By Ross Forman
Mike Berkus will be front and center when the 37th annual National Sports Collectors Convention kicks off Aug. 3-7 in Atlantic City, N.J. – but sadly only in spirit and with a fitting tribute through the naming of the Center Stage as part of the Case Break Pavilion in Berkus’ honor.
The show goes on, just with tears, as the event’s co-founder and longtime executive director, even for the 2015 event in Chicago, passed away last Nov. 20 of brain cancer. Berkus was 69.
John Broggi, who is the show manager for The National, said Berkus’ sudden passing has left a huge void – for him personally and, of course, the hobby as a whole and the event in particular.
After all, The National was Berkus’ creation.
In 1980, Berkus was the co-founder of The National and served as the event’s promoter, a member of the NSCC Board and more. Berkus was, quite simply, the face of the greatest annual card show.
“He had a vision of The National as more than simply a ‘big trading card show,’ ” Broggi said. “He worked with corporate sponsors to help expand the reach of the collectibles hobby. His effort resulted in making The National an event about which all segments of the industry feel strongly and in which almost all participate in some way or another.”
Berkus and Broggi, since 2006, have been No. 1 and No. 1a in regards to everything National-related. They ran the event, and many will say that The National has always been Berkus’ baby.
“Mike was not only a business partner, but a great friend,” Broggi said. “We talked on the phone almost daily in the months leading up to the show, not only about The National, but about each other’s families and activities we both enjoyed. Mike was envious of my deep love for my college alma mater, Rutgers, and listened to me talk incessantly about Rutgers athletic events I had attended or was planning to go to.
“He tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to travel to Europe; he enjoyed his trips abroad when he made them. We both gloated about our grandchildren. And we planned The National in our spare time.
“We fed off one another very well. Mike was a ‘big picture’ guy who never bothered to figure out how to implement his good ideas. I am the detail guy who usually managed to slow him down so that we could actually make sure those ‘big ideas’ could actually work. We were a great team. I will miss him tremendously – I already do.”
Berkus often walked the show floor at The National wearing a stylish sport coat, rarely, if ever, with a tie. He’d often peruse vintage cards and collectibles. And a microphone seemed to be one of his best friends.
Naming the Center Stage of the Case Break Pavilion in Berkus’ honor is a classy, fitting tribute.
“It just seemed natural to use that area to memorialize him, in a small way,” Broggi said.
Broggi also confirmed that National executives are working with long-time National exhibitors to further honor and memorialize Berkus.
The 2016 National will be the event’s first trip back to the East Coast city since 2003. There will be more than 500 dealer booths, 75 corporate booths, a 30,000 square-foot Autograph Pavilion run once again by Houston-based Tristar Productions Inc. and the largest Case Break Pavilion ever.
Broggi predicted about 40,000 collectors will attend the Super Bowl of Sports Memorabilia.
“Mike wanted The National to be a place where all segments of the industry could come to help promote the collectibles industry,” Broggi said. “He always thought out of the box. Every year he and I spoke about what the ‘hook’ would be for the coming year. He believed that people already familiar with the sports collectibles hobby would come to The National no matter where it was held. This is a core community and all we need to do for them is tell them the dates and location, (and) they were coming. But we needed to develop a ‘hook’ to excite people in the area surrounding The National to come and visit. If we could put enough new people in the building each year, it was then up to the exhibitors to turn them into collectors who would stick around.”
Some of Berkus’ ideas over the years have included the five-day VIP pass with free autographs and gifts and allowing kids 12 and under to come to the show with no admission fee.
Berkus was the consummate promoter of The National.
I remember back in 2008 when the “hook” for that summer’s National was to offer $25,000 to vilified Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman to come out of hiding, come to The National in Chicago and sign one autograph. Yep, all Bartman had to do was show up at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., at a pre-determined time, prove his identity and sign a photograph of the infamous Cubs playoff play. The photo then was going to be auctioned to benefit a Chicago-based charity.
Berkus ran wild with this PR stunt, doing countless mainstream media interviews to, ugh, slamming shut the briefcase of money when Bartman no-showed.
“To say Mike will be missed is an understatement, but we are all aware that he would want the show to go on without missing a beat,” Broggi said. “We want to honor his memory by making sure we put every possible effort into making this year’s event, and future Nationals, as successful as we can.”
Thus, Broggi, 69, will take a more active role in the promotion of the event. Broggi will be supported by Dan Berkus, Mike’s son, and Tristar President Jeff Rosenberg, among others. Dan has stepped in to take over Mike’s primary role of working with all corporate sponsors, and more will be added to Dan’s National plate, Broggi said. And, Mike’s widow, Sher, is providing administrative support for The National. Both Sher and Dan will be in Atlantic City.
“The National was never just about one individual, but it is successful because all segments of our industry work to make it successful,” Broggi said. “The National persevered through some troubled times in the 1990s, but still managed to make it through despite a variety of problems. Mike and I had discussed a succession plan and now it’s a matter of working through that succession and moving forward.”
The core of the crew running The National for the past 10 years is back, and many have said, repeatedly, that they will step up and do whatever it takes to continue the success that The National has had, Broggi said.
Broggi said city officials in Atlantic City, plus representatives of various casinos, have stepped up, too, to help make the 2016 National a resounding, perhaps surprising, success.
“We are discussing some new activities with several of our regular sponsors and also expect to have a few new sponsors with whom we are discussing some exciting new activities,” Broggi said.
Online ticket sales began March 1 and are stronger than any National in the past 10 years, Broggi said. The benchmark for ticket sales is Cleveland 2014, and the 2016 National is already 10 percent ahead of sales compared to 2014.
Mike always said to me: ‘There’s only one National – it doesn’t happen every week. If you miss it, you have to wait a whole year for another,’ ” Broggi said. “Dealer booths are almost completely sold out. A limited amount of corporate space remains. Atlantic City is a great destination with plenty of summer activities for the family. There is a major shopping area, including many outlet stores.
“The National, the beach, the restaurants, shopping, the Boardwalk, casinos and more … something for everyone in the family.”
Still, some collectors are skeptical about returning to Atlantic City as they reflect on 2003.
Broggi is convinced the 2016 event will be a home run.
“This isn’t the Atlantic City of 2003,” he said. “In 2003, Atlantic City didn’t need us. The Borgata (Hotel) had just opened as the 12th casino, and room rates were through the roof. The traffic on the main access roads was snarled by two-lane highways and toll booths which required you to stop and pay one at a time.
“Today, the roads have been widened, EZPass has cleared the toll booths and room rates on a five-night average are the same as in Chicago. The city wants to become a convention destination and has done everything possible to move in that direction.”
The 2016 National is rolling right along, and its success certainly will be a tribute to the event’s co-founder: Mike Berkus.
General admission tickets and special National VIP Packages are on sale now at NSCCShow.com. Advance autograph tickets for confirmed guests appearing in the National’s Tristar Autograph Pavilion go on sale exclusively at TristarProductions.com on June 3.
Ross Forman is a frequent contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.