In 2014, I was underemployed and trying to set up at as many card shows as possible to supplement my income. I was driving all over the Midwest for shows, regularly setting up in Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Canton, Dayton, Grand Rapids and Jackson, MI.
All that driving grew tiresome and I was losing money on hotels. I thought there had to be a better way.
There just was not enough shows in the Chicago and Milwaukee area, my home bases, especially on Saturday. After considering creating a show close to home in Illinois, I decided that Milwaukee would be a better option because there were no Saturday shows in Milwaukee and the Gonzaga show was my best show at the time. I had great customers in Milwaukee. My goal was to lure my Gonzaga customers to a second show every month and eliminate my need to travel five, six hours for a show.
When I told my friend Mark Smith about my idea for a Saturday show in Milwaukee, he was all for it and offered to partner on the venture. I Googled event venues and found the Clarion Hotel. I got a price quote from Jeff, the Clarion manager. Mark and I both thought the price was reasonable and booked the Clarion from September through December 2014 for a once-a-month Saturday card show. I scheduled the shows on a date convenient for Mark to drive in from Michigan. Mark and I then split the cost of a large ad in the Milwaukee Journal.
I think we had 20 tables for that first show in September 2014. We were lucky that other dealers liked the idea of a Saturday show in Milwaukee. Well, that first one went according to plan as my regular customers from Gonzaga showed up and purchased cards at the new Clarion show.
Initially, the Clarion was a great venue. The room was usually set up when we arrived. There were classy tablecloths on each table. The venue provided jugs of water. Most of the dealers were vintage dealers. I started to hear some rumblings that there were not enough modern dealers at the show. Yet, my sales continued to be strong.
I booked the Clarion for 2015. Mark and I continued to take out expensive ads in the Journal and we continued to have decent shows. In April or May of 2015, we stopped the ads because they were just too expensive. Attendance dropped without the ads. Prior to the June 2015 show, just about all of the dealers dropped out, including Mark. It was just too far of a drive for Mark to do every month from Michigan.
The June 2015 show was a disaster. I only had about five dealers and 12 tables. I think we only had five or six customers through the door. I was in a tough spot. I thought about cancelling the show but I was on the hook with the hotel for six more months.
Fortunately, I am a very positive person and have experienced failure in the past and have always been able to learn from it and come out in a better place. Failure does not get me down, it gets me angry. I was determined to make this show a success.
I realized that if this show was to survive it would take a little creativity, some extra promotion, and some hard work. I leaned on my experience from various facets of my life up to this point to get this show on the right track.
In the past, I watched many other card-show promoters focus on trying to bring dealers into their shows. John Leary from the Orland show was relentless. If you set up at his show once, he would call you every month until the end of time. I always felt this practice was wrong. First of all, it annoyed the hell out of dealers. If they were interested, they would call John, he did not need to call them.
How do you get dealers interested in a show? Harassing them is definitely not the way to go. The answer is simple -- customers. Dealers will set up when there are customers in the room. I needed customers.
To bring in customers my first thought was doughnuts. Yes, doughnuts. I learned at my old job in the law department for the Illinois Secretary of State that fellow employees always attended meetings when doughnuts were present. I thought I could get customers to attend the card show if I gave away doughnuts -- it worked at the meetings, why not at the card show?
So I advertised free doughnuts for the July 2015 show at the Clarion. The doughnuts not only brought in customers, it brought me a few more dealers. The doughnuts were a hit! The July show was as big improvement on June. I was on my way!
While set up at the Fort Wayne show around this time, promoter Brian Mayne explained to me how he used social media to bring customers into his show. Upon Brian's recommendation, I immediately started a Facebook page for the show. I also began blogging more about the show. Folks noticed my Facebook page and my blog. Attendance at the show continued to grow. More dealers followed.
Then I remembered some things from my former life as a journalist and newspaper publisher. From 1994 to 2001, I operated a free bi-monthly newspaper in Chicago called the Barfly, a guide to the Chicago bars. It was distributed free to 700 bars and restaurants in Chicago. I made my money by selling advertising. Like my card show, my bar publication started out small and grew and grew. Hundreds of bars advertised in my newspaper. I recalled one tool that the bars used to bring in customers which was the "anniversary party." The yearly anniversary parties were always a hit for the bars, so I decided that the September 2015 show at the Clarion would be my first anniversary party where I would give away doughnuts and pizza.
The June 2015 disaster became a mere memory as that September 2015 show was packed. I ordered pizzas from the hotel which were devoured as soon as they were placed out. I took note that baseball-card-show customers liked free pizza.
Then I thought I would go a little Bill Veeck and create themes. I held a Halloween party at the October 2015 show and gave away Halloween themed cupcakes. For the November 2015 show, in honor of Thanksgiving, I gave away turkey sandwiches. For the December 2015 show, I gave away ham sandwiches in honor of Christmas. Crowds and dealers appeared and everyone loved the themes.
Not only was I getting more customers and dealers but there was a great vibe to the show. Everybody who set up and attended all seemed to be really enjoy themselves. I definitely hit on something good.
