are part of the experience of millions of Americans. They are the physical embodiment of dreams and thus usually represent a solid and positive part of childhood memories." In his eulogy at Mickey Mantle's funeral, Bob Costas described how Mantle's cards may offer a link to one's past:

Mickey Mantle was too humble and honest to believe that the whole truth about him could be found on a Wheaties box or a baseball card. But the emotional truths of childhood have a power to transcend objective fact. They stay with us through all the years, withstanding the ambivalence that so often accompanies the experiences of adults. That's why we can still recall the immediate tingle in that instant of recognition when a Mickey Mantle popped up in a pack of Topps bubble gum cards (Associated Press 1995).

Sports cards also offer a link to one's future, through continuing a collection in one's children. For example, Boswell (1992, p. 55) told his son when asked if he was going to sell his cards, "No, I'm going to save all the good ones for you." Tom Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, suggests that part of the growth in collecting sports cards can be attributed to parents encouraging their children to collect. He says, "By 1980, the first generation of kids that collected baseball cards were approaching middle age. They realized they had lost a small fortune when their mothers threw out their old collections. These men began urging their kids to collect cards as an investment" (Tucker 1991, p. 65).

A related literature has begun to emerge in marketing as well: the phenomenon of collecting (e.g., Baker and Mittelstaedt 1995; Belk et al. 1991; Smith and Lee 1994). Belk et al. (1988) present some initial propositions about collecting derived from qualitative research. For example, the authors found that: 1) collections seldom begin purposefully; 2) addiction and compulsive aspects pervade collecting; 3) collecting legitimizes acquisitiveness as art or science; 4) profane to sacred conversions occur when an item enters a collection; 5) collections serve as extensions of self; 6) collections tend toward specialization; 7) post-mortem distribution problems are significant to collectors and their families; and, 8) there is a simultaneous desire for and fear of completing a collection. Other research in marketing (e.g., Belk et al. 1991; Formanek 1991) has suggested that collectors often have multiple motivations for collection including investment, obsession, preservation, and legitimization of the personal and social self. Given that collecting sports cards is a popular activity for both adults and children, examination of this consumption domain will enhance our overall understanding of collectors and collecting.


Having its roots in cultural anthropology, ethnography is a research approach that allows one to describe an in-tact cultural group or an individual typical of a cultural group (Arnould and Wallendorf 1994; Spradley 1980). Culture, as defined by Arnould and Wallendorf (1994, p. 485), is "learned, socially acquired traditions and the lifestyle of a group of people, including patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting." The sports card show being studied represents an intact culture with unique rules, customs, language, and social relationships. The site is Mick's Sports Card Show in a large, metropolitan area in the Midwest (the name of the show and the informants have been changed to preserve the informants' anonymity). The show takes place in a banquet room in a hotel and occurs one Sunday a month. It attracts generally the same 25 dealers each time (because dealers are signed up to attend one year in advance) and the same patrons (they are sent postcards one week prior to each show to remind them to attend). These dealers and patrons are somewhat serious about sports cards (versus a sports card show in a mall, for example, where many children, adolescents, and lookers attend), thus the show selected offers a rich context to study.

Because of the lack of literature and theoretical base with respect to sports cards shows, an ethnographic approach is appropriate. This qualitative research design is allowing us to develop a rich, comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon by studying a sports card show in a natural setting and interpreting the meanings associated with buying, selling, and trading cards. Several research questions are guiding our work: What is the nature of buying, selling, trading, and social interaction at this sports card show? What types of people are buyers/sellers/traders at this sports card show? What occurs in a buyer-seller/trader-trader interaction? Why do people go to this sports card show? Why do people buy/sell/trade sports cards? What do sports cards mean to collectors? How/why do people begin collecting sports cards?

These research questions have allowed us to explore several cultural themes (e.g., Winthrop 1991) after two visits to the show and several interviews with dealers and patrons. Specifically, the emerging cultural themes to be described subsequently include:

Language - What unique language characterizes dealers and patrons at Mick's Sports Card Show?

