Imagine a huge, well-lit hall, hundreds of dealers, thousands of customers and millions of cards and assorted memorabilia. So far, so good. Now try to imagine the pink elephant in the room – the economic meltdown that can’t help but affect some of this carefree hobby shopping.
There were quite a few views on how the economic woes might translate into behavior at the Expo. Depending on which dealer you talked to, you’re likely to hear a different story. They run the gamut from “People run to their hobbies in times of woe” to “People run from them.”
Here are some general dealer reactions and observations at the show:
- “Things are pretty much the same as usual. You really wouldn’t know anything is going on out there. People may avoid making major home repairs or purchases, but that fear hasn’t worked its way down to their hobbies. They don’t want to lose that as well.”
- “Sales are down. People are worried about their savings or their jobs, so they back off on lower priority items like hobbies – especially the bigger collectors.”
- “This is the only show I do anymore. I’ve been to the National and things were really dead. It was a lot of work and expense for very little. This is the one show I can count on.”
- “I’m selling more to other dealers than I ever did before. I was barely unpacked when they started descending on me. I just sold another dealer $2,700 worth of hockey. Customers don’t usually buy like that.”
- “One guy had his table full of $200 and $300 cards. They were marked $20 and $30. I couldn’t believe some of the deals on the floor. I guess some guys would rather have $30 in their pockets than packing all their stuff up at the end of the weekend. People are moving things out. They don’t want to get stuck with all this inventory.”
- “I keep telling people that it’s safer to invest in certain rookie cards than most mutual funds. This is a way for people to diversify their portfolios by investing in something they’re passionate about.”
On the floor, it seemed to be business as usual. Both Upper Deck and In The Game (ITG) were running highly successful wrapper redemption programs and rightly proud of their new products.
Chris Carlin of Upper Deck observed, “It’s always fun to watch fans open their wax boxes. Their hands are literally shaking, they’re so excited. They know they’re going to get an autograph card for coming here.
“Those cards are limited to runs of 75 or less and in the case of guys like Gretzky or Howe, they’re limited to just five,” Carlin continued. “It’s like a bee hive around here with all the excitement. When someone opens one of those rare cards, you can feel the buzz go through the crowd. Sometimes people try to trade or buy them right away.
“We haven’t missed a show in several years. Since we got our exclusive license with the NHL, we think it’s important for us to be here every spring and fall.”
Although the NHL license is obviously a ticket to success, Upper Deck’s competitor, In The Game, has found creative ways to work around it and still produce successful product.
A good example is ITG’s Heroes & Prospects line. Company representative Allan Levine explained how ITG secured private licenses with retired hockey stars and combined them with future stars based on league licenses from the Canadian Hockey League, the AHL and the Junior Hockey League.
“ITG stays very close to its customer base and uses the feedback we get to help design new product,” Levine said.
Although Upper Deck and ITG are the only major companies producing hockey product, there is no shortage of sets and formats for the consumer.
“This show is a good indicator of how hockey product is going to do for the year,” Carlin said. “So far, everything looks like a good sign. This is the show. You go to the National, and there were empty aisleways. Not here. Fans are passionate about their sport. It’s always exciting for us to come up here.”
Hockey reigns supreme
Lines at the autograph tables were also long and enthusiastic. Unlike the last several shows in which several baseball players put in appearances alongside NHL greats, this time around promoter Al Sinclair kept the focus on hockey.
Sinclair noted that, “Hockey has always been the strength of the show” and suggested that occasional appearances by Canadian baseball players such as Fergie Jenkins or Gary Carter have never signaled a shift in emphasis away from hockey.
The NHL stars this time around included Red Kelly (pictured above right), Dennis Hull, Emile “The Cat” Francis, Eddie Giacomin, Jacques LaPerriere, Joe Nieuwendyk, Mike Richter, Scott Stevens, John VanBiesbrouck and Gilles Villemure.
Close examination of life at the autograph tables was enough to remind anyone that being a successful guest on the show circuit requires more than a healthy signing hand and a fresh Sharpie. The long waits while the line of customers advances at a crawl and the incessant pop of flashbulbs can take the measure of a man.
I saw no one better at signing than 14-year NHL veteran Dennis Hull. The younger brother of Bobby and uncle to Brett, Hull was absolutely hilarious, keeping everyone around him (both staff and customers) entertained. Most of Hull’s quips seemed spontaneous, making them doubly impressive. On one occasion, he reached across the table and insisted on signing a plastic lunch container, explaining to everyone that he had never autographed a piece of Tupperware before.
Other signers, while not as humorous as Hull, made a genuine effort to connect with each customer and create a personal memory, rather than allowing the event to become mechanical.
One of the Expo’s most unusual moments involved the appearance of Mark Stoddart, a former graphic designer-turned-artist, who has begun to paint gallery-size portraits of African-American sports legends such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Ferguson Jenkins. Stoddart’s acrylic-on-canvas work is based on vintage photography that first appeared in Sport magazine.
“I’m trying to select figures who gave something back to the community, as well as making a contribution to their sport,” he said.
Stoddart’s art attracted an enthusiastic response from the decidedly non-gallery-oriented crowd at the Expo. The Toronto-based artist has set himself a goal of completing 40 paintings before he reaches his 40th birthday. Stoddart is presently 39. His work, along with some of the original photography on which it is based, can be viewed at www.thesportgallery.com.
Hank Davis is the author of “Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball” (Bison Books).