Mike, who had a card shop in Lake Geneva and who has a relationship with many Illinois and Wisconsin former professional athletes, approached me at one of the early 2016 shows and asked if I wanted former Packer Gilbert Brown to sign at the show. YES!
Mike brought in Gilbert to the May 2016 show. Me and Gilbert pictured below. Man, Gilbert Brown could not have been nicer. I remember that Gilbert bought some cards from dealer Robin Gentilini. That was so fun! Robin and I still talk about it!
By my second anniversary show in September of 2016, I had dealers from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. I got wise and ordered many more pizzas from the hotel. I also made an extra effort to get the word out about the second anniversary show. My efforts paid off with a packed house and a visit by the local Milwaukee CBS affiliate. A reporter interviewed me on camara!!
I also have to mention some dealers who were such great supporters of the show back in those days like Gary George, Jerry K., Larry Larsen, PJ, Bill Nest, Mike Johnson, Dennis Barrett, Alex Rauter, Dave Kania, Roger Baehr and Scott Ziegert. You guys rock! Thank you so much!!
I need to mention some collectors that have been great supporters since the early days as well like Mark, Jim K., Barry, Jack, Stan Atkinson, George, Larry, Jerome, State Farm Dave, Jim, Larry and Carol. Thank you guys!
The year 2017 started out with a bang as the Milwaukee ABC television affiliate mentioned the show on their morning program. We were packed!! Photo below is from the January 2017 Clarion show.
The Third Anniversary show was a grand success in September of 2017. I gave away eight pizzas, three boxes of doughnuts and four boxes of cards. In October of 2017, I once again gave out Halloween cupcakes.
With rising popularity, came more work. I had to deal with many more dealers, some needed their hands held. My work situation changed and I went from being under employed to overly employed. I was crazy busy and losing my mind. I thought about cancelling the show again because it had become so much work and I was spending more weekends at my real job and attending fewer shows.
The thing that kept me going was all the great and regular compliments from both dealers and customers. It is nice to be appreciated. I succeeded in creating a really fun show. I brought out free turkey sandwiches for November and ham sandwiches for December. That food made everyone so happy! It was so cool to see!!
Pictured below is the December 2017 Clarion show.
New management came in and disrupted everything. I forget the name of this young punk of guy who thought his shite didn't stink. He was the new manager of the Clarion which was getting ready to change its name to the Four Points Sheraton. Punk jacked up my rental rate. He gave me a new contract which forbade outside food. I could no longer bring in doughnuts, coffee, cupcakes, sandwiches and pizza -- the things that really saved the show and made it popular. Punk wanted me to buy food from the hotel at 10 times the price. Who did he think I was -- John D. Rockefeller?
Well, I'm no Rockefeller. I was not making any money on the show. I charged dealers next to nothing to set up. There was no admission fee. I spent my own hard-earned dollars on advertising, food and cards that I gave away. I was happy to give this stuff away because people really appreciated it. It gave the show a festive atmosphere, unlike any other show. Everyone was happy, except the punk that took over managing the hotel.
I started to explore other venues but signed the new crappy contract for 2018 as I had no prospects for a new venue. This new guy and new situation sucked so bad. The show was doing so well! The year 2017 had been the best so far! Going into 2018, I was nervous. Would anyone attend if I didn't give away food?
Despite the punk, 2018 started off well. I no longer brought out doughnuts but gave out more packs of cards.
Pictured below is the May 2018 Four Points Sheraton show.
The district manager was a dick. His first words to me were a flat out lie. He said the hotel was never going to cancel my June show. I told him we could litigate that issue. His tune changed and he advised that we move the show to the restaurant and bar. Wow! Great idea, genius!
So the June show went on without a hitch. Good number of dealers and a nice crowd. Pippi presented me with a new contract which stated the hotel could cancel my show at any time without any notice. I threw Pippi's contract into the garbage. We still had a binding contract for the remainder of 2018. I was not changing any of the terms.
The shows remained strong in 2018. For the first time, I had to turn dealers away. In August, I met a new manager at the hotel. Pippi was gone. I asked the new manager if I could renew my contract for 2019. That was a hard no. So the hunt was on for a new location.
I spotted one potential spot as I drove home, going south on Howell, the Salvation Army Community Center. I decided to call the Salvation Army after Scott Ziegert recommended it and told me that his daughters participated in sports leagues there. I called and talked to Mark at the Sal. We easily worked out the details and a contract was signed. New location easily found. Sayonara Four Points Sheraton. I knew that after four years of renting space at the Clarion/Sheraton, my card show was the only regular event at the hotel. In addition, the hotel got great exposure through my show as attendees saw the event space and some rented space for their events. It will never make any sense as to why they messed with me and kicked me out. Their loss!
The November 2018 Four Points Sheraton Show was the largest to date. Management changed again, this time the new hotel manager was our own Mike Mahan, who regularly set up at the show. The last two months at the Four Points Sheraton were a breeze thanks to Mike.
Pictured below is the November 2018 Four Points Sheraton show.
