Opening Day won't come soon enough for many baseball fans, but it may be too late for another interested party: The baseball card industry has been clobbered.
Owners of local memorabilia shops say sales of 1995 cards are off by as much as 40 percent during what is normally the peak sales season, and they don't expect fans to come rushing back into the stores to make up for that loss.
"People just didn't buy as much as they did before," said Don Betz, owner of Jay's Sports Connection, a card and memorabilia shop in Towson. "They're mad at the owners, they're mad at the players, they're mad at baseball."
Don Johnson, owner of Home Team Sports Cards in Pasadena, says "the strike has really killed the card business." Yet he is confident that collectors haven't given up their hobby for good. "With this strike being over, I don't think you'll see big results at first, but eventually they will come back," he said. "The fans love these guys."
For the companies that make the trading cards, the eight-month players' strike has been a financial beanball.
Topps Co. says it cut back production of baseball cards to 1965 levels, and Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., maker of Fleer cards, said last week that its earnings for the year will fall short of Wall Street expectations because of weak card sales.
Like Mr. Johnson, Wall Street seems to think that fans' enthusiasm -- and spending -- will eventually return, although concerns about the delayed start of the season took some of the optimism out of a rally that began Friday.
Smith Barney raised its investment rating on Marvel Entertainment yesterday to "neutral," up from "underperform." Topps stock rose early in the day before fading to close down 43.75 cents, at $5.94. Shares of Score Board Inc., which makes baseball card collector kits, fell 25 cents, to $5.25, after a rally that began last week that took the stock as high as $6.25 from below $4.
Much baseball card business has already been lost. The best days for baseball card sales are traditionally in the months leading up to Opening Day as fans pore over new rosters and snap up newly issued complete sets of cards. In a normal year, baseball cards account for $80 million to $100 million of Marvel's sales; this year, that figure will drop to $30 million, predicts Smith Barney analyst Jill Krutick.
Mr. Johnson said sales of 1995 card sets at his store have been down about 40 percent. Mr. Betz said his shop has diversified in order to keep the impact from damaging the overall business.He says he has been selling more older cards, featuring players from more seemingly innocent baseball times.
"We're starting to expand a little more to other sports," said Mr. Betz, who said 90 percent of his store's sales used to come from baseball cards and memorabilia. Now he is entering or expanding in memorabilia markets ranging from basketball to stock car racing.