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Sports Fans Collect

You can always spot a sports fan in the crowd – whether at the stadium or on the street – because they’ll be the one sporting head-to-toe branded attire that publicly broadcasts their affinity for a sport, team, or player. They are loud and proud in their support and put their money where their mouth is!

There is no doubt that the market for sports collectibles, merchandise, and memorabilia rides on the coattails of a sport or team’s popularity. And with multiple platforms available for fans to now live stream games, build their own fantasy teams, and follow their favorite teams and players on social media, the market is exploding to further expand its fan base.

According to Research and Markets, the Licensed Sports Merchandise market in the U.S., from apparel to footwear and everything in between, was estimated at $5.5 billion in 2022. That’s a lot of T-shirts, Styrofoam fingers, athletic gear, bobbleheads, banners, baseball caps, and sneakers! Leading the pack is NFL-branded apparel and merchandise, followed by the NBA. Among the most popular NFL franchises for fan-purchased merchandise? The Dallas Cowboys, followed by the Raiders. The San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Pittsburgh Steelers round out the top five, according to surveyed retailers.

Not surprisingly, sports fans are also collectors of sports memorabilia in what has grown into a multi-billion dollar market of its own. According to Market Decipher’s ( recently published report, “Size, Statistics, Growth Trend Analysis, and Forecast Report, 2022–2032,” over 60 million collectors are involved in the purchase/trading of sports memorabilia in what was estimated as a $26 billion market in 2021 and is projected to experience a compound annual growth rate of 21.8% for a $227.2 billion market by 2023! This is exclusive of the sale of NFTs, which the Report estimated at $1.4 billion in 2022 and which they forecast to reach $92 billion by 2032. Yet, these stats do not even begin to cover fan-based collections such as game ticket stubs, autographed items, team mementos, and promotional giveaways; items collected over time the old fashion way – by paying to be a fan in the seats and waiting outside the locker room for an autograph.

One has only to follow the mainstream news to see who and what is driving the high-end sports memorabilia market. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Mickey Mantle, Honus Wagner, and Bill Russell are just a few of the headliners breaking records off the field at auction these days. Top sales items include game-worn jerseys and sneakers, mint-condition trading cards, and personal mementos. A quick snapshot at what has sold at auction in just the first six months of 2023 can be found on page XX in this month’s issue.

When it comes to sneakers, Air Jordans, like their namesake, dominate the field at auction. The popularity of the Netflix/ESPN-produced documentary miniseries “The Last Dance,” and “Air,” the recently released movie about Nike’s signing of Michael Jordan and the creation of the Air Jordan sneaker, have created a wave of nostalgia for this golden era of the 1980s and the NBA greats so many current collectors grew up watching. In 2020, a pair of game-worn Air Jordan 1 sneakers brought in a record auction price of $560,000, nearly four times the initial estimate. In 2021, a pair of Air Jordans worn in Jordan’s fifth NBA game in his rookie season with the Bulls sold for $1.47 million, and more recently, a pair of “Last Dance” trainers, worn during Game 2 of 1998 NBA Finals, realized $2.2 million at auction, although falling below the auction house estimate of $4 million. Based on these results and what appears to be significant buyer interest, expect to see more game-worn attire from GOAT athletes come out to play at auction in the coming years for this second shot at immortality.

While sports memorabilia dealers and specialty auction houses have traditionally been the market makers in this segment, the heat of the current market has not escaped the notice of such higher-end auction houses as Sotheby’s, Christies, and Heritage Auctions, who are now running headliner sports auctions of their own, setting records and generating publicity in the process.

While some fans collect and invest in sports memorabilia to own something tangible from a team or player they follow, others look at the escalating values of sports memorabilia and see it as an asset and 401K investment. Yet, spending upwards of a million dollars or more on something rare and memorable puts the really coveted stuff beyond the financial reach of the majority of collectors.

One recent concept that has emerged in the high-end sports memorabilia market is what’s known as “fractional buying;” essentially, purchasing shares of ownership in something that is financially above your means to purchase outright. This is not unlike buying shares in a company, where you can invest in ownership shares and trade them on a platform that tracks and trades, based on the market, the asset’s value. A portfolio of fractional shares in high-valued sports memorabilia items offers 401K investors diversification and a hedge against inflation; a nominal investment by a fan of a few hundred dollars or more gives them bragging rights to owning a piece of sports history or something from their personal legend; however, like NFTs, the true collector has nothing to put out in their display case to show for their investment.

Also in this issue, we take a look at a documentary being made about American Artist Dick Perez, known for his paintings of baseball players for various card series (see our cover). You will also learn more about the current state of market values for sports collectibles from Judy Gonyeau’s one-on-one interview with Antiques Roadshow Appraiser Simeon Lipman, share the history behind and growing collectability of bobbleheads in an article from WorthPoint, and take a journey with Doug Kelly to explore sports-related salesman samples.

We hope you enjoy your summer and find what you are looking for!