Social Structure - What are the enduring, culturally patterned relations between individuals or groups at Mick's Sports Card Show, including the forms of relationship and characteristics of any groups? What characterizes the different forms of relationships at the show (e.g., what are the exchange processes for short-term business relationships and how are they different from exchange processes which characterize long-term business relationships)?

Economy - How do activities at Mick's Sports Card Show facilitate activity directed at economic ends (i.e., for what economic reasons are sports cards collected, including buying and selling)?

Traditions and Symbolism - How is collecting sports cards transmitted through time and through whom? What do sports cards symbolize to dealers and/or patrons at Mick's Sports Card Show?


Consistent with Arnould and Wallendorf's (1994) suggestion, participant observation and interviews are the primary methods of data collection being used in this ethnography. Photographs are supplementing these data sources. Thus far, two visits to the show have resulted in approximately ten hours of observation with the first observation period lasting for six and one-half hours and the second lasting for three and one-half hours.

Participant observation included interaction with dealers and patrons as they bought, sold, and traded sports cards. For example, by sitting behind dealers' tables, their interactions with patrons could be observed. Detailed fieldnotes were taken, recording the activities that occurred during an interaction and verbatim conversations between the dealers and patrons. The fieldnotes also included our personal comments, feelings, and reactions that we experienced during the observations and interviews. After transcription, the fieldnotes were approximately 16 pages in length (single-spaced).

During the first visit to the show, one dealer and two patrons were interviewed. The interviews were conducted using an interview protocol as a guide, with heavy reliance on the use of probes. Given our research questions, the initial interviews with dealers and patrons included questions such as: Did you buy/sell/trade any cards today? Why did you buy/sell/trade this card(s)? What does this card(s) mean to you? What occurred during the interaction between you and the seller/buyer/trader? Do you collect baseball cards? Why do you collect baseball cards? How does it feel when you buy/sell/trade a card? The first set of interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed. Each interview lasted approximately twenty to thirty minutes. After transcription, the interviews were approximately 24 pages in length (single-spaced).

In addition to participant observation and interviews, photographs were taken of the setting and of interactions taking place. The photographs are allowing us to more thoroughly describe the setting (e.g., displays of cards) and the interactions (e.g., how patrons and dealers look at cards and price guides or make an exchange).

Data collection and analysis are being guided by the developmental research sequence described by Spradley (1980). This sequence is a systematic eight-step approach where data collection and analysis occur simultaneously.


Mick's Sports Card Show takes place in a banquet room in the basement of a motel in a large, metropolitan area of the Midwest. A large sign above the entrance greets visitors to Mick's Sports Card Show. The wife and daughter of the man who runs the show collect $1.00 admission and offer free coffee and donuts for dealers and patrons.

About 25 dealers attend the show which occurs once a month on a Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The number of tables each dealer "buys" varies. For example, Dan always has two tables. However, the dealer next to Dan has four tables (the fee is $50.00 per table). The dealers tend to arrive at the show between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m. to set up. For some dealers, setting up their tables is a lengthy, meticulous process. Dan, for example, arrives by 8:00 a.m. and goes through an hour-long process of unloading, placing cases on the table in a particular order, and then placing cards in the cases (certain cards go in certain cases). For Dan, most of his cards are placed in cases according to sport (i.e., football cards in one case, baseball cards in another). Other dealers place their cards in boxes by year.

When all the dealers are set up, the banquet room appears crowded. Table after table is full of sports cards and related sports memorabilia (e.g., autographed baseballs, posters). Cards are displayed in several ways. For example, Dan has special cases which hold hundreds of cards at a time. Other dealers merely place single cards out on a table for display. Some dealers bring back-drops on which to hang cards or memorabilia.

A few minutes before 9:00 a.m., patrons begin coming to the show. At times, the show is busyCthere are many patrons gathered at tables and/or strolling around the show. At other times, like during a Sunday afternoon football game, the show is not as busyCthe crowd dwindles and dealers take time to visit other dealers' tables or to take breaks.


