Collecting Sports Jerseys: For Love, or Money?

Collecting Sports Jerseys: For Love, or Money?

Sales of licensed sports merchandise is big business – very big business – almost $340 billion annually worldwide.  Jerseys account for nearly $2 billion of licensed sports apparel sales annually in the United States, with the NFL topping $300 million.  Wearing a licensed pro or college jersey shows support for teams, makes a style statement, is fun, and can be the foundation of a valuable sports collection.  Yes, many sports jerseys appreciate over time – just look at eBay listings.

Beyond licensed apparel, sales of game used, and game issued jerseys top one billion dollars or more annually, with 23,000 athletes represented in game used collections, 10% to 20% of the average sports collector’s portfolio.  Barry Halper, the father of game used jersey collecting, couldn’t possibly have imagined that the jersey tossed to him by a Brooklyn Dodgers “Bum” in the parking lot at Ebbets Field during the 1940’s was the start of the finest collection in history, valued at nearly $22 million when auctioned by Sotheby’s.

But the market for sports jerseys is volatile, entailing significant risk, but also significant rewards.  So how can you maximize the value of your sports jersey collection?  Let’s take a closer look at factors impacting jersey value:

The jersey must be authentic, either an officially licensed, authentic replica, or a game used jersey with the correct tagging and detailing.  Given the big dollars reaped from collecting jerseys, it’s not surprising to find many bootlegs or forgeries in the marketplace.  Buy from trusted, reputable sources, and, when possible, check the tagging.

Which sport and which player?  Authentic replica jerseys most likely to increase in value are, in descending order, hockey, basketball, football, baseball, and college football.  If you are buying a star player jersey, focus on emerging stars and transcendent superstars.  Once a player achieves star status, prices surge, making young, emerging stars most affordable.  However, true superstars, players who will be remembered long after their career ends, are most likely to hold value and appreciate significantly over time.  Think Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or John Elway.

Look for jersey styles no longer worn by the pros or your alma mater.  Yes, it seems that college football and NBA basketball teams change jerseys as often as we change underwear.  But the fact is, since jerseys are being altered annually in most sports, by most teams, rarity drives value and collectibility.  It’s simply a case of limited supply combined with never-ending demand from fans.   Truly horrendous jerseys, like the Anaheim Ducks’ “Wild Wing,” or the lime green Atlanta Hawks jerseys from the 1970’s, remain wildly popular with collectors and have risen in value over time.  Sometimes, ugly is good.

Little-known player jerseys often provide an outstanding return on investment.  Again, it’s a question of rarity.  Everyone saves their LeBron James and Michael Jordan jerseys.  But how many Craig James (New England Patriots) and Cameron Jordan jerseys (Chelmsford City F.C.) were produced, and how many collectors held on to them?  Plus, superstar jerseys are purchased at premium prices, while jerseys of run-of-the-mill athletes are relatively inexpensive.

Defunct teams and leagues are da best.  Teams that have folded no longer produce jerseys, rendering the existing supply more valuable.  Legacy teams, like the Boston Bruins, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Lakers will keep producing jerseys until the earth implodes.

The minors can be major.  Minor league jerseys often feature unique styles, colors, and logos.  Plus, many minor league teams have a very limited shelf life.  Check which teams comprised the American Hockey League in 1990, compared to the current roster of AHL teams.  Obscure teams, mere footnotes today, can generate big profits for collectors.

Beware the traded superstar.  While still active, the value of a traded player’s jersey is usually volatile after the trade.  Sometimes, jerseys from their old team – before they were traded – plummet in value.  The demand for those jerseys suddenly evaporates, leading to price shocks.

Buy and hold.  Trying to flip jerseys for quick profits is risky, often exploding in the collector’s face.  Collectors who buy jerseys and own them for three, five, ten years or more, are more likely to book a significant return on investment.  Buyers who look for a quick score often get burned, painfully so.

When buying jerseys, think about more than money.  Yes, jersey collecting can be profitable over time for any collector.  But think about whether you like the team or player, whether the jersey is aesthetically appealing, and if you’ll like wearing the jersey.  Yes, I buy jerseys that I can envision myself wearing, and often do wear.  If you buy jerseys that you, personally, like and enjoy, you’re more likely to take care of the jersey and hold it for a longer period.  That will markedly increase the financial return.  Yes, even game used jerseys can be a blast to wear, as you can’t really damage a jersey that already shows wear when purchased.

The Bottom Line

Collecting jerseys should be rewarding financially.  But collecting jerseys that are fun to wear, cool looking, and rare usually leads to better financial results and enhances the fun factor in your collection.  Should you collect jerseys for love, or money?  The answer is both.

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