When you think of the current mecca for sports card shows, certain cities come to mind: Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston.
How about Scottsboro, Ala.? Or Hickory, N.C.? Most would say, where?
Scottsboro is known for the famous trial of the “Scottsboro Boys,” which spotlighted race and injustice in 1931. It is also the location of Unclaimed Baggage, where lost, unclaimed luggage goes for the contents to be sold. Hickory is the hotbed of furniture manufacturing and home to one of the oldest furniture makers in the country.
But small towns like Scottsboro and Hickory are showing up on the card show map thanks to their growing attendance and interest. While the demand for more shows has soared following the pandemic, the success of small-town shows like Scottsboro and Hickory are also a result of relentless promotion by passionate promotors who live for the hobby and see the demand and potential for card shows in a red-hot market.
Scottsboro is carving out a niche on the show circuit that continues to grow at a breakneck pace. It all started a couple of years ago when local resident Stephen Moore decided with his son, Jackson, that they could put on a small card show at a local hotel. The first show was in a cramped hotel meeting room with seven dealers, 10 tables and minimal attendance.
Show Calendar: State-by-state listing of card shows
In February 2021, the Scottsboro Card Show moved to the Scottsboro Civic Center and featured more than 100 tables for shows in February and May. Moore already has 130 tables and more than 60 dealers lined up for another show scheduled for Aug. 7.
With Alabama recovering from COVID sooner than many major metropolitan areas, the February show attracted more than 750 attendees. To put that in perspective, those attendees temporarily grew the population of Scottsboro by 5 percent.
Moore, who runs Jackson’s Sports Cards in a local consignment store, always had his pulse on the hobby but thought more could be done to promote it.
“We had been up to the Nashville show and saw how successful it was and thought maybe we could try it here locally,” he said.
Moore believes Scottsboro’s location — halfway between Birmingham and Nashville, as well as halfway between Huntsville and Chattanooga — and close proximity to bigger cities opened up the draw from other markets.
As word got out, interest began to grow.
“We have dealers now from all over the Southeast,” said Moore. “They come from Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Georgia.”
Moore found that his continued promotion permeated the hobby community.
“I kept putting the show online everywhere. I put it in Sports Collectors Digest and Beckett on the show calendar. I put it on Facebook,” he said. “All that, plus the word of mouth, meant the longer you do something, the word tends to travel.”
Another way to draw collectors has been Moore’s ability to add autograph guests.
“We got lucky on that first show,” he said. “Even with just seven tables, we were able to get Raymond Berry, an NFL Hall of Famer. We met him at the Nashville show and he was able to come to our show.”
From there, Moore has been able to add some former University of Alabama football players, which always draw well in the hotbed of college football. Former Alabama star and NFL running back Trent Richardson is scheduled to appear at the Aug. 7 show.
“Those local players have helped us get other players as the word gets out of what we will pay for their appearance,” said Moore, who sells autographed apparel from Alabama players in his shop.
The show not only brings in collectors galore but also attracts dealers and card shop owners from all over the Southeast. Chris Kelsey of NashCards in Nashville has set up at the Scottsboro show twice.
“We were drawn to the Scottsboro show because it is close enough for us to drive to. We loved that we could set up and represent our business and accept grading submissions from our new and existing customers,” he said.
Kelsey also likes that Scottsboro is a smaller venue than Nashville, which was slow to allow the return of card and hobby shows because of strict COVID protocols.
“I think there isn't a lot of pressure when it is a smaller town,” Kelsey said. “People who are just getting into grading don't feel overwhelmed by a show like this one. It was a great experience overall.”
Blake Bollinger from Deep Fried Breaks set up at the show for the first time this year.
“Mainly the locality of it drew me in. I am close by in Birmingham, so it was a great way for me to kind of dip my toe in the water as this was my first show I’d ever done,” he said.
Bollinger saw it not only as an opportunity to make sales but interact with some of the participants from his weekly breaks.
“I had a pretty solid day. The best part for me was getting to meet some of the regulars in my break group,” he said. “It was awesome to get to meet some of the guys I interact with weekly.”
