The 36th National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago, IL has come and gone. The show offers many opportunities for fans to reminisce about the glory days of their sports heroes and purchase memorabilia. Vendors at the show can be split into four main categories:
Autographs – Autograph Alley gave fans a paid opportunity (around $50 each) to meet a former athlete and have an item signed;
Case breakers – The current trend in card collecting is case breaking. Instead of buying a box of cards for a few hundred dollars, someone may purchase a slot that gives them all of the cards from one team or division out of the box. This somewhat minimizes the risk while allowing fans to snag higher end cards.
Manufacturers – Companies such as Topps and Upper Deck who make the cards and attempt to push the trends in the current and future marketplace.
Stores – Tables set up selling everything from two cent common cards up to rare game used Babe Ruth bats and uniforms for a few hundred thousand dollars. This ranges from local mom & pop stores to major Internet outlets and auction houses.
All of the above categories include a transaction interaction: you see something you like, you pay money and the vendor gives it to you. Very simple and mostly impersonal. Even the extended “shows” of case breaking falls into this category. Despite a large section of the show dedicated to these companies, their main audience is online as the breaking process is live streamed around the globe and participants purchase a slot from the comfort of their home couch.
The Manufacturers are in a unique position because they actually create products that fans want, not just reselling items. Plus they are not selling at the show; if you want an item from Topps, for example, you must do so at a card store’s table, not directly from Topps. This gives them a unique platform at an event like the National that has thousands of visitors each year. The basic activation then for the Manufacturers is their redemption programs: you purchase specific products from a card vendor then return to the Manufacturer’s booth to receive a special pack which includes cards from a National only set and the opportunity to win special memorabilia such as autographs or game used equipment. Leaf, Topps, Panini and Upper Deck all offered this program. However, the similarities of the interactions with these companies stop right there. Reps from Leaf, Topps and Upper Deck would see your box of cards, hand you a promotional pack then send you on your way. Their booths weren’t even set up to be welcoming to most fans as tables were set up around the perimeter and all interactions took place across the tables. This minimized the time spent with the companies and practically pushed you back into the flow of foot traffic and on to the next display.
Panini America, however, went with a different approach. Everything about the staging and layout was drawing you into their space. Tables were set up at the corners of their footprint with activities planned for the inner section, either on the luscious carpet or the comfy couch. Yes, they had the same redemption as other companies but they interacted with you about the product you were presenting and asked you to open the promo packs in front of them because they were as excited to see what you received as you probably were.
Panini’s main focus wasn’t your wallet, it was engaging with the audience and building a relationship. This was evident in the various programs they had scheduled but especially in their Kids Case Break. Thirty children, all under age 13, were given a lanyard with a NBA team’s logo. As each pack was opened, the cards would be given to the child with the corresponding team’s lanyard. And this wasn’t just the cheapest set possible; the cards given away included autographs and swatches of players’ jerseys. Most of the kids walked away with 5 or 6 cards, most with a value of $50 or $60 each. It was amazing to see the smiles on their faces, not because they now each had hundreds of dollars worth of cards, but because someone took the time to create and share a memorable experience with them. Some of the children who were probably too young to collect at age four will still have this Panini memory in their minds in a few years when it is time for them to spend their allowance at their local hobby shop. Tracy Hackler, Panini’s VP of Awesomeness (his real title is Hobby Marketing Manager), said, “This is more than a business…it’s about connecting with everyone, young and old, on their level and getting them excited about trading cards in general. If they happen to connect specifically with Panini, even better. Look at how excited these kids are!”
Another great event was the hourly Panini Box Wars. Since you already had to buy a box for the redemption program, Panini gave another opportunity for fans to do something fun and potentially receive more value from the box. The Panini rep would list a specific feature of a card and all participants would rip open their packs looking for the card that closest fit the criteria. All winners would receive a Black Box, a limited edition box of cards created specifically for the National. Scott Prusha, Panini’s Director of Excitement (his real title is Family Cards Marketing), said, “Yeah, we could have people just open boxes, see what cards they get then go on their way. But where’s the fun in that? We want our fans to have fun, to connect with them, with something they love, over a box of cards.”
Panini did something a lot of companies forget to do: they made the extra effort to make their product more than an item, they made it an experience, an event, a connection.