I was really sad at that December 2018 show. It had been a wild four years. The show almost died several times but it and I perservered. I had grown accostomed to my routine at the Clarion/Four Points. I was not sure what was in store for the future. The June 2015 show is forever cemented in my mind. I was concerned that now that I had worked so hard to establish the show at the Clarion/Four Points, would dealers and customers follow me to the Salvation Army?
HELLO SALVATION ARMY COMMUNITY CENTER!
I took January off for a much-needed respite. First show at the new venue was in February of 2019. From the beginning Mark and everyone at the Salvation Army worked as my partner. What a nice change from the Four Points Sheraton. That first show in February 2019 was a MONSTER show! Oh my. I was flooded with dealers and customers.
Pictured below is my amazing friend Larry Larsen at the very first Salvation Army show in February of 2019.
The growth of the show has presented all sorts of new problems but I seem to be able to tackle them all. The Sal provides a concession stand which is just awesome! We started out in the Fellowship Hall behind the gym and have grown to encompass Fellowship Hall, the gym, the Game Room and the Front Hallway. I may expand into the chapel.
In April of 2022, I started to charge a $1 admission to the show and donate the entire admission take to the Salvation Army. Also, all of the concession stand proceeds go to the Sal.
We are truly partners and work amazingly well together. I have held various fundraisers over these past four years to help support various Sal programs. They are a tremendous organization and have treated me like a prince. I am so appreciative. Mark is family. I love that guy!
I am so amazed at how the show has grown and continues to grow.
Only hiccup was the Pandemic. The pandemic was a crazy experience for me and the show. The Sal shut down the show from April 2020 through September 2020. I did not fight them on it and actually agreed that it was the right thing to do. This COVID business has been scary. I have known three people that have died from it. I have had it twice and it sucks!
During the shut down, I checked in regularly with Mark to see when we could restart the show. In September, Mark told me the higher ups from the Sal met and came up with some terms and restrictions for restarting the show in October of 2020. Obviously, everyone had to wear a mask. We placed all of the dealer tables six-feet apart to encourage social distancing. We limited all the dealers to just two tables max. I was fine with all of these restrictions but dealers and customers were not, so the headaches began.
Five months with no show drove me nuts. I was willing to do just about anything to get the show back up and running. I hated having to police the show once we restarted but I was worried it would get shut down. It was a battle.
Prior to the Pandemic, we had our largest show to date in March of 2020, the show was on a roll! The show slowly returned to its former glory by the end of 2020. Then in January of 2021, the show exploded. I don't have official numbers but we easily had well over 1,000 people attend that January 2021 show. Oh my!
Yet, I still think of June of 2015 when nobody came out to the show. Each month I am still worried, to this day, that nobody is going to attend. Silly, really. My phone has been ringing off the hook for table space. I had to institute a wait list that grew to 70. I am still battling that wait list. In April of 2022, when we started to accept that admission fee, we finally had some numbers on attendance. April and May of 2022 saw more than 600 people attend the show. The last show in August of 2022 had about 500 people.
The show is alive and well and continues to morph and grow. I don't bring out any food because we have the concession stand. Though, I cannot afford to provide food for 600 to 1,000 people any way. I stopped giving away packs of cards when attendance took off last year but have restarted my giveaway.
We have autograph guests every so often like Dave Robinson, Dorsey Levens and Don August.
I am in shock and awe every month at the show. I can't believe the number of dealers. I can't believe the amount of people that attend the show each and every month. I can't believe that the people at the Salvation Army are so incredibly nice!
The show is a machine now. There is a ton of work but it has become routine. Funny that I started the show as a way to sell cards. I never anticipated that the show would grow so large that I would be unable to sit at my table and sell cards, which is the only downer. I probably need to start collecting table fee in advance, so I don't have to spend all day visiting 90 dealers to get table fee.
I am still the cheapest table fee around. Most shows charge double my fee. I have thought about raising dealer table fee but everything is so perfect, I am afraid to change anything. There is the old saying, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
I also like that my low fee makes it possible for anyone to set up. If you set up and don't sell any cards, you are out a big 25 bucks. Unlike the Merriville, Indiana, show last weekend where I spent $200 on table fee and hardly sold any cards. I don't want anyone to face that kind of situation. I don't want the dealers stressed out. I want everybody to have a good time, which has always been my bottom line. This is a fun hobby, let's have some fun!
I gotta thank everyone who reads this blog, everyone who sets up at the show, everyone who attends and everyone from the Salvation Army. You all are just too good to me and I really, really appreciate you!
There was a father at the last show, who thanked me profusely. He attended with his son for the first time and they had a great time. I hear this regularly, which is why I continue to operate the show after eight hard years. I've booked the Sal for 2023. Let's celebrate the eighth anniversary of the show on September 3 and celebrate our hobby and each other at that Sept. 3 show and each and every month thereafter!
Love you all! - Tony
Fat Daddy's Sports Card Show is held the first Saturday of every month at the Salvation Army Community Center, 8853 S. Howell, in Oak Creek, WI.
Next show is September 3, 2022, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.