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Fanatics Plans to Energize the Hobby and Local Card Shops Are the Key

Fanatics Collectibles wants to put hobby shops back at the center of sports card collecting.
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For Fanatics to grow the sports card hobby, it’ll have to get out of its comfort zone. That much is clear.

It’s no secret that Fanatics has become a retail juggernaut through online sales, but the company plans to flip that narrative when it comes to collectibles.

While hobbyists have been happy to collectively spend billions through online marketplaces, Fanatics and the Fanatics Collectibles division believe the key to sustained success in the space is tied directly to the health of local card shops and their collecting communities.

Since acquiring Topps for $500 million in 2022, Fanatics Collectibles has tried a variety of new things to shake up the space — everything from new marketing strategies to new chase cards.

But engaging with local card shops in a more substantial way through events like trade nights, buyback programs, and Hobby Rip Night, which debuted last year, might be the most important change so far — even if the company didn’t know how these early events would go.

“To be honest, I would just say for the first one, we didn’t know what to expect,” Fanatics Collectibles Chief Commercial Officer Avery Jessup says of Hobby Rip Night. “We felt that trade nights are a massive generator of just bringing in new and experienced collectors into the store to trade. What we wanted to do with Rip Night is lean into those last collectors that haven’t been back into the hobby shop while also leaning into those novice collectors to get them introduced to collecting in a different way.”

Left to right: David Leiner, President, Fanatics Collectibles, Avery Jessup, Chief Commercial Officer, Fanatics Collectibles, Shiri Ben-Yishai, general counsel, Tom Brady. 

Left to right: David Leiner, President, Fanatics Collectibles, Avery Jessup, Chief Commercial Officer, Fanatics Collectibles, Shiri Ben-Yishai, general counsel, Tom Brady. 

More than 400 stores participated in the second Hobby Rip Night this February with the majority featuring giveaways, discounts, games, trades and more. On the surface, these events wouldn’t appear much different than the typical trade night many shops host on a regular basis.

But like the first Rip NIght, Fanatics flexed its connections with leagues and teams to deliver a lineup of athletes and celebrities to stores across the country. Atlanta Braves stars Ronald Acuna Jr. and Michael Harris visited Blue Breaks in Venice, FL while Kevin Durant, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Burrow landed in Phoenix’s Rip Valley.

While some vocal hobbyists have shown pessimism toward Fanatics’ new strategies, many local card shops seem to disagree.

According to Burbank Sportscards owner Rob Veres, Fanatics is giving local card shops access to athletes — and potentially new collectors — that they’d never be able to land on their own. For most shops, the cost of an athlete's appearance just isn’t within reach.

“It’s tremendous — I mean, we’ve never had this kind of national event where everyone gets together,” Veres says. “Before it was just one-offs. The Fanatics marketing ability just dwarfs anything the industry has seen before. So they’re getting a lot of fresh eyes on the industry and they’re pointing those fresh eyes toward our hobby shops. It’s tremendously successful, especially for some of the store owners that got athletes.”

For Jessup and Fanatics Collectibles, bringing in new collectors has been what they call a north star goal — that’s been clear since Fanatics CEO Michael Rubin famously spoke about growing the hobby tenfold. Sports cards and collectibles have exploded in popularity in recent years, and Fanatics believes there’s still a lot of room for growth.

In order to grow, however, Fanatics needs to reach people who don’t know they are collectors yet. Many hobbyists are likely already attending trade nights and other events, but soon-to-be collectors might stop by if there’s a chance to meet one of their favorite players.

To Fanatics, the local card shop is the perfect point of entry for those new hobbyists.

“It gives new collectors an opportunity to really understand and feel the energy of the hobby and the setting,” Jessup says. “I was talking to a kid that walked into one of the shops that I was in last year, and it was his first time going into a hobby shop — he and his mom lived less than three blocks away from that shop.”

Not every shop gets athletes, of course. But the ones that do have tried to make the most of the opportunity. Few athletes have been more involved with Fanatics Collectibles recently than Tom Brady, and SkyBox Collectibles was the shop that landed the seven-time Super Bowl winner.

Located in Norwalk, CT, SkyBox didn’t have an athlete for the first Hobby Rip Night last year, but store manager Alex Judge believes the dedication to going bigger and better in 2024 likely won the shop the event’s biggest guest.

Learning from a packed store last year, SkyBox decided to host its event about 40 minutes away at Citi Field this time, and about half of those in attendance were SkyBox’s regular customers.

“We wanted to make the event attractive to our customers, but also to Fanatics as well,” Judge says. “We wanted to let [Fanatics] know that we were serious about this event. We have the setup to handle a big athlete, and I knew from the last time that Tom Brady did go to another store. So I knew that there was a potential chance to get a big name doing this.”

Months of planning paid off when SkyBox got the call that Brady would be attending Citi Field for Rip Night. It was great news, but it also meant that the event needed a series of audibles over the final week to accommodate Brady’s appearance.

“It changed a lot for us,” Judge says. “But with Brady coming, now we need a photographer, a videographer, a DJ, a stage, some more security. It added so much more pressure onto the event in good ways.”

The logistics of getting athletes to hobby shops is one of the biggest challenges for Fanatics. The company has all the right connections, but working with busy schedules and different locations gets complicated fast.

Those logistical issues also hit the local card shops in many ways, but Veres says the payoff is worth it. On a night where hundreds of shops are hosting events — and sometimes competing against each other — it can be an opportunity to stand out.

To Veres, Fanatics is offering up the tools to be a better hobby shop, but it’s on the owners to take advantage.

“I think it forces a lot of shops out of their comfort zone a little bit,” Veres says. “Not every shop is event-driven, so it’s an opportunity for them to try to get out of their comfort zone a little bit and put something together that they might not have done on their own.

“I think Fanatics is really looking at this as these shops are extensions of the brand and they’re the salesmen. They want to try to give the shops as many tools and as much motivation as possible to create a better experience that might be lacking in its current state.”

Beyond large events like Hobby Rip Night, Fanatics has spent millions on its buyback programs. Starting with the MVP Buyback that paid out store credit to collectors who turned over eligible cards of the American League and National League MVPs, the program was recently extended to include UFC 300 and the winner of the main event.

For Veres and Burbank, events like Hobby Rip Night bring in new collectors while the buyback programs can keep them around.

“We’re the biggest buyer of cards over the counter on the planet,” Veres says, “and the fact that they can put money in people’s pockets to spend in the shop without having to do credit cards is huge. Millions and millions of dollars they’ve poured into his promotion that is basically handing your customers $20 bills to spend.”

For a company that has made billions of dollars selling online directly to consumers, the dedication to local hobby shops is a major change of pace — though a welcome one for many.

Hobby shops have been the lifeblood of sports card collecting for decades, and while Fanatics plans to continue shaking things up, Jessup says collectors should expect hobby shops and their communities to be a major part of any plan.

“They can expect just more investment into this hobby that we haven’t had before around innovation and product marketing,” Jessup says. “We’ll continue to do events and things that are going to continue to cultivate and grow this hobby. We just kind of obsess every day over how we can continue to do that.”

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