The National Sports Collectors Convention, or 'The National' is the largest and most well attended annual sports collectors convention that exists today. If you can swing if financially, it's a Must Attend kind of event for the sports card collector. This legendary show to end all shows started in 1980 largely in part by efforts from the late Mr. Mike Berkus. Back then it was held in a Marriott hotel ballroom near LAX (Los Angeles Airport). It's grown into massive popularity and is now held in some of the country's most notable convention centers both in reputation and size.
For those considering an appearance at The National, there are some things to consider. This article is meant to educate and inform potential first timers and seasoned attendees alike so they can best or better prepare to enjoy this fine event. Let's dig into it. Here's a helpful Q&A to get you ready to have one of the most entertaining days (or weeks depending on how long you decide to stay) of your entire year.
1. How much money is enough to cover the trip?
There are two costs you need to consider: Required costs and Spending costs. The former is for travel and lodging while the latter is for spending while in the showroom.
Required Costs: The full 5-day trip, which includes a VIP Pass, plane ticket, and hotel reservation will run on average about $1000. Aside from the VIP Pass price, travel and lodging expenses depend on when they're secured. The earlier, the better. It's generally accepted that the longer you wait, the more costly these expenses become. Also, if you wanna book hotel reservations close to the event, get on it as soon as they become available in January because they sell out quickly.
Spending Costs: The amount of spending money you want to bring is entirely up to you and your level of purchasing power. If you wanna be completely comfortable at the show, I'd recommend at least another $1250 for spending cash. If you don't wanna dip into your spending funds for food and miscellaneous expenses should they exist, bring another $200. That said, $2450 round trip is a good amount to expect. If you're a big spender with deep pockets, by all means, bring more.
2. What airport should I fly into?
There are a couple variables to consider here:
- What airlines fly into what airports.
- What, if any, rail lines or other modes of transportation exist that can take you from the airport to your hotel.
Here are instructions for when The National happens in Chicago.
Donald E. Stephens Convention Center
5555 N River Rd, Rosemont, IL 60018
For Chicago, you pretty much have two main airport options: O'Hare and Midway. Which you fly into depends on which airline you use. For example, O'Hare is closer to Rosemont but Southwest only docks at Midway.
Here's how to get to the Convention Center from Midway:
- Take the Orange Line to Clark/Lake
- Go downstairs
- Take the Blue Line (O'Hare) to Rosemont
- When you exit the railway, take a left on N River Rd and walk for about a quarter mile and the Convention Center will be on your left.
3. Where should I stay while I'm in the city that's hosting The National?
The obvious and immediate answer is this → as close to the convention hall as possible. Aim to cut back as much idle time as possible during your trip. The website for The National shares info on nearby hotels with competitive rates. Read on.
4. When should I book my hotel room?
Rooms generally become available for reservation through The National website in January. This is when you should book your room. Spots fill up quickly with full reservation capacity often achieved by early February if not sooner. I highly recommend reserving a room as soon as possible and with a hotel as close to the venue as possible. If you miss this critical window, there are other options but at the expense of your time since alternatives aren't likely to be located near the convention hall. So book immediately when rooms become available in January. I'm giving you gold here. I want you to save your time so you can spend as much of it as possible at the show and with friends.
→ To book your hotel, click here.
5. What are my ticket options?
A few different types of tickets are available to serve the needs of the various types of attendees, which generally become available in March. In terms of urgency, this is the least urgent because tickets appear to always be available regardless of when they're purchased, in advance or at the convention hall ticket booth.
Single day passes are available for those who just want a 1-day experience. VIP passes are available for those who want the full 5-day experience. VIP passes come in a variety of tiers, each with different accommodations and prices. VIP pass holders are allowed access to the pre-show Sneak Peak night, which is a nice perk because it allows pass holders to enter the show floor the day before the convention hall opens to all other pass holders. This is an excellent opportunity to nab early deals and meet dealers. I always get the basic VIP pass.
→ To purchase your ticket, click here.
