Kevin Elster and Chris Sabo don’t have plaques in Cooperstown. Sabremetrics analysts don’t sing their praises. Their major league careers were long, but not particularly distinguished. Elster might be more famous for his brief role in the movie Little Big League than for anything he did in the majors. And Sabo, if he’s remembered by baseball fans at all, it’s because of the Rec-Specs goggles that he wore while manning third base for the Cincinnati Reds.
But if you were a baseball card collector, particularly a teenaged one, in the mid-to-late 80s the faces of Elster and Sabo are permanently etched into your brain. You can instantly recall Elster on his 1988 Donruss Rated Rookie card looking askance by the edge of a batting cage, his face cast in shadow by the brim of his New York Mets batting helmet. Or Sabo, in the midst of a high follow through on his 1988 Topps card, his name set against a pinkish ribbon for some reason that defies all conventional design wisdom.
These were the cards you fiended after. You might get lucky and find one in a pack at your local convenience store. Otherwise you could scour card shops or trade with your friends. In today’s jargon, we’d say, “the thirst is real.”
The reason for the hype wasn’t because you were fans of the players. These were early cable days and pre-internet. You were lucky if you saw your home team play on TV once a week, let alone an out-of-market squad. It was pure “buy low, sell high” capitalism.
Teenagers heard stories about how their grandmothers threw out their dad’s card collection, which (in the telling of the tales, at least) contained all manner of valuable Mickey Mantle rookie cards. These same teens weren’t going to make the same mistake. They were amassing these cards of Elster, Sabo, and countless others so that they could make loot.
Then the bubble burst. By the mid ‘90s, the Sabo card that might have been worth $40 at its height (and of which you owned a dozen) was now worth pennies.
Could the same thing happen to sneakers? If you look at the two there are some striking similarities.
Both are driven by the fanaticism of teenage boys and young men.
Go to any sneaker expo and you’ll see scores of young people with shoes draped around their neck. They aren’t headed to sports practice, they’re hawking their wares the way merchants have done for centuries. Many aren’t old enough to drive, fewer are old enough to vote, and fewer still are of drinking age. If you can rent a car you qualify as a geezer. To be fair, there are a few grizzled veterans around (looks in mirror) talking about how sneaker culture was purer “back in my day.” But the sneaker game is unmistakably a young man’s game. It was the same with baseball cards. At the height of card mania, parents were schelpping their kids around to any card show within a three-hour radius each weekend. Sometimes you bought or traded, sometimes you didn’t. But you had to go. The chance to conduct a little business, ogle items out of your price range, and commune with like-minded members of tribe was too hard to resist for yesterday’s card collectors as it is for today’s sneakerheads.
SKYROCKETING PRICES IN SECONDARY MARKETS
The most common lament among sneaker cognoscenti (yes, there is such a thing) is that resellers have ruined things. The guy who buys a pair of shoes the day they drop likely has no intention of ever wearing them. He’s going to put them on eBay or take them to a sneaker show as soon as he can to try and get double or triple the price he paid at retail, if not more. This secondary market was the same with baseball cards. While people didn’t line up at the drug store when a new box of cards was delivered, the market was still driven by the fact that you could buy low and sell high with relative ease.
AN OVERABUNDANCE OF PRODUCT
Topps used to have a virtual monopoly on baseball cards and would produce one set each season. Then, following a lawsuit, Fleer and Donruss got in the game. As demand grew, so did the number of sets produced by each company. It became unclear what was the “true” rookie card for a particular player. There were too many different cards in the marketplace and it was hard to tell what was worth your attention and your money. Sneakers are approaching a similar place. Twenty years ago, there would be one model of a signature basketball shoe, for example, with a handful of different colorways at most. Now new colorways drop each week. Then there are the hybrid models, lifestyle models, collaborations, and so on. Keeping up with it all has become dizzying.
Baseball cards and sneakers are both all about supply and demand. As the card market became flooded with new supply, companies looked for new ways to create demand. Adding swatches of players’ jerseys, hats, and even bats became a way to make individual cards more desirable. But the limited edition nature was a bit of an illusion, a way to increase demand while keeping supply low. The card companies could always get more jerseys to glue to the back of a card, but that didn’t fit the business model. Likewise, when a sneaker company sells out of a particularly hyped sneaker, it isn’t because they lack the production bandwidth to make more. It’s because they want to dangle a hard-to-reach carrot in front of the consumer.
The two markets aren’t mirror images of each other. There are some important differences between baseball cards and sneakers, too. Namely, you could leave the house without your baseball cards. You wouldn’t want to do the same without your shoes. Sneakers, in a very literal sense, fulfill a need for clothing. Of course, if you’ve got boxes of kicks stacked to the ceiling, it’s likely that your need is more than met.
Will the sneaker bubble burst? Probably not. It may deflate, but it’s hard to see it popping the way that baseball cards did. And even if it does it may not be the worst thing in the world. Skateboarding was also a huge craze in the '80s—it even spawned the Josh Brolin movie Thrashin. When it fell off in the '90s, the diehards that remained gave birth to one of the most creative and innovative periods in the sport. That ultimately led to a new boom in popularity for skating in the '00s.
In any event, I’m not getting rid of my baseball cards (which are stashed in my parents’ attic) or my sneakers (stashed in my own) anytime soon.