Items of sport memorabilia are collectible objects with a connection to a particular player, athlete, team, sporting event or venue. They can range from autographs, match programmes and trading cards to signed balls, game-worn jerseys and used sporting equipment like bats or boxing gloves.
Collectors of sports memorabilia often focus on a particular sport, the team they support or their favourite player. For instance, they may collect vintage baseball score-cards, the autographs of Miami Dolphins players or team shirts worn by David Beckham.
The sports memorabilia market has also become popular with investors, with high-end items viewed by many as low-risk, short-term alternative investments.
The worldwide market is worth billions of dollars, with the U.S market alone contributing around $5 billion each year.
The most valuable items of memorabilia are those connected to iconic figures or teams who have achieved fame within their sport, such as breaking world records or winning major titles. People like Babe Ruth, Pele, Tiger Woods and Muhammad Ali are all considered to be the greatest of all time in their chosen sports, and their memorabilia is highly sought-after by collectors.
The story of collecting sports memorabilia begins with baseball cards.
The first of these were created by a New York sporting goods store called Peck and Snyder in 1868. They featured images of baseball players, with advertisements for the company’s baseball equipment on the back, and were given away to promote the business. Then in 1886 the tobacco company Goodwin & Co started to insert cards featuring baseball players into their packets of Old Judge brand tobacco, and the sports trading card was born.
Whilst baseball was the most popular sport for card collectors, a trend that continues to this day, a number of other sports including hockey, football, boxing and golf were all represented by sets of cards.
These gained further popularity when they began to be included in packs of chewing gum and confectionary in the 1920s, just as the popularity of baseball was transformed by the big-hitting style and charisma of Babe Ruth.
Ruth loved the limelight and was happy to sign autographs for his fans at every opportunity. And as his style of play changed the game in general, the larger number of home runs hit meant more home-run balls for the crowd to catch and these balls, often signed by players after the game, became collectible in themselves.
Ruth was one of the so-called ‘Big Five’ of sports personalities that emerged in the U.S. during the 1920s. Along with Ruth, it included Red Grange (American Football), Bobby Jones (Golf), Bill Tilden (Tennis) and Jack Dempsey (Boxing). These five men were all world famous champions, and helped to foster the culture of celebrity surrounding sporting figures that led to the popularity of sports memorabilia.
The effect of television on sports memorabilia
The development of television saw new audiences watching sporting events for the first time in the 1930s and 40s, and as the popularity grew so did the fame of the players. Autographs, balls and shirts all became popular items to collect, along with trading cards from cigarettes and chewing gum.
Many of the early sports stars from this era, whose earnings were not the astronomical sums seen today, were forced to sell their own memorabilia such as game-worn jerseys, medals and international caps after retirement. In recent years this has led to a wealth of unique material from the 1950s and 60s appearing on the market.
Over the decades sports memorabilia has grown from a simple hobby into a multi-billion dollar business. There are dedicated auction houses, stores, internet sites and organisations across the globe, and world-record prices are consistently broken. This boom in prices has also created an enormous market for fake goods, and millions of dollars is spent every year by unsuspecting fans on fake memorabilia.
Types of sports memorabilia
Main article: List of types of sports memorabilia
Main article: List of sports memorabilia collecting terms
The world’s most expensive sports memorabilia
The most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever sold at auction is the original two-page typed document outlining the rules of basketball, as written by the sport’s inventor James Naismith in 1891. Naismith had written the rules to set up a new winter sport for boys at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was a physical education teacher.
The document was sold by Sotheby’s in New York in 2010 for a record price of $4.3m.
Other notable sports memorabilia
Main article: List of notable sports memorabilia
Notable sports memorabilia collections and collectors
Sports memorabilia dealers
Main article: List of sports memorabilia dealers
Clubs and societies
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