HWTP Sports Talk’s first guest is Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports, who offers his insight into the changing field of sports collectibles and how today’s landscape is different from when he first started his company three decades ago.
David also speaks with author Josh Birnbaum about his book, "Dream Shot: The Journey to a Wheelchair Basketball National Championship.”
Brandon Steiner, on sports memorabilia then and now
“I’m not sure what the future of the trading card business is..."
- Brandon Steiner
Brandon Steiner is the founder and CEO of Steiner Sports, a sports marketing company best-known as a producer of memorabilia. He is also an inspirational speaker and has two books.
Steiner has led the company over several decades to make deals with the New York Yankees, Notre Dame University, the Dallas Cowboys, and The Madison Square Garden Company to create and sell collectibles and historical artifacts. Although Steiner sold his company to Omnicom in 2000, he has kept his CEO title and still maintains control over Steiner Sports’ daily operations.
His conversation with David begins with a pressing question: After collecting so many sports cards as kids, why are so few (if any) of them worth millions today?
“You just probably got in the game a little late,” says Steiner, who describes himself as an “old-school” trading card collector. “You need the cards from more of the 50s and 60s.”
Steiner adds that many people don’t take good enough care of their cards for them to be worth much, although his company’s auction platform will try to get customers good money for them.
But perhaps the biggest reason why so few cards have much value nowadays, according to Steiner, is simply that there are so many out there. Starting in the late 70s and early 80s, “they started making a lot more cards, and you had to be really savvy to know which ones to collect,” he says.
Steiner says this has made today’s trading card gig “a little wobbly.”
“I’m not sure what the future of the trading card business is, unless you're sitting with a lot of vintage cards from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and a little bit of 70s,” he says.
“There's just so many cards out there, and I'm not sure the kids these days are looking at cards the same way we did.”
Steiner and David talk about how today’s kids turn to Internet and sports video games to get sports information and connect with their favorite players, rather than having to collect trading cards like they did decades ago.
But David points out the new collectible craze that today’s kids have picked up instead: basketball sneakers.
“What's happening is the kids have found the market for it,” Steiner agrees. He says he is not sure how long this particular business will be booming, but sneaker companies are enjoying great success for the time being.
“Some sneakers are cool, they're definitely a statement – they’re a social statement,” he says. “You walk on a court with, you know, some nice Jordans…it's a statement, [it] says something about your game.”
Steiner says there are certain ways to set up a product to be a collectible, which the most successful sneaker companies have evidently been capitalizing on.
“The whole key to a great collectible is to under-produce, [to] not have enough for your demand,” Steiner says. This “[sets] the tone for those sneakers, that particular brand, that model…to be highly collectible.”
For example, big-name companies like Nike and Jordan will create very limited editions and special colors and initially run out of them. Hopeful buyers will have to enter contests and jump through other hoops for a chance to get their hands on more.
But for the average fan interested in sports memorabilia without breaking the bank, Steiner says it can be relatively straightforward and inexpensive through sites like www.SteinerSports.com and others – “if you know what you’re doing.”
“It’s buyer-be-educated,” Steiner says, adding that fans can also still get autographs from their favorite players in person if they approach them the right way.
Having been in the collectibles business for decades – Steiner Associates was launched in the late 80s – Steiner says much has changed between then and now.
“I think the collectibles business is ten times more organized than it's ever been – and safer,” he says.
Steiner says his company “really set the tone” in both categories, most prominently through his company’s partnership with the Yankees in 2009.
All things considered, Steiner says the business today is “healthy,” albeit “a little flat” simply because of its expensive nature – but the good news is that players are more involved now, and at least recognize that what they wear has market value (regardless of whether or not they choose to capitalize on it).
Steiner’s advice for modern collectors: if you’re in it just for the money, you have to be savvy about it. “You gotta get educated and understand how the market works and what's what,” he says, adding that the market is fast-moving and complicated.
But for the casual collector who simply want to obtain sports memorabilia because they love a certain sport, team, or player, Steiner advises to focus on collecting around that, rather than worrying about something’s potential value down the line.
