By Hank Davis
In addition to displaying photos of gray-haired hockey and baseball legends caught in the act of signing autographs, our last review of the Toronto Sportscard and Memorabilia Expo (SCD, Dec. 14, 2012) included some rather strong words from Angelo Exarhakos, president of Universal Distribution, which handles sport card product for much of Canada.
Exarhakos addressed in no uncertain terms his concerns about the state of the hobby and the conflict between what he called “brick-and-mortar” dealers (store owners) who attend the Expo, and dealers who sell product largely over the Internet. He talked about what amounted to unfair competition posed by such home-based dealers and the peril to the hobby he believes they pose. Exarhakos put his money where his mouth was and talked about how he and the product lines distributed by Universal were doing what they could to support the brick-and-mortar shops.
His words stirred considerable comment. Al Sinclair, organizer of the Toronto Expo, noted “Both Upper Deck and Panini understand what Angelo said to you: We’ve got to keep the hobby store alive. An example is Upper Deck. You’ve got to be a Diamond Certified Dealer to sell new Upper Deck product at the Expo. The wrapper redemption programs are tied directly to that. Those wrappers come from product sold by those dealers. You can’t just go anywhere on the floor and buy new Upper Deck product. It’s that simple.
“We got on board with that. We did a ‘bricks-and-mortar’ promotion for the show this time where the 300 stores registered with Upper Deck and Panini got a special copy of the show magazine with a redemption card in it for a limited-edition Patrick Roy card that they can only get at the show. So you had to go to your local hobby store, buy two packs of Panini product, say, and then bring those wrappers to the show. You got your passport validated at the front door. We had 500 copies of the card for the show – 250 Colorado, 250 Canadiens. Not only do they get that, but there’s a draw where the collector can win one of 10 cards actually autographed by Patrick Roy.
“We want to get the brick-and-mortar stores to realize that we’re trying to help. This is a
good program for them whether they come to the show or not. We’re supporting them directly. The sportcard show reaches more collectors in Canada than any other vehicle, like magazines. We send our customers to your store. What you do with them when you get them there is your thing.”
Sinclair stressed that the stores vs. the Expo shouldn’t be a competitive thing.
“We advertise to the general public, which is something almost nobody else does in the industry. If we can get dad and his son out here to have a look, it’s up to you to convert them into a steady customer for your store. We’ve got 10,000 people out here at the show. Some of them haven’t been here before; others haven’t been here in maybe 10 years. We hope you can do something with that. We’re doing our part.”
Upper Deck rep Mark Shaunessy saw things basically the same way. “We’ve had a policy in place since 2011 that’s geared to getting customers back into stores. We see a store as more than just a place to buy something. There’s a community there that enhances the experience of card collecting. We have a promotion every year called National Hockey Card Day where we make product available to stores in both Canada and the States for no money. All you have to do is walk into a store and get a free pack of cards. That can really start that friendship, that camaraderie that you get with collecting. We believe you get that through your local card shop and we want to support it. Issuing these special sets, free of charge, is our contribution to that. Obviously, we hope to ‘hook’ new collectors. And, again, this new product from Upper Deck is only available to Diamond certified hobby shops.”
Most dealers welcome this program, but not all.
“Some guys resist the certification. I think the reason is that they don’t like rules. They don’t like having someone telling them what to do. It’s not a difficult policy; in fact, it only lasts for 90 days. After three months, anybody can buy or sell new product and we’re not watching it anymore. That’s the after-market, and we’re not trying to regulate it,” Shaunessy said. “But for the first 90 days we do set limits on who can buy or sell our product. That’s what it means to be Diamond Certified. You’re agreeing to that. Upper Deck does not want to support the ‘weekend warrior’ who buys and sells from his basement. That’s not really card collecting to us, and we’re trying not to reinforce it through our certification program.
“I remember when I started collecting back in the ‘90s. Walking into a card shop and seeing everything you could find there. It was an amazing experience and we want to keep it alive. You can’t really find that by going online. Here (at the wrapper redemption programs) you have people standing over your shoulder and getting excited with you when you pull something special. It’s that sense of community. You can’t get that online. Collecting is a social thing. People are always asking, ‘What’s the biggest card you saw pulled today?’ They’re not doing that on the Internet.”
On the show floor
In addition to a regular spring visit from the Ferguson Jenkins Foundation (including Fergie’s autograph guests Jack Morris, Gaylord Perry, Phil Niekro, Andre Dawson and Goose Gossage), the 46th Toronto Expo included a unique theme from AJ promotions.
The show featured a reunion of the 1993 Stanley Cup-winning Montreal Canadiens. The steady stream of autograph guests included Patrick Roy, a name considered by many to represent the elite part of hockey’s royalty. The cost of an autograph ($180 for regular item; $250 for a “premium” or larger item) bore this out.
While costly, Expo organizer Al Sinclair put the fee into perspective.
“His autograph is expensive. The people at AJ have a lot invested in his appearance. He’s part of the Holy Grail of hockey. How many are there? Gretzky? Orr? That’s how you get these guys to come out,” Sinclair said. “The last public signing Patrick Roy did was in 1992. There were 600-700 people in line. You couldn’t get near the place. And that was before he was really famous.
“People will pay $1,000 to go see Bon Jovi and sit in the first five rows. When you put him into that superstar category like a rock star, it’s not a lot of money. At the end of the day, you go home with something you have watched him sign while you were talking to him. A year from now when it’s hanging on your wall, the money means nothing. You got to meet someone you’d never get to meet otherwise. You talk to a friend. He asks, ‘Where’d you get that?’ You say, ‘At the card show. He signed it for me.’ ‘You met Patrick Roy?’ ‘Yeah.’ It’s an emotional investment. You hang it up on your rec room wall. It’s yours forever.”
Hank Davis is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.