Vintage Treasure Unwrapped at 39th Annual National Sports Collectors Convention

The I-X Convention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, was this year’s destination spot for tens of thousands of sports collectors from around the country and even the globe. Over 45,000 people assembled over the course of the five-day event which took place between August 1st through the 5th. It’s been said that “if you can’t find it at the National, it doesn’t exist.” While this might be a tad bit of an exaggeration, the 1M square feet of exhibit space showcased some of the most amazing sports cards and memorabilia the hobby has to offer.

The I-X Convention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, was this year’s destination spot for tens of thousands of sports collectors from around the country and even the globe.

One aspect of the convention that is still relatively new to this annual pilgrimage is the presence of the case break pavilion. First envisioned by Ripping Wax founder, David Gelfman, the pavilion brings together dozens of group case breakers who specialize in modern sports cards. Group case breaking, simply put, is where a group of people split the cost of a case of modern sports cards. Teams can be randomly assigned to each participant and the cards yielded of that specific team, from the case, go to the owner of that assigned team.

The case break pavilion is relatively new to this annual pilgrimage.

While this aspect of the hobby has grown tremendously in recent years, this was only the fourth convention to house an area dedicated to the practice. The first took place at the 2014 National, which was also in Cleveland.

Gelfman along with Leighton Sheldon, the owner of Just Collect, a dealer specializing in vintage cards, teamed up to form a company called Vintage Breaks. Looking to capitalize on the sweeping popularity of group case breaks, the two decided to add a twist to the concept by offering collectors breaks in unopened vintage boxes and the even more rare, unopened individual packs.

One example of how this works was actually reported on by ESPN sports business news correspondent Darren Rovell earlier this year when the company offered spots in a break of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball cards. While that might not appear to qualify for “vintage” status, keep in mind that this is the product that is home to the rookie card of the NBA’s all-time greatest player, Michael Jordan. Collectors, fans and speculators were able to purchase an individual pack in the break for $2,000. Each box contains 36 packs and typically yields four Michael Jordan rookie cards. This equates to a 1-in-9 chance to own a pack fresh example of MJ’s rookie card. The current value of an ungraded example is a few thousand dollars. However, as with all collectibles, the real value is in condition. Pulling a Michael Jordan rookie card from an unopened pack means that card could then be worth, potentially, tens of thousands of dollars, assuming it is in near-mint or better condition.

1986-87 Fleer Basketball cards that might not appear to qualify for “vintage” status, but is the product that is home to the rookie card of the NBA’s all-time greatest player, Michael Jordan.

However, as previously mentioned, unopened boxes aren’t the only medium that Vintage Breaks offers to its customers. The company has also found demand for single cards from unopened packs. It was this aspect of the company’s endeavors that made hobby history and well-publicized mainstream news at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention.

Earlier this year, the company had acquired an unopened cellophane pack of 1955 Bowman baseball cards. Unopened packs of baseball cards from the 1950s are extremely difficult to find. When they are found, they command thousand of dollars. A large part of that value is driven by the prospect of what cards the pack might contain and them being in factory-fresh condition. Cellophane packs of this era typically contain twenty cards. Vintage Breaks offered its customers twenty “spots” in the pack break at the cost of $500 each. This entitled the person to a single card. The list of people purchasing these spots was randomized against a list of numbers, one through twenty, so that the final list resulted in customer x getting the first card in the pack, customer z getting the second card, etc., until all twenty cards were accounted for.

Having sold all twenty spots, the pack of baseball cards was then broken live on the main stage of the National by an employee of Vintage Breaks. While the pack yielded some very nice cards, including a second year Ernie Banks card, it was the 19th card in the pack that made history. Seeing its first light of day since being inserted into the pack all those many years ago was a potentially near-mint condition card of the one and only Mickey Mantle.

Seeing its first light of day since being inserted into the pack all those many years ago was a potentially near-mint condition card of the one and only Mickey Mantle.

Immediately, the lucky person who was assigned spot nineteen in the break turned that initial $500 investment into thousands of dollars. The exact value of the card would come down to its assigned grade from the hobby’s leading third-party vintage card grader, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).

The previously mentioned, Darren Rovell, himself, purchased one of the $500 spots in the break. While he wasn’t the lucky winner of the treasured Mantle card, his vested interest in the break helped to ensure that the story was one of the top headlines on ESPN.com and the ESPN app for the following 36-hour news cycle. The story has since been picked up by Forbes, the Today Show and other mainstream news outlets.

The entire experience was streamed live to a worldwide audience on Facebook and YouTube. The following clip of the Mantle reveal has since gone viral resulting in over 55K views.

The reaction of Vintage Breaks owner, Leighton Sheldon (standing behind the person handling the cards and narrating) is absolutely priceless. Not only are the sheer odds of pulling that card from a product originally manufactured 68 years ago monumentally difficult but the chances of the card receiving a high-grade would be even more challenging.

The card was in fact graded that night and returned in a grade of a PSA Mint 9 (out of a 10-point scale). To put that into perspective, of the 2,512 1955 Bowman Mickey Mantle cards the company has graded, only eight have received the Mint 9 grade, with just three others grading higher by receiving the coveted Gem Mint 10 grade. With this card now officially graded, the instant market value of the card is at least . . . . $50,000!! Pretty remarkable for an initial investment of $500.

With this card now officially graded, the instant market value of the card is at least . . . . $50,000!!

One of the leading sports collectibles media outlets in the hobby, Sports Collectors Daily, spoke with the winner of the card, Chris Rothe from Maryland, who said, “I was weak in the knees. There are no words that describe the emotions that were going through me when I actually laid eyes on that card.” For more on the owner’s reaction, who wasn’t able to watch the event live, read the full article here.

To say that this event was the highlight of this year’s National would be an understatement. The resulting media frenzy has caused Vintage Breaks to see a surge in demand and is a testament to the popularity of this new hobby phenomena.

Author Note:  It was an honor and privilege to be part of this historic hobby event. (In the video, that’s me in the black shirt to the left of the breaker.) I hope to see many of you next year when the National returns to my hometown of Chicago.


Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 25 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been involved with multi-media content development for several sports collectibles websites. Currently the Senior Marketing Manager for Sports & Entertainment at the hobby distributor GTS Distribution, he is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live streaming and nationally broadcast web show, Go GTS Live – The Hobby’s Web Show. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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