“Even if it doesn't necessarily go up in value…you have some stuff to remember a memory, an experience you have,” Steiner says. “You keep that forever, and it's more valuable than whether it went up or not.”
He adds: “I always like to say collect with your heart, not with your pocket. Have fun with it. Collect stuff that you're passionate about.”
Josh Birnbaum on his book chronicling a wheelchair basketball team’s championship journey
Birnbaum is a photographer, lecturer at Ohio University, and the author of "Dream Shot: The Journey to a Wheelchair Basketball National Championship."
“Dream Shot” features over 100 color photographs chronicling the story of the first collegiate wheelchair basketball team in the country – the University of Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team – as they set out to win a college national championship in 2008.
Though primarily a photographic essay, David says there is a lot more to the book than just the photography. The pictures and narrative are curated in such a way that the reader feels like they are along on the journey.
Birnbaum says he didn’t initially plan to create a book about the team, but that it was “sprung upon him” and become something of an “unintentional adventure” that turned into something much more meaningful.
“In 2005, my first assignment was just to photograph a wheelchair basketball game,” Birnbaum says. But “when I went to the game, I immediately saw that there was so much more potential to dive deeper into a story.”
Over time, he says, “I realized that someday I wanted to make a book out of it, that it deserved a broader audience.”
Birnbaum says he wanted to capture the experience in such a way that people would be able to understand what being a disabled athlete is like without relying on stereotypes, and to bring more awareness to the sport of wheelchair basketball.
“I hope that the photographs can help people empathize a little bit with other people’s experiences,” he says, and “create a new narrative that lets people see for themselves the complexities of these individuals’ lives.”
Birnbaum followed the players around both on and off the court for years, learning about them and building relationships with them.
“I had to embed myself with the team and show them that I was willing to do everything that – almost everything – that they were willing to do, and that I would be there for everything and show them the dedication that they were putting into their sport and to their team,” he says.
In time, he had essentially became a part of the team – so much so that one day, the coach even gave Birnbaum a hard time for showing up to practice a little late.
“The coach yelled at me. That made it clear to the whole team – this guy’s one of us, and he’s held to the same standards as everyone else.”
Birnbaum says that although the team did have an enthusiastic core group of fans who showed up for nearly every game, they still did not see the same level of attendance as the able-bodied men’s basketball teams. He says lack of awareness of the sport was likely to blame, and was one of the reasons he decided to pursue this project so diligently in the first place.
“I think if there was more awareness, people would definitely come there,” Birnbaum says. “It’s incredible to watch these guys on the court, they’re very talented, very athletic. The game is just as exciting as able-bodied basketball to me.”
Wheelchair basketball in America began in 1948 by Dr. Tim Nugent, who was known as a visionary for disabilities rights and established University of Illinois as the very first collegiate team in the country. Nugent died in 2015 at age 92.
At the time Birnbaum was following the team, he says he was fortunate enough to meet and photograph Nugent on a handful of occasions.
“When you meet him, you just feel this warmth,” Birnbaum says. “Everyone he met he would talk to and give them time and listen, and he was just that kind of person that affected people.”
“Everybody had the highest respect for him because he started wheelchair basketball in America...at a time when if you were in a wheelchair, you probably couldn't go to college.”
Birnbaum continues: “I think that's why this sport is so symbolic – because it's not just a sport, it's also something that has enabled people who historically have been discriminated against to get an education and move up in the world and do all the things that everyone else gets to do.”
Today, Birnbaum says there are more than a dozen collegiate teams that compete regularly, as well as many more smaller intramural leagues at other universities. Not all universities have the kind of support necessary for running such a team, he explains, but the sport is growing nonetheless with new teams coming up every year.
Birnbaum says he has also kept in touch with many of the players he photographed more than a decade ago, and contacted almost all of them while the book was in production last year to update them on the project.
“Some of them are Paralympic athletes now, one of them just won the ESPY Award for best male disabled athlete [Steve Serio won the award in 2017], and some of them are coaches, and...a lot of them still play – even if it's just recreationally in their local team,” Birnbaum says.
“A lot of them stay connected to wheelchair basketball, but also they have lives just like the rest of us.”
Listen to the entire show below.