By Hank Davis
The autograph guests were as enticing as ever for the latest Toronto Expo: Mario Lemieux, Bobby Hull, Tiger Williams, Ed Balfour, Guy Lafleur, Lanny McDonald, Fergie Jenkins, Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers.
Sitting at an autograph table, looking mild-mannered in his Stetson hat, Williams’ appearance doesn’t offer a clue to his reputation as the “Enforcer.” Williams, who began his career in 1974 with the Toronto Maple Leafs and played with five clubs before retiring in 1988, is the NHL’s career leader in penalty minutes.
The dealers were as numerous as ever, and the manufacturer redemption programs were as exciting as ever. Now in its 23rd year, the Toronto Sportscard Expo continues to be North America’s best hockey collector show, with a few other sports (like baseball) and non-sports, thrown in for good measure.
“We have most of the regulars coming back and even have two dealers from Latvia this time,” said Al Sinclair, the show’s organizer. “They flew into New York, rented a car, drove to Boston, went to a hockey game, drove to Toronto, took in a Leafs game and came here. This is an outing for them, a boy’s road trip. It’s pretty cool!”
Even on opening day, Nov 8, there was plenty of energy on the floor. Early-bird customers swarmed around the cavernous Toronto International Center, determined to get first crack at dealer treasures before later arrivals could get to them. Dealer redemption programs and auctions by Upper Deck and Panini drew huge crowds. At one point, there appeared to be a longer line to win one of Upper Deck’s autographed cards than to get a “live” autograph from a player seated 20 feet away. As some of those waiting customers were quick to point out, however, some of those “live” autographs carried a pretty steep price tag.
In addition to seeking bargain-priced treasures and autographs, there was continued discussion about strengthening the card collecting hobby by supporting brick-and-mortar shops.
Over the past year-and-a-half, there has been a move by card manufacturers, distributors, as well as Expo promoter Al Sinclair to support neighborhood card shops, which everyone believes are the backbone of the industry.
“Both manufacturers of hockey cards really stepped it up this year,” Sinclair said. “The industry stumbled last year because of the lockout. So this is kind of a comeback year for the hobby. That’s exciting for fans and collectors. We got great support from the manufacturers for our brick-and-mortar program.
“For example, Panini [offered] a limited-edition Mario Lemieux card that’s only available if you buy two packs of their product in a store. Buyers get a coupon to redeem here at the show for the Lemieux. We’re trying to get the industry to work together rather than have everyone go his own way. It used to be a free for all. Everybody who bought a case of cards was a distributor and everybody who bought more than three boxes was a dealer. It’s not like that anymore.
“You can’t function as an industry out of the trunk of your car,” Sinclair continued. “There’s plenty of room for the guys who sell their singles or sets at local shows. That’s great. Not everybody wants to buy new product. But having decent stores and good shows presents the right image to the public. I’m not sure how this works in the U.S., but here in Canada we’re an intricate part of the hockey industry. We’ve present other stuff, but we’re basically a one-horse industry here, and that’s OK. But if we’re a hockey show, let’s be a damn good hockey show!”
Angelo Exarhakos of Universal Distribution observed, “I think we’ve come a long way as an industry in the past year. We had the lockout to contend with. When we were doing the show just a few years ago, there were only maybe five or six dealers with shops in attendance. The rest of them felt they just couldn’t afford to be here. They couldn’t compete and make any money. The rest of the tables were run by weekenders who had no real expenses. Now, we have 30 legitimate shops that are set up at this show. That’s fantastic, and it’s prompted Panini and Upper Deck to up the level of the giveaways, the redemptions that they’re running at this event.”
I asked Exarhakos if the success of Internet dealers or the decline of brick-and-mortar shops was a wake-up call to the industry.
“Absolutely. No doubt about it. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’ve come a long way. In Canada, we’re actually ahead of our U.S. counterparts. The marketplace up here is being seen as a model for the States. That’s astounding, if you think about it. We’re in a healthy place in Canada, even coming off a lockout. We’re in a much healthier environment in the sports card industry in Canada than down in the U.S. Without question. In a sense, it’s like the tail wagging the dog. And sometimes it happens that way,
“Change is easier to come by in a smaller or simpler market, which is what we have up here in Canada,” Exarhakos continued. “Sometimes a small boat can be maneuvered more easily than a big ship. What we’re doing up here is almost like an experiment. There was less risk involved. Now that the experiment has begun to work, there’ll be pressure to transfer it to the larger U.S. market and to sports other than hockey.
“The industry came together, all the key segments at every level. Things go better when everyone is pushing in the same direction. Even the League (NHL) was actively engaged. The players association and the union worked with both manufacturers, Panini and Upper Deck, to make this work. The distributors like us were totally involved. The stores, the brick-and-mortar retailers said, ‘Finally! Somebody is looking after our interests.’ They were given the tools to do what they do best, which is to create great environments for the collectors, the consumers, to get together and enjoy their experience.”
Exarhakos said even in a declining economy, the number of shops they deal with is way up in the past few years. There are 194 sports card shops in Canada.
“In the U.S., I believe that number is 764,” Exarhakos revealed. “Our population is about 10 percent of the U.S., so you can see we’ve got more consumer engagement here than they do. And that’s happened mostly in the last five years.”
Exarhakos was proud to point to both Panini and Upper Deck as making substantial efforts to connect with their consumer base and provide them with the kind of product they want. The ways in which Panini, for example, has engaged with their buyers, in Exarhakos’ words, “Lies outside the way trading card companies have done business for years. It’s very easy to get isolated from your customer and lose sight of what makes them tick. A lot of that happened during the ‘golden age’ of the ’90s. It’s not happening now with Panini.”
Tim Franz, director of sales at Panini, shared some of the formula for success.
“We started our Round Table program with our brick-and-mortar dealers. It’s like a frequent flyer program: The more you support us, the more we support you,” Franz said.
“When we launched our Prime Hockey program in Canada, we gave stores a five-day head start. They had product for five days before anybody else had access to it. They staged events in their store. We supplied prizes for photo contest winners. Nobody on the Internet had those advantages. We’re going to go even further with it next year. We can show quantifiable business growth. Our product sold our because of the way we marketed it.”
Upper Deck’s Chris Carlin echoed the sentiments expressed by the others. He noted, “Upper Deck was the first company to launch an enforceable program to make sure that sales were conducted in brick-and-mortar shops. That was done primarily to clean up the gray market out there that we didn’t believe was good for anybody. We wanted our customers to know there was a safe place to buy our product. The Internet was really a bit of a wild west out there, and we had some concerns with that. We wanted dealers in Canada and the U.S., both online and in stores, to be authorized to sell our product. We’ve been at the forefront of that movement. From our point of view, the social media have been a godsend.”
Hank Davis is a freelance contributor to SCD and author of “Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.