6. What should I bring?
The answer to this question depends on how you operate as a collector. If you're like me, you go to The National not just to buy stuff you collect but also stuff to blog about and to make friends. So for me, I bring an iPhone, mini video recorder (handycam) and tripod, MacBook Pro (which stays in the hotel room), business cards, a multi-head mini screwdriver, a loop, and some snacks. I also bring a 1-inch binder filled with empty used 9-pocket pages. I use this to store all the cards I buy at the show. This saves me tons of space and it's easy to carry around. I started doing this in the mid-1990s and it's been a strategy that's always worked for me. I call it the Card Show Binder. When I buy cards in toploaders or other types of cases, I take them out of the cases and put them in the binder. Bring a phillips head screwdriver so you can easily remove cards from screwdowns. To save time, I do this each night back at the hotel room, then take the cases back to the show floor the next morning and give them to the first dealer I see so they can be reused. The following is a list of a few bare essentials I recommend bringing to the show.
Checklist: If you collect a certain player or set, consider bringing a checklist. While some collectors prefer the ol' pencil and pad, I've been storing my checklists in Google Drive for years. This has been efficient because I can access my checklist and make changes in real time right from my smartphone as long as I have a WiFi connection, which tends to exist in the show hall. It also keeps my hands free and extra stuff out of my backpack, which is another thing you should consider bringing.
→ For instructions on How to Convert an Excel File into a Google Sheet, click here.
Backpack: Bring a backpack to carry with you while you're at the show. Avoid anything with handles that would require you to drag or carry around. The backpack you should consider bringing is of standard size, just something you can put over your shoulders for easy access when you need to store purchases. I bring a somewhat small but ideally sized backpack that fits what I need to have. In it, I keep my Card Show Binder, a Flash Magnifier (or loop of some type), a handycam and tripod, multi-head mini screwdriver, business cards, and some granola bars or other protein-rich snacks. This is the bare minimum I need with me while I'm on the show floor. Your backpack might contain more or less depending on what you feel you need with you to make your experience an ideal one.
A Friend: I try to bring a friend whenever possible both for security and because it makes the entire trip more enjoyable. If friends aren't available, invite a family member. Company helps reduce travel stress. It also helps cut down on lodging fees since costs are often split down the middle.
Comfortable Pair of Shoes: This is mission-critical. Bring comfortable shoes. Avoid sandals at all costs. I wore sandals at the 2012 National and by the end of the week, I had more blisters on my feet than I care to remember. Upon returning home, it took several days for my feet to return to normal. So again, avoid sandals. You'll be doing a lot of walking and you'll be much happier wearing a comfortable pair of shoes.
7. What does the food situation look like?
Whether you're planning on attending for a single day or all five days, you'll need to eat something during your attendance. As with many convention hall events, food vendors exist that offer quick fixes like pizza, burgers, fries, and other American classics. There are two costs associated with this choice: Money and Time.
Money: You'll learn quickly that prices for vendor items are often well over those found at your typical fast food joints. I've seen single pizza slices priced at a whopping $9! This is money I'd much rather spend on cards.
Time: Another drawback to indulging in vendor food is the time investment, of which is made up of three blocks:
- Waiting in line
- Waiting for your food after payment
- Waiting to finish eating
That's a lot of waiting. You may spend one full hour or more completing these tasks. To put this into perspective - if you bought a slice of pizza once a day for five days, you'll have spent $45 and 5 hours of your show experience waiting in line and eating. I'd much rather spend that precious time and money on cards.
You can easily dodge these expenses by bringing protein-rich snacks like granola bars, beef jerky, and peanuts. Snack-sized packs of these items can generally be bought in bulk at places like Costco and Sam's Club so be sure to stock up prior to your departure and stuff as many packs into your luggage as possible. The night before attendance, throw a few snack-packs into your backpack. It'll save you tons of time and cash while still keeping your energy level up during long hours on the show floor.
8. What are my dinner time options?
Restaurants: The National convention halls are usually surrounded by a variety of dining options. These are great meeting locations when you want to have dinner with friends, which I recommend doing at least once during the week. Keep in mind, these options are usually well attended due to prime proximity so price points may be considered high to some. That's often the cost of convenience. However, when dining out, check online to see if any coupons exist; it may save you a few bucks.
→ For helpful tips on where to find great restaurant coupons, click here.
