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Ultimate Guide to Attending the National Sports Card Convention

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Attending the National Sports Card Convention is the ultimate experience for collectors, and it becomes more popular each year. 

Last year, the event had a record attendance of nearly 100,000+ people, not counting the thousand+ vendors set up. 

Attending a National show can be overwhelming if you have never been to one. I have attended three National shows within the past six years and have been on both sides of the table as a seller and buyer. 

These experiences taught me how to capitalize on and be prepared while attending. 

This article thoroughly explains what to expect, strategies to follow, costs versus time, and the most essential tips on what to look for, plus how to approach the event.

Preparation 

There are several things you should do when preparing to attend a National. 

First, you need to decide the reason you’re attending. Are you looking to buy, sell, or trade sports cards? 

Have a game plan before attending the event instead of deciding what to do while you’re on the spot. Make sure the event is cost-efficient for you. 

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You don’t want to spend more than what you’re going to make/sell potentially. 

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Are you looking to buy cards for your collection, or will you buy them to resell/flip? 

This year’s National is in Cleveland, Ohio, from July 24 to 28; tickets are $25 a day or $30 onsite during the event. It’s tough to find a dealer willing to split a booth with you at the National, where you can set up and sell cards.

One of the best options is as a buyer for two days, and you only need a hotel nearby for one night. If the cost is too much for you regarding what you will spend on travel fees plus expenses versus what you will make buying/selling or trading, then I recommend not attending the event.

If you decide to bring cards to the event, your best bet is to carry them around in boxes in a backpack or lockbox. Have cash ready to buy with on hand. Most dealers prefer cash, but some take PayPal, Venmo, and Cash App. Lastly, have a game plan for how you want to utilize your time while at the show.

Buying

Now that you have arrived at the show let me discuss the best buying strategies and techniques.

There will be thousands of tables of cards at the event. The best way to cover the majority of them is to learn how to browse and move quickly when looking.

If you come across a table with very high prices, save time looking at that table and quickly move on to the next booth. Last year, when I attended, I could cover most tables when browsing and looking this way.

There will be some sticker shock at the National, and you will see cards you’ve never seen before. An example is this photo I took of an SGC 9.5 graded 52 Topps Mantle, a one-of-a-kind vintage baseball card.

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Once you get past the big-time attractions and see a card that catches your eye, it might have a price on it or not. Sometimes, dealers are willing to lower their prices, while others won’t budge. The way to get the best deal is to package a few cards together and ask for the dealer’s best price.

One of the best techniques is looking for mismarked or mislabeled cards, which means the dealer has underpriced the card. Familiarity with card values helps—you can always look up prices online, but I tend to know the approximate values if I have the cards I’m targeting.

Some sellers have old labels with outdated pricing that do not reflect current market values. I recommend not negotiating on cards that seem like a good deal because the dealer may look up the card value and refuse to sell it.

One of my best buys last year was a Ray Bourque O-Pee-Chee PSA 8 Rookie card, which was well underpriced and mismarked.

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Another strategy is trying to buy under eBay comps if possible.

Many dealers price their cards right at eBay value or, in many cases, above recent eBay comps. I was targeting cards last year to buy priced below comps.

This is challenging but possible if you look for good deals while at the show and use my techniques. Lastly, target specific cards or players you’re looking for before the event.

I like this technique because something you’re explicitly targeting could already be deemed undervalued based on your research and could see a quick increase in value within the coming weeks or months.

One example of this strategy was when I attended the National in 2022. Towards the show’s end, I went to every table to see if they had any Aaron Judge-graded rookie cards.

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Scouting the tables for Judge Rookies at the 2023 National

I was buying these up because his rookie cards were undervalued based on how many home runs he had that season. Shortly after I accumulated a few Judge cards at the show, they went way up in value as he chased the AL single-season home run record.

Another thing you may encounter is people looking to sell cards as you enter the show. Trade nights happen almost every night throughout the show, and this is another alternative event you should attend and try to buy some cards. See my Outreach section for a further breakdown of Trade Nights.

Selling

Selling cards at National can be challenging for several reasons.

Most dealers set up at the event will only pay 50% to 60% of the comps of what your cards are worth.

I describe this theory as being on the wrong side of the table.