On first glance, we could tell that both dealers and patrons are sports fansCboth tend to wear team sports apparel. For example, Trevor, a patron who was interviewed, wore a Kansas City Chiefs cap and tennis shoes. Dave, a dealer, his wife Donna, and their two young sons all wore Kansas City Chiefs sweatsuits. In fact, Donna had a family photo taken with all of the family members wearing Chiefs apparel. Though not team-specific, Dan, a dealer, wears suspenders of sports sketches.

Dealers are usually very knowledgeable about cards and the type of person who can "swing a deal." For example, as the fieldnotes indicate, Ben, a dealer, seems to be quite a salesperson:

Ben looks like a real salesperson. He is very energetic as he talksChe talks loud and you can hear and see the enthusiasm in his voice, eyes, and action. Though Ben's table is a few yards away, I can hear Ben telling the customer that he (Ben) has some nice cards. Ben tells the customer that if he gets his name and number, he will continue to look for the cards the customer wants. Ben puts a card back for the customer who marks in a notebook something about what the two talked about.

Mick's Sports Card Show is characterized by "serious" card collectors as well. For example, most patrons come to the show with a list of needed cards. This list(s) may be on single sheets of notebook paper, in spiral or three-ring notebooks, or written in to sports card price guides. The very serious collectors carry a briefcase of some kind to hold lists, price guides, and any purchased/traded cards. Some bring boxes or notebooks of cards in hopes to trade cards. Harry is a serious card collector at the show. He talks about his buying of cards: "people go crazyCit's like drugs. I'm upgrading cards that don't need it. It's getting ridiculous." Most of the patrons also have a somewhat vast knowledge of cards. For example, they know what "rookies" or "keys" are and what determines the value of cards.


Through an ethnographic study of Mick's Sports Card Show, cultural themes are being developed. A cultural theme is any principle recurrent in a number of domains, tacit or explicit, and serving as a relationship among subsystems of cultural meaning (Spradley 1980, p. 141). In this paper, a set of "working" cultural themes is presented. The themes are described by telling a story through rich description. This description relies largely on quotes from the informants (i.e., the informants' language) and excerpts from the fieldnotes.

A Unique Language

The dealers and patrons at Mick's Sports Card Show share a unique language with respect to card collecting. For example, many types of cards exist: commons, rookies, dupes, keys, semi-keys, mint, near-mint, Mantles, Bretts. Many of these terms refer to a quality that determines a card's worth. For example, a rookie card is a player's first-year card and is generally worth more than other years. A key card is one for a very good or famous player (e.g., a Brett is a George Brett card, a Mantle is a Mickey Mantle card) and is generally worth more than a semi-key, a card for a good or somewhat famous player, or a common, a card for player not well-known. A mint card is one that has great quality, including good color, corners, and centering, as well as no creases.

Making a deal has a unique language as well. The fieldnotes describe typical interactions between patrons and dealers:

The customer, before he leaves, asks Dan about a '61 cardC"what do you got to have for that '61 Mantle?" Dan looks at his Beckett. He usually looks at the Beckett and then looks upward and appears to be doing calculations in his head. After a few seconds, Dan quotes him $225. He says, "$225. Books at $450. That's about what I got in it."

The Beckett is the price guide used by almost all card collectors. Beckett provides low book and high book prices, which represent a range of value. The low book price is generally for cards that are not in mint condition, while high book price is for cards of mint condition. Some dealers and patrons will only pay a percent of Beckett. For example, Pete, a patron at the show, will only pay 15% above the low Beckett value.

A Unique Social Structure

The social structure of Mick's Sports Card Show is characterized by several forms of relationships among and between dealers and patrons. These different forms of relationships can be distinguished from each other based on who is a party to the relationship and the nature and extent of contact between the parties to the relationship.

First, dealer-patron relationships may be short-term exchange relationships. These type of relationships involve one-time transactions between a dealer and patron. A typical one-time exchange between a dealer and patron is exemplified in the following excerpts from the fieldnotes:

The customer lets Dan know that he is looking for some "good '62s." The man is with a boy about 13 years old (probably his son), who is looking at a Beckett price guide. The man now looks at a Beckett at '62 prices. The customer looks at a '62 rookie card that Dan has in one of his cases. Dan takes it out of the case for the man. The man takes the card and pulls it out of the hard plastic cover. The customer tells Dan that he is close to completing his set and says to Dan, "Tell me what you want for this." Dan quotes him $75. The customer looks at the card some more and is thinking about it in silence. Then he points out that the back of the card is not so goodCthe back is not "squared up"Cand says, "doggone it." The customer says he will think about it and that he is looking for other '62s as well.