Grocery Stores: For those of us who prefer the more frugal route, we have options. While restaurants are often walking distances from the convention hall, grocery stores are usually just short Uber drives away. This is a nice option for small groups who prefer the quiet evening approach. It's also a great opportunity to share show experiences without being bothered with high prices and wait staff interruptions.
Before your visit to the grocery store, check to see if your hotel room is furnished with a refrigerator and/or microwave. These amenities make food storage and preparation more convenient.
In 2017, my friend and I took an Uber to a nearby grocery store and stocked up on a few items to hold us over for the week. I bought produce, drinks, and sandwich stuff. If I can recall, my total grocery bill for the week came to just over $30 (a cost that's easily met on a single restaurant outing) and I had more food than I could eat during the entire week. While making dinner in your hotel room each night may not be as attractive as fine dining, it's certainly much more economical and can be very enjoyable.
9. Should I bring cards to trade or sell?
You can if you'd like. This isn't uncommon and this is a great place to make trades and deals with dealers and other collectors alike. Be mindful, however, that unless you have something of key significance that's not seen everyday, bringing things to trade might not be in your best interest as carrying extra items around might be cumbersome and/or burdensome. Before you decide to bring anything to trade or sell, be sure there aren't any rules around whether or not you can do this with other collectors while in the convention hall. I haven't investigated this for The National but I do know this rule exists at other shows. I know of one particular show where violators of this rule are permanently banned from re-entrance. Again, I can't say with certainty if this is the case with The National but it would be to your advantage to look into it beforehand.
10. How much negotiation room is there on card prices?
This question cannot be answered with any degree of accuracy because every dealer is different. If you see something you like, make an offer but do so without accidentally offending the seller. I like the question approach. Some examples I've used with success in the past are as follows:
"Would [some amount] be too low an offer?"
"Would [some amount] be a fair offer?"
I've used this strategy countless times and almost always, I've been able to either work a deal or make a connection. Negotiation Strategy 101. You're welcome.
11. Is trading encouraged?
Again, it depends on what you have. We're talking The National here, a place where some of the most famous dealers congregate and for the most part, they've seen it all many times over. To grab attention of a dealer with a trade, obviously it has to make sense from a financial perspective for them. Carefully consider what you bring and ask yourself if it's worth your time to try and sell or trade it before committing to it.
12. Can it be walked through in a single day?
No. Even if you ran, which would likely alarm security, you wouldn't be able to comfortably cover the entire convention hall in a single day. In 2015, I went with a friend and we serpentined every row and while we finished coverage of the full show floor by the end of the final day, we had to skip a lot of dealer booths to do so. We're talking a massive convention hall with hundreds upon hundreds of dealer booths. It's literally impossible to see it all, every dealer booth, within the small window of just 4.5 days.
13. Are there any special National Exclusive Promos?
Yes. Every year, exclusive promo releases are available at The National. There are always several different cards available and in different locations. Some are found in VIP member bags given to you on Sneak Peak night, others at show booths, and others at dealer showcases and events.
Be aware that while these promos are exclusively released at the National, many of them tend to find their way into the online marketplace. This often allows for better prices later. Try not to be a victim of the hard sell from dealers at the National trying to get you to overpay for National Exclusives, especially ones that aren't serial numbered. Remember, you're in control of your money; if the deal doesn't sound good, it probably isn't.
14. Do the big brands have giveaways, or are there ways to purchase from them directly?
Yes. The major brands hold events at their booths to drive attention to their products, which often times can be purchased on the spot. When there are events, you have a shot at obtaining something exclusive. As far as purchasing the giveaway products directly, I've seen it work where collectors buy and trade the obtained contents with each other after the event and the promotional events are generally open for all to participate. Wrapper Redemption pack ripping parties are one of these types of events. If you do the pack opening thing, you might find this event to be an enjoyable experience. It's certainly a popular one with lots of interesting exclusive releases to be found.
I hope this reference manual serves as a helpful guide for your next trip to The National Sports Collectors Convention. Please consider bookmarking it for quick reference as you approach the trip date. Good luck and have fun. If you see me there, please feel free to say hello.
If you would like to contribute to making this resource even better with the addition of answers to other questions, please post the questions in the comments area and I'll update this article with those questions and their respective answers. Thank you.