Many dealers will use buying tactics while looking at your cards or try to find the lowest comp on your cards and use that to their advantage when trying to buy your cards.

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Waiting To Get In The National 2023

I recommend selling outright to dealers only if you’re getting close to 80-85 percent of what your cards are worth.

You can waste a lot of time showing your cards to various dealers at the show when it’s better to utilize that time trying to buy or trade instead.

Selling at Trade Nights is a good option because it eliminates the competitive edge the dealers set up at the show have. ‘

Trading

There is a lot of value in making trades at The National. Depending on what you’re trying to trade, dealers will value your cards more when trading with them versus outright selling.

One of my strategies when trading at The National is to trade away a card I overpaid for or want to get rid of.

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A Trade Night at the 2023 National Convention

Keep a tab of what you paid for your inventory on a Google Doc sheet, and have that handy on your phone while discussing any potential trades.

You must always see what you paid versus what you will get in return when doing trades.

Try to anticipate what you can sell the cards you will receive versus what you’re letting go. Evaluate if any cards you receive back in a deal have the potential to grade higher to add more overall value.

Most importantly, make sure to evaluate the cards you will be receiving in any potential deal. Refrain from letting dealers cherry-pick your best cards and only show them a stack of cards you want to move.

Trading at trade nights is also an effective strategy because you can trade with other collectors or buyers attending the show rather than just with dealers while at the actual show. Refer to the Outreach section of the article for a complete breakdown of Trade Nights.

Outreach

Attending the National is a great way to market yourself and your sports card brand.

You can attend various tables and exchange social media handles to build future relationships.

It pays to know people in the industry and have potential returning customers. You may buy cards from someone again you meet at the event from attending or selling or making another future trade.

Trade nights are like attending another mini-show. This event occurs after the show hours are over and sometimes can run past midnight.

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My setup at the 2023 National Trade Night

You can set up your cards wherever you’re seated, and various collectors or buyers will come up to you and ask you to buy/trade or possibly sell cards to you.

Last year, I was able to pick up some cards while doing this because you will see cards at these events that were not set up at the actual show.

Some collectors or buyers attending the trade nights are more experienced than others, similar to buying at the show.

You should look for good deals and stick to the plan of trying to buy under eBay comps. I recommend buying at full eBay comps only for something scarce, with a low POP report, a player you PC (personally. collect), or for cards you feel are undervalued.

One thing to be careful of while attending a trade night is always keeping an eye on your cards. Don’t show your cards to various people simultaneously; only let one person look at your box or cards at a time.

Various trade nights occur. I recommend doing some research to find out where they are located while you’re attending the actual show.

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Many collectors like attending the show to try to win stuff from popular branded companies like Topps, Panini, Fanatics, etc.

You will see all the brand names set up in the middle portion of the event, and some of them will have microphones trying to draw people to their booths.

You could win something while attending if you have time to check out some of these booths.

Lastly, if you have a sports card-branded account, try to create or post some content while you’re at the event.

Many content creators create innovative content at The National every year. This includes reels, carousel posts, video posts, and traditional IG posts.

Grading/Autographs

Collectors who attend the show are highly interested in having their cards graded onsite and meeting athletes and celebrities to sign autographs.

Both of these activities can be very expensive and time-consuming.

I recommend onsite grading only if you have something precious, such as a $2,000+ and above card, or I would not advise paying the costs while attending.

Meeting athletes or celebrities is a fun experience but also very costly. I recommend doing this if it’s someone you have wanted to meet or get their autograph for a long time.

Each year, autograph guests include some of the best-known legends and active players in all sports.

This year, guys like Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Reggie Jackson, Julius Erving, Dennis Rodman, Bo Jackson, and many more will be in attendance.

Conclusion

Evaluate whether attending the event will be worth it. Before attending, try to reach out to a vendor and see if they will let you set up with them and split other costs.

I recommend sticking to a plan. Avoid getting caught buying something for more than it’s worth. While just walking around, you will see better deals on cards to buy than on others. Pick your spots when to buy and when not to buy.

Evaluate card condition when buying ungraded examples of vintage or newer stuff. Lastly, take your time and enjoy the event at your own pace.

Following these tips and strategies will set you up for success at the National, not only while you’re there but also in the coming months.

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