The customer who is looking for good '62s comes back to Dan's table. He is looking through '62 cards that Dan has in his bargain box. The customer takes out a stack of cards and reads the number of each card to the boy who looks on their list to see if they have the card. Their list is in a price guide (not a Beckett price guide, but a smaller book). When they find a card they don't have, the customer lays it out on the table. The customer has a stack of cards out and asks Dan to "see what he can do on this set of cards." He tells Dan that he will come back later to see.

The customer who had picked out a stack of '62s comes back to Dan's table for a quote. The customer is joking with Dan as they try to make a deal. The customer tells Dan to "get to the bottom line" and that he won't pay 50% for one not in good shape. Dan quotes him a price, the customer counter-offers for $5 less. The final price is $90 for the stack and one single card for $40. The customer pays Dan in cash. I notice he has a big wad of $20 bills.

Dealer-patron relationships, however, may also be long-term exchange ones. This type of relationship is exemplified by Dan, a dealer, and Harry, a patron. Dan has been attending Mick's Sports Card Show for about two years. Over that two years, he has frequently done business with Harry, a local physician, and hence has developed a long-term exchange relationship with Harry. Dan is always looking out for cards that Harry needs. Harry comes to the show every month and buys cards only from Dan. Harry likes to upgrade his cards. That is, he buys cards of better quality than ones he already has. When Harry arrives at a show, he immediately comes to Dan's tables and makes himself comfortable at a table behind Dan's tables by sitting down and making room to look at Dan's cards. Harry usually brings a list of cards he needs but has occasionally forgotten his list and has to run back home to get it. Dan and Harry chat as Harry looks at cards, but Harry is very focused on studying the cards he is looking at. When Harry has chosen some cards he would like to purchase from Dan, the exchange is very casual, as illustrated in an excerpt from the fieldnotes:

Harry offers Dan $65.00C"Is $65 all right for you?" he asks. Dan replies, "Whatever's fair for you." Harry writes out a check. Harry asks Dan, somewhat embarrassingly it seems, what his last name is and how to spell it. After Dan tells him, he jokingly says, "He asks me this every month." Joan (Dan's wife) remarks that they've "never had one bounce yet." Harry replies, "Not yet."

As contrasted with the typical short-term exchange relationship, long-term relationships are not characterized by extended periods of negotiation over price, offers, and counter-offers. As Harry leaves, he asks Dan to call him ahead of time (i.e., before the next show) if he "gets a bunch of '64s, '60s, or '61s."

Dealer-dealer relationships may also be short-term or long-term exchange ones. Dealers buy/sell and trade from each other quite often on a one-time basis. These dealer-dealer transactions may also not involve sports cards. For example, Joan (Dan's wife) purchased a vacuum cleaner from Dave, a dealer, who owns a vacuum cleaner shop. Long-term exchange relationships are quite common as well. Dan and Ben, for example, have a long-term exchange relationship where they buy/sell and trade from each other quite often. This exchange takes place in a casual manner similar to that between Dan and Harry. For example, after Ben purchased some cards he wanted to sell some of them to Dan. Dan brought the notebook of cards to his table and looked through them. Then, as excerpts from the fieldnotes illustrates, the exchange occurred:

Ben came over to Dan's table. Dan asks him "What percent of Beckett do you want?" Ben jokes and says, "Full book." Dan laughs and hands the notebook back. Ben then says, "Pick out some and we'll make a deal."

Dan goes over to Ben's table. He takes the notebook back and pulls out his wallet to pay Ben for some cards he found. When Dan came back, I asked him what happened. He told me that he paid $20.00 for about twenty football cards. Ben had first asked him how much the cards booked at. Dan told him about $90.00 high Beckett. Dan told Ben he'd give him $20.00. Ben jokingly asked him, "Aren't they worth $40?" Dan said no and bought them for $20.00.

