The cllct Guide: How to attend a card show

When you hit the show floor, things can be overwhelming; so it's best to go in with a plan

Cover Image for The cllct Guide: How to attend a card show
The National is the largest sports collectors convention in the nation. (Credit: NSCC)

Attending a card show is an exciting experience for any sports collector. For many, it’s hard to beat a room filled with cards, memorabilia and friendly collectors hoping to swing deals.

Shows can be difficult to navigate for newer collectors, however, with events ranging from small shows to national conventions all presenting their own challenges.

Whether you’re new to the hobby or a veteran looking to brush up on your strategy, the cllct guide to card shows will make sure you arrive well prepared.

Set a budget

You should know how much you have to spend before you ever step foot on the show floor. It doesn’t matter if you’re new to the hobby or a savvy veteran, knowing your budget is essential.

If you haven’t already, consider creating a weekly or monthly budget for the hobby to keep yourself on track. Collecting cards and memorabilia can be extremely fun but also addictive, and spending beyond your means is dangerous for both you and your family.

If you need to, adjust your budget accordingly to accommodate shows you plan on attending. If necessary, consider taking a break from spending with online marketplaces for several weeks or months so you have a bankroll for the show.

It’s important to remember that, outside of extremely specific scenarios, the item you’re looking at will come around again for a different price. If the current price is simply too high, move on to something else.

You should also consider bringing cash to card shows and other events. Almost every dealer will accept payment from services such as PayPal, Venmo or CashApp, but cash is almost always preferred. In fact, many dealers will offer discounts if buyers pay with cash, so take advantage of that when you can.

In addition to avoiding additional fees from the digital payment services — you should always use "Goods and Services" options for business transactions — using cash can help you stick to your budget. Digital services and credit cards might be more convenient, but they might also make it easier to overspend.

Know what items you're looking for before you hit the show. (Credit: NSCC)
Know what items you're looking for before you hit the show. (Credit: NSCC)

Create a plan

Along with a clear budget, you should know the key cards you’re looking for in advance. Of course, there's nothing wrong with showing up to an event to just browse, but it’s strongly recommended that you develop a plan if you have collecting goals you are hoping to complete.

Before you arrive, consider putting together a list of your most sought-after items and their current market values. Developing this plan will make your experience much better.

Feel free to check prices in the moment if needed, but avoid being rude if things don’t match up. You don’t gain much by complaining if a card’s price is too far off, and chances are the dealer won’t be budging much.

Once you have your key cards listed, organize them based on priority. Take into consideration prices and how difficult they are to find, as some items can be bought almost anytime online while others might only pop up every so often.

Creating a plan can also be extremely important depending on the size of the card show. Smaller local shows with only 20 tables might not require a lot of research because there isn’t a lot to see.

Large shows such as the National Convention, however, take planning. Massive shows with hundreds of tables can be difficult to navigate as most aren’t organized by any clear category.

Unfortunately, you won’t find shows that sort dealers with ultra-modern cards in one area while vintage is in another. Because of this, it’s important to know exactly what you’re looking for so you can make quick evaluations at each table.

At the largest shows in the hobby, there simply won’t be enough time for you to casually stop at each table to browse comfortably. Know what you want and make quick, decisive choices as you pass each one — you can likely move on if you’re looking for vintage football and the first 20 cards you see at a table are all ultra-modern basketball.

Consider attending the show for multiple days (if applicable) if you’d rather take your time at each individual table.

Show essentials

It might seem like common sense, but one of the easiest ways to help yourself when attending a card show is to come prepared with a few essentials.

Must-haves include a good pair of walking or running shoes for comfort and a solid backpack or carrying case for your cards. There are plenty of backpacks and carrying cases specifically designed for trading cards now.

Bring supplies such as top loaders and penny sleeves if you plan to dig through dollar bins or need to replace old or damaged supplies from dealers. Bags for additional protection during transit are also nice to have.

Snacks and water are must-haves if you plan on staying for long periods of time. Most venues won’t have a robust menu, so healthy or affordable options shouldn’t be expected if there’s food offered at all.

While some venues might have easy access to food directly outside of the show, you shouldn’t expect this. Leaving the show completely isn’t always ideal, and it’s better to come prepared with a few snacks to hold you over.

Develop a plan for how you’ll bring items home if traveling long distances either by car, plane or train. While smaller items might be easily secured in a backpack, larger items will require special packaging.

Veteran collectors traveling by plane for card shows will often bring an empty checked bag if they plan on buying a large number of items. Don’t assume the dealer or vendor can ship anything for you.

Research the event

Not all card shows and events are created equal. As mentioned previously, some shows might have two-dozen tables of low-end cards, while others might be large conventions with hundreds of tables filled with cards, memorabilia and autograph signings.

Do research beforehand to better understand what to expect before you arrive.

Signings are extremely common, and collectors should investigate any opportunities to snag an autograph or photo with their favorite athletes. More organized shows might also offer mail-in options for autograph signings: These allow collectors to mail or purchase items from the show to have signed and returned for a fee.

It’s also fair to expect that large regional shows might feature cards or memorabilia from local teams more prominently than what you’ll find elsewhere. Expect plenty of Eagles and Sixers items at the Philadelphia show, while Toronto will be the place to be for all things hockey.

Understanding the spirit of the show you’re attending is also critical. Some shows feature almost exclusively sports cards, while others might have a variety of non-sports or TCG categories such as Pokémon or Magic: The Gathering.

Events that feature lots of pop-culture categories are also very different from the typical comic-con. Where a comic-con might offer a full menu of panels and meet-and-greets with celebrities, the typical card show is strictly about buying and selling.

While potentially interesting for the typical collector, the majority of the hobby can skip industry-related events such as those put on by Topps, Upper Deck or Beckett. These events are helpful for shop owners and other card-related businesses, but likely won’t be beneficial to the regular hobbyist.

Industry events will often have plenty of news relevant to collectors, but being there in person isn’t necessary to get the benefit.

Consider trades

Most transactions at card shows involve paying for cards, but collectors should seriously consider trades as well.

Most dealers will consider trades or accept a trade-cash combination when asked. It’s worth bringing “trade bait” to shows regularly to either make wholesale swaps or bring the price of a purchase down by throwing in a card of your own.

Trade nights have also become major attractions for some of the larger shows across the country. Typically held either at the show venue or a nearby hotel after the show ends, trade nights are great places to buy, sell or trade with other collectors directly.

For some hobbyists, trade nights are even more fun than the shows themselves.

Make friends

Buying, selling or trading might be your main objective when attending a show or trade night, but don’t be afraid to have conversations with like-minded collectors when you can. These are all people you share a hobby with, after all.

Strike up conversations with dealers and other attendees when you see the opportunity, and you might just learn something new, too. Building strong relationships can even help you secure a deal later if you’ve had positive interactions previously.

To many, sharing the hobby with other people is the best part of collecting. Be social during shows and at trade nights, and you might just make a few new friends.

Ben Burrows is a reporter and editor for cllct.