ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Pieces of sports history filled the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., last weekend for the 34th Annual Sports Collectors Convention.
Vintage baseball cards, game-used memorabilia, autographs and anything avid or casual collectors could desire -- bobbleheads, canceled checks signed by athletes, stadium seats and everything else --- packed the 250,000-square-foot hall.
Collectors and hobbyists young and old went booth to booth in search of the perfect piece to add to their collections, many leaving with something.
The scene was a far cry from six or seven years ago, when there was concern that the sports card and memorabilia industry was in serious trouble.
"I don't feel like the industry's dying. I'm on the whole other spectrum. I think there's tons of interest," said Dan Wulkan, director of auctions at Memory Lane Inc., in Tustin, Calif. "Yeah, it was affected a little bit by the economy. But as far as interest -- interest is happening."
On the Saturday of the convention, that certainly was the case. Numerous items were coming and going, whether it was a new card for $20 or a vintage one for thousands.
The card industry in particular has had to deal with claims of its demise. And while cards aren't as popular today as they were in the industry's heyday, Upper Deck brand manager Gabriel Garcia said his company is seeing improvement.
"It's definitely something that's slowed down -- the demand that it used to have in itself," Garcia said. "It's picked up and the industry's still recovering, yet there's still a lot of interest."
While Upper Deck manufactures a variety of sports cards, among other things, Topps is the exclusive producer of Major League Baseball cards. Topps vice president of product development Clay Luraschi said those "are selling fantastically."
Perhaps the biggest change in the card industry is what constitutes a baseball card. Although Topps still produces its yearly Topps Baseball set -- which has been in production since 1951 -- the company also offers a number of cards that today's collectors would never dream of clipping to their bicycle spokes.
Many of the more recent cards include game-used memorabilia -- bat and ball shavings, jersey and cap swatches -- that Luraschi says bring the player experience closer to the fan.
"That's what it's all about -- connecting that fan to the athlete," Luraschi said. "And the more you can do that, the more interest you're going to get in the product."
Memorabilia, especially top-quality pieces, are more desirable today than they were 10 years ago, said Darrell O'Mary, a longtime hobbyist based near Atlanta. That's especially true of items connected to the legends of the game -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, among others, Wulkan said.
Wulkan believes investments in those names will always hold value. But, he added, purchases of one-of-a-kind items also are enticing for collectors looking to buy based on monetary value rather than sentiment.
"There's not enough to go around of the really authentic player-owned-and-used trophies, uniforms, caps, jackets," O'Mary said. "And therefore, as long as demand outstrips supply, you've got a healthy market."
One issue surrounding those items is their authenticity. It's a matter that at one time had many in the industry concerned, and rightfully so considering the money exchanging hands.
Even some of the pieces deemed "authentic" might not be, Rich Altman of Hollywood (Fla.) Collectables said. The key, he suggests, is to buy from people with longevity in the industry and trust the top authentication companies.
Perhaps the best-known of those is Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA). As the industry continues to grow and items increase in value, PSA president Joe Orlando said his company has tried to make it easier for collectors by taking all its information -- price guides, articles, etc. -- out from behind a paywall.
PSA has in essence created its own encyclopedia for cards and memorabilia, Orlando said.
"What we're trying to do is provide free content so people are educated, they're more informed," Orlando said. "Before you want to pull money out of your wallet to spend, it's important that you're informed and you know what you're getting yourself into."
The future of the industry, insiders believe, continues to look bright. But one big question lingers: how to appeal to the collector of tomorrow.
With video games, tablets, social media and seemingly a million options available for today's youth, a 3 1/2-inch by 2 1/2-inch picture of their favorite baseball player -- even if accompanied by an autograph or bat shaving -- might not hold appeal.
Both Garcia and Luraschi said their companies offer products at different prices catered to a variety of collectors, including kids. But, Garcia admits, the youth collector is still difficult to reach.
"It's definitely a struggle to engage the youth to the hobbyists and collectors, Garcia said. "But we continue to try to do different things. Whether it be on the digital side or the creative, innovate products that we try, we try to cater to not only the collector, but the young supporter of collectable items, like trading cards."
The majority of 10-year-old children obviously are unable to afford high-priced vintage cards and game-used items. But Orlando believes it's key for the industry's future to get kids interested in buying cheaper packs of cards or other items today, so they'll have a knowledge and background in the hobby in the future.
"Somewhere down the line when they grow up, they get established in their career, they may have disposable income to come back into the hobby and spend it," Orlando said. "But you want to expose those people at a young age to collecting so they understand what it's about."
It is, Orlando and others admit, a big challenge. But the industry has seen others before, whether it's an onslaught of cards being released at the same time, a down economy or worries about authentication.
One thing that hasn't wavered, Wulkan insists, is the interest.
"People love sports, they love non-sports, they love Americana. But if we're sticking to just sports, they want to own a piece of time," Wulkan said. "The interest is definitely there and it's growing."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.