When Fan Expo announced that it was adding sports to the lineup for 2013, it dredged up old stereotypes about jocks battling nerds for schoolyard supremacy. The grumbling amongst my fellow Toronto geeks wasn’t quite loud enough to constitute a backlash, but there was a distinct note of betrayal, as if the sports expo would serve as a harbinger of a wave of steroid-fueled feral fantasy football fans.
I’ve never seen much difference between sports fandom and geek fandom. In their own way, sports enthusiasts are as nerdy as any Browncoat.
However, I recognize that many people do perceive some cultural animosity, often for perfectly valid reasons. Many of my friends sought refuge in geek culture because it offered a safe alternative to an overwhelmingly masculine sports culture.
That’s why I decided to find out whether the mere presence of baseball cards would attract drunken bleacher bums like All You Can Eat Wings Night at Hooters. I waded into enemy territory and spoke to some of the sports vendors to get their perspectives on the undiminished pageantry.
If you were at Fan Expo this past month, you already know that early complaints were unfounded. The floor was just as nerdy as ever, the convention centre awash in cosplay and comics, the sports a novelty you wouldn’t have noticed unless you knew it was there. It’s still our show, and it’s going to stay that way.
“Sports memorabilia is dying out,” said one sports booth operator following a so-so weekend of sales. “The younger generation doesn’t have much interest anymore.”
The notion that sports would corrode the nerd-friendly Fan Expo is laughable. If anything, the influence is trending in the other direction – Pokémon cards were one of the bigger sellers for many dealers.
“If you consider yourself nerds, we’re the same, only for sports,” said one enthusiastic dealer. “The way you are with anime, the way you are with sci-fi – we’re the same with hockey. We know all the players. We know the years they played. There’s really no difference.”
Except, of course, for size of the crowds.
“If you get a crowd of 5,000 [at a sports card convention], that’s really, really good,” said another vendor who specializes in sports trading cards. “If you get 10 to 15 thousand, that’s nirvana.”
In 2013, Fan Expo attendance climbed above 100,000. Most of those people – 98 percent in one estimate – didn’t come for the sports.
“They probably can’t find the card show because there’s so much going on,” one card vendor said of his ordinary clientele.
Other dealers reiterated variations of that theme. The crowds at Fan Expo exponentially exceed those at sports memorabilia conventions, which is why they were interested in the first place.
“I’ve never seen anything on this scale,” said one awestruck individual. “They pull out all the stops.”
Fan Expo represents a unique opportunity for sports collectors because nerds have become the gatekeepers with financial clout in the cluttered nostalgia marketplace.
But while that kind of traffic boost is obviously enticing, it doesn’t necessarily translate to better sales. When you’re in a niche market – and sports memorabilia is unquestionably a niche market – finding the right consumer is often more important than reaching more consumers.
“If I see someone in a Batman outfit, I write them off as a potential customer,” said one vendor.
Others were more diplomatic. There’s plenty of crossover between sports fans and sci-fi fans, even amongst those with tables at Fan Expo. But while millions of people saw The Avengers at the multiplex, most of them didn’t immediately start collecting comics, and the same is true in reverse. The people who like football enough to tolerate the Super Bowl don’t necessarily want to decorate their walls with sweaty game-worn jerseys.
Despite its association with sports, the memorabilia industry is not nearly as influential as you think it is. The traditional Fan Expo fare is far more popular (and far more lucrative) than athletic paraphernalia, and the process is accelerating as children drift away from the hobbies of their grandparents.
There are also degrees of fandom, and there’s an enormous commitment gap between watching Sportscenter and stockpiling sports iconography, especially in a saturated environment like Fan Expo. The guests arrive ready to spend hundreds of dollars, but that money is often earmarked for higher priority purchases.
“Guys that are into comics are usually not traditional card collectors,” said one card dealer. Sales were almost uniformly below what you’d expect based on foot traffic, particularly when measured against the takes they would expect at a sports convention.
“Speaking strictly as a card dealer, you’re probably better off at a card show by itself,” said one trader. A sea of 100,000 only makes the process more complicated.
“The lineups [this weekend] were around the block,” said a vendor specializing in signed baseball bats, hockey sticks and other equipment. “Some of the sports people don’t want to wait.”
Yet despite the disappointment, the vendors were cautiously optimistic about the future prospects of the show. Many plan to return to Fan Expo in 2014.
“It’s like any business. It takes a little bit of time to build it up, and any show deserves a chance to grow,” explained a card salesman. “Dealers tell other dealers. Customers tell their friends. After two years it gets a name and everybody wants to come to the show.”
“This is a brand new card show,” he continued. “It just happens to be taking place at the same time as this comic con.”
That seemed to be the prevailing business attitude around the north hall. The vendors didn’t need everyone to purchase a Wayne Gretzky rookie card in order to make money. They merely need to ensure that a small portion of those 100,000 guests come for the sports first and the sci-fi second.
“A lot of the people that are actually buying stuff bought things from us before,” said one dealer, indicating that the word is getting out.
And believe it or not, the things that make Fan Expo fun for nerds – costumes, celebrities, panels, and the like – also make it fun for everyone else.
“Sports shows are very basic,” said one trader. “The people don’t dress up. They wear jerseys.”
“We’re having a blast,” he added about Fan Expo. “We’re not used to all these costumes. We don’t know who half of them are, but seeing people having that much fun and being that dedicated is very cool.”
The sports vendors showed up to be a part of the experience, not to change it. You couldn’t ask for more willing participants at a convention like Fan Expo.