He not only sees the potential for growth of not only the Scottsboro show but for the hobby itself.
“I think the hobby is as strong as it's ever been,” Bollinger said. “I think we're just getting started with this boom, to be honest, [with] so many more people coming into the space and so many more big-time names getting involved.”
PROMOTION, RELATIONSHIPS KEY
Who knew that a small town in the middle of furniture country would be another hotbed for collectors, but that is what has happened in Hickory, N.C. But growth of the hobby in these small markets is not just driven by pent-up demand. It is also the result of relentless promotion.
Moore does that in Scottsboro. And in Hickory, that role belongs to Wes Starkey.
Starkey and his wife, Joan, run Inside Pitch Promotions. They found themselves with similar challenges like every business in America during the pandemic. It caused them to lose existing shows in Charlotte and Greensboro. But Hickory stayed on track because of the relationship Starkey has built with the venue and area dealers. That not only allowed for their March show to take place once it was deemed safe, but also contributed to the boom.
“Hickory has always worked with us,” Starkey said. “They [Hickory Metro Convention Center] have always been supportive and provided us additional space between vendors. I’m very appreciative. The support has blown me away.”
That venue has been committed because of Starkey’s persistence in promoting shows throughout the Carolinas and Southeast. And it is that promotion that has led to unheard of growth in such small markets. Starkey’s company held well-attended shows in Salisbury, N.C. and Raleigh in June and July and plans to return to Hickory on July 31, Aug. 6-8 and Oct. 9.
“When we took over, Hickory had 100 tables,” said Starkey, whose Raleigh show attracted more than 1,400 people. “We started bringing in additional advertising and it grew to 200, 250, 300 tables. When we get to 500 tables, this could be the largest show on the East Coast. Our attendance is over 1,000 and we will be over 2,000 this summer.”
Starkey believes that utilizing every element of promotion is the key to reaching every audience.
“There has been no corner cutting with advertising,” he said. He uses Instagram and Facebook to target certain collecting groups. Add that to a mailing list of 8,000-10,000. He also advertises in eight area newspapers along with ads on local radio stations.
“I have even put a sign on a van,” said Starkey, who often uses former professional wrestlers as autograph guests.
A big key to Starkey’s success is his relationship with all the vendors and dealers.
“It is important to keep them happy,” Starkey said. “I give them plenty of time early to get set up so they are not rushed. I even don’t do many autograph guests so the collectors will spend their money with the vendors. Quite a few vendors come to us personally. We spend a lot of time with the vendors to keep them happy.”
GETTING THE WORD OUT
Robert Sciulli is one of the promoters of the Chattanooga Sports and Pop Expo. Like others, it too has seen an explosion in growth.
“The demand is through the roof,” Sciulli said. “The demand from vendors has gone from 50 tables to over 200 in less than six months.”
Sciulli, who owns Scenic City Sportscards and Collectibles in Ooltewah, Tenn. has also stepped up his promotion, which has led to further success.
“I hand out flyers at other shows in the area and have signage at my store,” he said. “We also use all social media and are setting up electronic billboards. For the next show, I have purchased 300 30-second television ads in the region.”
The growing demand is not limited to a particular area of the country.
Michael Leon of S&B Sports Promotions puts on shows at small venues in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and is seeing the same growth explosion.
“I have promoted shows for over 25 years. I do a specific tri-county region, and since there are less and less brick-and-mortar stores, the show became a key factor for people to find their collectibles,” Leon said.
Due to local ordinances, table space has been limited in some areas, but no matter the size, everyone wants in.
“New vendors are constantly inquiring about setting up at our shows,” Leon said. “We are now seeing a new population of fathers and sons both interested in doing the shows and visiting the shows.”
Growth in the hobby is occurring everywhere, from the largest cities in America to the smallest towns and everywhere in between. The recent return and instant success of card shows proves that if you can find a venue, no matter the size, and get the word out, passionate collectors will find you, no matter where you are.