Dealers also tend to have a sense of camaraderie among them. That is, they make efforts to buy, sell, and trade with each other at reasonable prices. They also try not to "out deal" each other. For example, Pete, a patron, not only comes to the show to buy or trade cards, he also comes to sell cards. However, he is careful not to offend the dealers at the show:

I like to carry some stuff in and try to sell to people. Like if somebody comes to Dan and is looking for something and I hear it, I'm not going to hone in on Dan. But as soon as he leaves Dan's table, I'm going to follow him and then I'll take him out in the parking lot. I didn't pay to be in here, so I'm not going to, you know, do a deal with any other... it's a kind of a brotherhood.

Dealer camaraderie is also evident in that dealers help each other to make sales. For example, the fieldnotes illustrate how Ben helped Dan make a sale:

Ben jumps in on the deal Dan is making with this man. Ben says to the man, "He's usually real fair. I do a lot of business with him." He also tells the man that "if I had them, I wouldn't do any less." The man says he'll take them and writes Dan a check. Ben tells the man that that's a good deal.

Besides exchange and dealer camaraderie, relationships at Mick's Sports Card Show are also personal. The dealers, for example, are not only business associates, they are friends (both at the show and outside of the show) as well. For example, Ben talks about some of the other dealers at the show:

The guy that runs the show is one of my best friends. I really like him, he uses our home all the time at the lake and stuff, I wouldn't let him use that if he didn't. And Dan, like family over here, just wouldn't be the same. I love to yell at him about his smoking. Nothing like a reformed drunk and a reformed cigarette smoker.

This type of personal relationship is also evident between dealers and patrons. For example, Harry is concerned about Dan's smoking too. He continually reminds him to stop smoking.

Finally, family relationships are part of the social structure of Mick's Sports Card Show. Many families attend the show together. Father-son(s) relationships are quite common among the patrons. Among the dealers, many couples run tables. For example, Joan comes to the show with Dan every time, though he does the dealing. This situation is similar to that of Dave and Donna, but they also bring their two young children. While Joan appears to enjoy the show, Donna apparently doesn't as she once told Joan that, "this show sucks."

Collecting Cards for Economic Reasons

The cultural theme of economy centers around the question of "how do activities at Mick's Sports Card Show facilitate activity directed at economic ends (i.e., for what economic reasons are sports cards collected, including buying and selling)?" For many dealers and patrons, reasons for buying, selling, and trading are profit- or expense-oriented. That is, dealers and patrons can make quite a bit of money buying, selling, and trading cards. In fact, the profit potential is the reason Ben started collecting cards:

What happened was, in 1984 I went to buy some Christmas presents and I bought a 1933 Babe Ruth card for 100 bucks and a '77 Topps set. My son was born in '77. And I didn't look at it for about two or three years, and the Babe Ruth card went up to about 5,000 bucks, and that usually gets your attention, and then the '77 set's now about $400. So I realized it wasn't only fun, but something I could make some money at too.

The large profit potential is exciting for Ben, as well as "scary":

It's scary, you know, what you can make. I mean, I've made about $10,000 a month, more than once. Two weeks ago I made $3700, and the week before that here I made $1700, so it was almost $6000. That's a pretty nice hobby.

Though primarily evident in dealers, patrons also consider the economy of collecting cards. For example, Trevor talks about what he looks for in cards when considering buying and reselling of cards:

First of all you look at the price of them, that's the most noticeable. If the price is good then you start looking at the card and you start grading it. If the grading's off on it, I'd give them maybe 25% of what the book says, and then I turn around and I sell it for maybe 2 or 3% more than what I bought it for. So that's where you make your profit margin at.

