The first National Sports Collectors Convention was hatched in the waning months of 1979 and became reality the following year when some southern California men decided it was time sports collecting had its own major, annual event. Back then it was a 'convention' in the truest sense with receptions, seminars, discussions and outings. Today, it's the biggest 'card show' anywhere with a huge corporate pavilion, dozens of famous athletes past and present signing autographs for cash and is nearly always held in the Midwest, with occasional forays to the east coast.
Three and a half decades later, one of those early organizers remains at the forefront of the NSCC. Co-founder and Director Mike Berkus has seen the event through some rocky times and some wild times. The next chapter will be written in Cleveland when the show sets up shop at the International Expo Center July 30-August 3. In the first of a two-part Q&A session, he talked about the National's past, present and future.
MB: Actually, I was stunned that we were able to have enough interest to bring it to Detroit for year 2. As we progressed, the event really had to crawl, walk , run , and then win. It was impossible to control a regional hobby attitude and map out a road to success.
The hobby was splintered. Different promoters in America sometimes felt threatened. Philly, Ted Taylor and Bob Schmierer, absolutely swore they would not touch or attend a National. They kept their promise; they felt we were downplaying their great regional event and that we had no right to call a show “The National”.
Some aspects of the National, I had control over. The Corporate presence was a dream that I pushed for 1991, and it came true. Then, a full autograph pavilion, the VIP program, I felt would be a good idea. Today, we launch a new vision, the Case Break Pavilion. All this was created by many hobbyists who shared the vision and were willing to do the work, we were lucky.
You won’t know until the show is well underway, but give us a sense of the interest in this year’s event from advance ticket sales, autograph tickets and any other barometer you have at your disposal.
MB: (NSCC Executive Director) John Broggi tracks three major sectors of the National. Advance ticket sales, dealer exhibit booths, and I have the corporate pavilion records. Cleveland scared me. We felt that it would be a challenge to compete with the past few years. Chicago, always a great town, Baltimore set the standards of attendance in 2010 with the highest on record for the past 15 years.
Cleveland broke out in front starting in March and up until this interview. Pre-sales of tickets began ahead of Baltimore 2010 and have stayed ahead. Really amazing to us, we just did not expect this. Dealer booths sell out every year, so no surprise there. Corporate space, normally two long rows, was increased 50% to 3 long rows, sold out 3 months earlier than any National.
I usually wait until the Industry Summit to work with sponsors, but this year, 90% was sold before I ever got to Las Vegas. I think that we owe a great deal to the hobby for making a recovery of interest. The new card industry is coming to Cleveland with guns blazing. Vintage auction sales, high graded singles, and full sets, are very strong again.
Just to give you an idea of how much growth we saw this year: Upper Deck grew from 2000 sq. ft of display booth to 8,000 sq. ft. Leaf went from 3000 sq ft to 10,000 sq. ft. Panini doubled their size and could probably use 3000 sq. ft. more. Every distributor in the Corporate Pavilion grew by double or more, in space. These groups, and our other fine sponsors, are creating more buzz than in the history of the National.
There’s been some online buzz about the ‘Case Break Pavilion’ you announced earlier this year. This is such a new phenomenon and it seems like a lot of effort has gone into making this one of the focal points of the show How come?
MB: In 2012, I took a long look at the possibility of case breaking at the National for 2013. I passed on it because I could not get a read on who were the players, what the manufacturers and distributors thought, and how the attendees would benefit. This year, it was time. The biggest reasons for launching it were:
- Who did it benefit or whom might it hurt? It seemed most of the new card industry was benefiting greatly, and I did not see an area of our hobby that could be damaged.
- Could we do it first class? I would never just toss 40 tables into the back of the room, put up a $5 sign reading Case Break Pavilion and say “good luck to you”.
- Would our Board of Directors approve a major addition to the National and if so, who could we find to partner with? We took the path of how successful the Autograph Pavilion is run by Tristar. They are our partners and have not only worked smoothly with us but run a great pavilion, and I decided we need to lease it out to someone who could run it professionally.
- Next, who do we work with on this? I had wonderful interest from some very strong and professional manufacturers, distributors, and many of the major hobby names we all know. The one obstacle that I could not overcome was competition. I wanted the Pavilion to offer all companies, equal opportunities and involvement. With the competition in our hobby, if one distributor owned the pavilion, what would the other distributors do? Same with each segment of the hobby. So I decided that we needed a breaker who knew all the breakers, would not force any competitive breaker to follow his way of doing anything, each would have freedom to run their exhibit space any way they wish. Even though I knew that this would create some jealousies, I still needed to find someone in the business because we are not tied in to the breakers. Up stepped David Gelfman, Ripping Wax.com. I told him I needed commitment to put in the very first “Main Stage” with 40 complete “plug & play” exhibit spaces ready to break with two draped tables, chairs, electricity, wi-fi ( hard-wired!), a staff and his own advertising. I felt that his investment would exceed $100,000. I wanted to have some exclusive promotions to offer. He paid for two invitations to the exclusive Panini VIP Party, $7500 each. We are giving those away. Truly, there is so much more, I could never explain it all. The hundreds of hours of planning with David, the setting up a major play like this from scratch, just too amazing to explain. It’s great and no one is more excited than me.
- Publicity and marketing. If we are going to do this right, we need to invest in the concept, spend the money to tell the world, feature it in every way, shape, and form. Ray Schulte, our PR Director, was brought in to make this happen. He is a pro in working with the media and he made this happen. Amazon.com sports collectibles, took the title sponsorship, GTS hobby distributors is building the very first Lounge on the show floor, exclusive to Case Breakers. Peach State Sports is hosting the very first Case Breaker reception. Topps, Panini, Upper Deck, Beckett, Super Break, (gosh, my brain is fried, I have so many that have jumped in!), and a great group of breakers, are truly responsible for the credibility of our launch. All of it has to be figured out from square one.
What’s in it for the case breakers themselves? Why will breaking at the NSCC be different from doing it in their usual location?
MB: This is the key question of the interview, and our biggest purpose for creating the Case Break Pavilion. As with the major Corporate Sponsors, who have found that we created a “must see” area for all attendees, breakers will have their own “National Presence”. A central pavilion, we can bring the press over to broadcast this exciting segment of collecting to millions of viewers, many who may get involved. How would that be possible if breakers are spread all over the show?
What we heard from those in the know, that case breaking has to shake out the good breakers from the bad. This is identical to the hobby’s start in distribution, back in 1989. The National can bring a level of exposure to case breaking that might not be possible for individual breakers to accomplish? The bottom line is this: if we create a quality pavilion where serious case breakers are featured, millions of new eyes watching, a first class community, and schedule all of the National’s major activities on the new main stage, can this not be a good thing? We encourage breakers to come forward, let us know you and stay connected. As with all of the other areas of National, the success will depend on the players. If they want it and it works for them, we will grow it. If the corporate pavilion, the autograph pavilion, and even the original show dealers, did not support or want the show, then it would not have succeeded.
Tomorrow: Making sure the show is worth it for dealers, addressing the small rotation of host cities, promoting in the 21st century and a new event that may be launching next year.