In addition to his fondness for vintage sports memorabilia and his eye for a shrewd investment, Derek Stebner sheepishly admits that he also had one other reason for deciding to collect Super Bowl tickets six years ago.
Having already cluttered his Scottsdale home with so many helmets, jerseys and other items, he didn’t want anything else that required much wall or closet space.
“My house was starting to look like a college dorm room,” Stebner told Yahoo Sports. “What I liked about tickets is that they are tidy and compact.”
A collection that started out rooted in pragmatism has since become Stebner’s passion project. The 53-year-old real estate developer says he has shelled out “somewhere around $600,000” trying to become the first collector to obtain all 156 different ticket variations from every Super Bowl ever played.
While Stebner remains 10 tickets shy of a full master set, he constantly scans the Internet and works the phones in hopes of filling the holes in his collection. In the past, he has bid on vintage Super Bowl tickets in auctions, unearthed them perusing collectors conventions or stumbled across them searching eBay.
To Stebner, it’s not just securing one of every ticket variety that matters. Quality is key. That’s why he only collects full unused tickets, not stubs. And why he often empties his wallet to upgrade a rare vintage ticket with creases or fraying edges to a higher-graded one in better condition.
Sixty-nine of Stebner’s 146 tickets have received a perfect grade of 10 from Professional Sports Authenticator. Eighty-nine are the highest-graded of their type that the memorabilia authentication service has ever examined. A few of Stebner’s most valuable tickets from the earliest Super Bowls are the only unused ones of their kind still known to exist.
“It’s the treasure hunt aspect that’s always exciting for me,” Stebner said. “You never know where you’re going to find something.
“Sometimes you’ll randomly see this ticket pop up on eBay, and it’s like, ‘I’ve been looking for that for five years and it’s just sitting there!’ Other times you’ll have a 9, someone else will have a 10 and he’ll be asking 15 grand for it. I’ll be like, ‘I don’t want to spend that money, but I really want to go up a notch.”
Bargains are tougher for Stebner to find nowadays than they once were. At a time when the collectibles industry as a whole is booming, the market for sports tickets has exploded over the past few years.
The highest-graded ticket stub from Michael Jordan’s 1984 NBA debut game fetched $252,000 at auction two months ago. That smashed the record price for a sports ticket, breaking a mark previously established last October when a stub from Game 3 of the 1903 World Series sold for $175,000.
Demand for tickets from the earliest Super Bowls has followed a similar trajectory. In 1967, it cost $12 to get into Super Bowl I between the Chiefs and Packers. More than a half century later, a ticket from that game is worth a whole lot more than that.
One of the two highest-graded unused tickets to that game sold for $26,290 in 2015. The other went for $66,000 a mere four years later.
“Seasoned collectors are starting to see the rarity of tickets compared to cards or autographs,” said Steve Lee, a researcher at PSA and an avid sports ticket collector himself. “There are only so many printed and so many kept. Most people threw them on the ground, folded them in their pockets or tossed them in the trash. Some of the ones that did survive are priceless now.”
Stebner’s passion for collecting dates back decades. In those days, Stebner never considered whether a card he purchased would appreciate in value. “I truly did it because I loved it,” he said.
While Stebner’s teenage years coincided with the rise of Dave Winfield, Joe Montana and Magic Johnson, those were not the athletes whose cards and memorabilia he coveted. He has always gravitated toward vintage collectibles — the likes of Mickey Mantle, Wilt Chamberlain and Lou Gehrig.
“You looked at a card from the ’20s, ’30s or ’40s, and it was just kind of amazing,” Stebner said. “I was always really intrigued by it.”
As Stebner’s real estate development career has taken off, he has been able to target high-end items. He launched his Super Bowl ticket collection six years ago by forking over $100,000 to buy a complete run of full unused tickets, one from every game from 1967 to 2016.
At the time, SCP Auctions trumpeted that as “the holy grail of ticket collections.” And yet, from the start, Stebner viewed it as the foundation to his collection, not the finished product. At many Super Bowls, the NFL sold different-colored tickets for different stadium tiers to help overburdened ushers direct fans to their seats. Stebner set a goal of hunting down each ticket variation from Super Bowl I to the present day.
There are gold, white and blue ticket variations from Super Bowl I, II and III. Stebner has found eight of those as full tickets. The exceedingly rare blue Super Bowl III ticket is one of only two stubs in his collection.
“There’s a guy in California who has the best one, and he won’t sell it,” Stebner lamented.
Despite that minor blemish, Stebner’s Super Bowl ticket collection outshines any other. PSA ranks it the finest in its registry. Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions at Heritage Auctions, told Yahoo Sports that if Stebner sold his collection, it “would bring high six figures in the current market with a chance to approach $1 million.”
For now, Stebner insists he isn’t motivated to sell. The treasure hunt is still too much fun. He intends to keep chipping away at his improbable long-term goal of owning the highest-graded version of every Super Bowl ticket variation.
“If someone offered me $1 million for my Super Bowl collection, I don’t know if I’d take it,” Stebner said. “That’s why I’m a terrible seller. I love the stuff too much.”