Collecting may also be a means of covering expenses. As Dan once said, "We've got to sell enough to cover our expenses. Then it's worth it." Dan was referring to covering show expenses (e.g., the cost of transportation to the show and the table fee). However, other dealers and patrons also use the money made from card collecting to cover other expenses. For example, Ben talks about sharing his earnings with his family and covering vacation expenses:

When I make a nice profit I always give some to my wife, give some to the kids, and she doesn't give me any shit at all. I lay the cards around the living room, and the dining room, and I have the whole basement, but there's a direct relationship how much money she gets and how much griping I get. And she's really not too bad about it. Whenever we travel I take cards. And we always pay for expenses just by stopping at card shops and making some money. Once, this guy gave me $1300 for this box of cardsCbought the whole box. When I went outside and started divvying it out, I think I wound up with $300 left. Well, after that nobody ever gave me trouble. I could stop anywhere I wanted, Penny pulls out her book and reads, waits for money. Works real well.

Similarly, Trevor talks about buying cards as an investment to be used to cover future expenses:

It's a hobby, but also I use my sports cards that I put away maybe someday help my son go to college, help my kids go to college, and/or to hand them down to them, let them collect and maybe start their own little collection.

Sometimes, however, the desire to spend money on cards clashes with other economic needs. For example, one patron interested in several high-priced cards (e.g., ranging from $27.00 to $200.00 a piece) from Dan hesitated to purchase the cards because he had a house payment due.

Tradition and Symbolism of Collecting Cards

Collecting sports cards seems to be a tradition for some dealers and patrons. The fact that many fathers and their sons come to Mick's Sports Card Show together seems to illustrate passing on of tradition. For some, collecting cards is done because they did it as children. For example, Trevor talks about how he got interested in sports cards:

Oh, that's a long story. Way back in '72, mowing yards as a kid, making $.50 a yard mowing them, just going around through the neighborhood convenience store and buying sports cards. Just things that me and my friends used to do when we were kids. You know, we used to trade and swap them, trade them back and forth, things like that. Just been a hobby ever since, since I was a kid.

When I was a kid I used to trade all the time. Me and my buddies would get together. We'd all get together with our shoe box full of cards and sit around and "Hey, I'll trade you a Willie Mays for a Nolan Ryan. I'll trade you a couple Hank Aarons for a Thurman Munson and a, you know, and this here, you know, or Willie McCovey, yeah, all right, you know." Yeah, we traded all the time.


In addition, Trevor would like to continue the tradition of collecting cards. He wants "to hand them down to them (his children), let them collect and maybe start their own little collection."

For Trevor, sports cards represent a tradition in another way. Trevor likes to buy older cards C"the original baseball cards," for example. For Trevor, the original baseball cards seem to preserve the tradition of baseball as it used to be when he was a child:

I'd like to have the 1934s because I'd like to have the Lou Gehrig, the Ruth, and all the old players from the days when baseball was, you know, there. You don't have to worry about strikes and things like that. Back then it was, you know, you go out to the ball game, you chew hot dog, and watch Hank, Babe Ruth hit a home run, or Lou Gehrig smack one. Nowadays everyone's talking money. I mean, it's not a game anymore.

I probably have about 50,000 of them from when I was a kid, back when I was about 6 years old. I look at them today and I'm like, man, I never thought I'd buy so many cards. For baseball cards now you're spending a dollar and a half, two dollars, three dollars a pack. Heck, when I was buying them, you could get them for 154. Like I said, it's not a game anymore. It's a dollar situation, everyone wants the money off of it. And it's strange, it really is, how baseball can really turn from being so nice, going out to a park and watching guys hit a ball, and, getting autographs on a baseball card that you paid maybe five cents for. Now there are strikes, where no one wants to play ball unless they get their millions paid to them, and then you got to spend 40 bucks for a card that you have to go and get an autograph on. It's ridiculous. It's a money market any more, it's not just a game. Kind of sad.

Thus, collecting cards seems to represent passing on of a tradition between family members, as well as a means to preserve traditions experienced as a child.

Sports cards also act as symbolism for dealers and/or patrons at Mick's Sports Card Show. Preserving the tradition of baseball that Trevor described above also represents symbolism of the past. Trevor also talked about what his collection of cards means to him:

It's just a part of my past, you know, to me my cards are a part of my past. I cherish them like crazy, but like I said, it's part of my past. I'm going to be able to leave to my-kids when they get older, and that's basically what my cards mean. Money-wise, yeah, I sell a few of them here and there, but just some of the cards that I don't really care about. Other cards that I do care about I leave for my kids. That's-what my collection means to me.

Collecting cards also seems to represent being part of the game. For example, Trevor discussed why he thinks sports cards are popular items:

Since you can't have an autograph for them (the players) or you can't see them in person all the time, or what have you, why not keep them around. A lot of people get sports cards and that's why they have them.


The cultural themes that are emerging through this ethnographic study of Mick's Sports Card Show include a unique language, a unique social structure, economy, and tradition and symbolism. First, the dealers and patrons of Mick's Sports Card Show tend to use a unique language. They buy and sell "keys," "dupes," "rookies," and "near-mint" cards, for example. Second, the social structure is unique in that several forms of relationships exist among dealers and patrons which are characterized by different exchange processes. Third, dealers and patrons are motivated to buy, sell, and trade cards for economic reasons. Dealers, for example, are very profit-oriented; they enjoy making a profit through selling a card or realizing the profit potential when a card has risen in value. Finally, the tradition and symbolism of collecting sports cards are evident. Some patrons buy, sell, and trade sports cards because they are carrying on a tradition experienced as a child while others view the exchange as symbolic of being part of "the" game.

The cultural themes are intertwined in several interesting ways. For example, the primary reason most dealers attend the show is to make money. To do this, they must understand the language used in negotiation. They must also understand why cards appeal to certain people (e.g., some may want a certain card because it represents the year they were born) so that when they are negotiating they do not focus on attributes of the cards which are irrelevant to buyers or traders. The relationships which are established provide an added benefit to these dealers (e.g., they may "share" customers) because they look out for one another and may actually assist in the sales effort. From these findings, one might hypothesize that all dealers attend shows because of the economic potential; however, this is not necessarily the case. For example, Ben, who deals in a much larger volume of sports cards than the other dealers, attends the show primarily to establish contacts. In fact, Ben expects to lose money at the show. Thus, an alternative hypotheses seems to be that for those dealers for whom the primary place for buying, selling, and trading is Mick's Sports Card Show, the economic culture is most important. For dealers who have additional venues of exchange, the social structure seems to be most important.

The cultural themes presented here are "working" ones. That is, while they appear to represent the culture at Mick's Sports Card Show, future visits to the site will be used to verify them as well as to discover other possible cultural themes. Although an ethnographic study which explores the culture of Mick's Sports Card Show is our primary purpose, we also have uncovered areas within each theme that represent potentially rich areas for future research. In the short run, the social structure and the nature of the relationships at the show are particularly compelling. The show offers dealers an opportunity to engage in symbiotic relationships with patrons and other dealers. It appears that Mick's Sports Card Show may be characterized as an embedded market (Frenzen and Davis 1990) in that both the patrons and dealers derive utility from the sports cards as well as from the social capital of the ties between them.

Another fruitful avenue for research derives from the tradition and symbolism of sports cards. Some patrons refuse to buy any of the newer cards (those produced within the last decade) because the number of companies manufacturing sports-related paraphernalia (including cards, pogs, pennants, figurines, etc.) has increased dramatically. These patrons believe that the cards have been "commercialized" to such an extent that the fun and nostalgia derived from collecting cards have been taken away. Because these new cards are no longer sacred, they do not have special meaning and, in turn, they do not fit with these patrons' collections and do not become part of their extended selves.

Some dealers are also bothered by the proliferation of new cards for economic reasons. These dealers believe it is impossible to be knowledgeable about all of the new items. Because they are unable to develop their expertise, they will not deal in new items which are risky and may not prove to be profitable.

Mick's Sports Card Show offers us a unique opportunity to explore an intact cultural group. Consumer desires for collectibles make it likely that venues such as this sports card show will continue to be of importance. Thus, the transferability of our findings to other similar venues (e.g., comic book or depression glass shows) also deserves consideration in future research.


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Mary C. Martin, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Stacey Menzel Baker, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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