Free Comic Book day has become an annual event in my household. Every year my kids look forward to heading down to Curious Comics and grabbing a few free books in the process. They bring them home, read them a few times, share with each other and by the time the next Free Comic Book Day rolls around, the covers are loose from the staples if they haven't come off entirely already.
The scene at the store is the same every year: large crowds. Sure, many are there for the freebies. But they're handed out at a table just outside the shop itself. Inside the store, it's busy too -- many people making purchases. Needless to say, it's marketing done right.
And with a growing history, it's branding done right as well. With a growing number of kids comics, backed up by growing all-ages sections in a lot of comic stores, it's clear that the comics industry is reaching new, young readers. In the process, they're developing another generation that should carry comics and the form into the future. Is Free Comic Book Day solely responsible? No. But it is helping.
So why isn't there a Free Sport Card Day or Free Trading Card Day?
Yes, Upper Deck has its Free Hockey Card Day that offers packs of cards, no strings attached. And Panini has its Black Friday, Father's Day and other similar programs. But those are incentives to get people to buy product. Similarly, Topps has things like Spring Fever where some shops give packs away for free while others require a purchase.
All these are great in their own right, but they're all targeting specialized markets. Free Trading Card Day needs to be a collective effort that brings together all the manufacturers and all the major sports. Some other sports and entertainment would be great too.
But in a world of exclusive licenses, would card makers want to?
They should. Although Topps has the exclusive MLB license, Upper Deck can benefit from excitement in baseball cards. Likewise, Topps can exist in a world where Panini has an NBA exclusive and Upper Deck is the only NHL card maker.
Every card shop I've been to might have a majority of hockey (that's Canada) but they've also had some baseball, football and basketball in some form.
Likewise, I know few collectors who are monogamous with the sports they collect. And even those who claim to be going steady with baseball seem to cheat every now and again with a pack of football or hockey blaster.
For a Free Sports Card Day to work, all the manufacturers are going to have to cooperate to a certain extent. First, they're going to have to agree to participate. It wouldn't even take all of the major manufacturers to kick it off. My guess is that if a couple launch it, the others will follow just to keep up or save from having to answer why they backed out.
Next, you need a date. With so many exclusives in sports now, this might be tricky. Each has their marquee event or time frame that the card makers and leagues would likely want catered to. But this is a greater good sort of thing so not everyone is going to be fully happy with the date. There isn't something like the launch of the summer movie season like there is with comics.
With a lot of shops selling both cards and comics, maybe you piggyback off of their promotion, at least as a launching point.
But if you're building to the greater good then there has to be some compromise. Where do sports overlap? There's the spring when baseball is hitting its stride, hockey and basketball are in the post-season and football is having its draft. There's also the fall when baseball is wrapping up, football is going full tilt, and basketball and hockey are kicking off.
In a perfect world, maybe the compromise is two Free Trading Card Days. Have one set launch early and update it later on. But I'm getting ahead of myself. At this point, I'd be happy with one group effort.
Maybe to make it work it'll take the collective power of the distributors to make it happen. That's how it's coordinated in comics with Diamond Comic Distributors handling it.
Think About the Kids
Topps, Panini and Upper Deck have all been public in their desire to reach more younger collectors. While some small inroads might be happening, it's still at a grassroots level. There is a real danger than in 20 years (and I think that's a generous estimate) that the current collecting base is going to be moving on (either getting rid of their collection or passing away and their family will be getting rid of it).
Yes, there are kids collecting cards today but it doesn't look to be in any sort of sustainable amount like comics are seeing.
A Free Trading Card Day isn't going to solve that problem, but it certainly won't hurt it. It gets cards into potential collectors' hands. It will get kids opening packs of cards. Chances are some are going to have some fun doing it.
More importantly, it helps bring cards into the mainstream again. As a parent, I'm happy to take my kids somewhere for a sample. Sure, I read comics too so I'd be going to Free Comic Book Day whether they wanted to join me or not. But there I was at Toys 'R' Us last weekend hanging around so they could build a tiny little LEGO set and get a free pack of Shopkins.
Okay, Adults Like Free Cards Too
And Free Trading Card Day need not only be about kids. It's a way to thank existing customers and maybe bring back some who may have collected in the past and left the hobby for some reason. There's a lot of nostalgia in cards and that's something that never fully dies. So even the most disenfranchised who stop collecting might be willing to try it again just for the experience of the rip again.
Just like they do now with Free Hockey Card Day, Black Friday and any other industry event, smart shop owners are going to use such an event to their advantage. They're going to add to the atmosphere. Sales, breaks, athlete signings -- all could be used to capitalize on an influx of customers.
It's marketing. Without it, a shop might be able to do okay. But if you want to grow and thrive, it takes a lot more than unlocking a door in the morning.
Invariably, there will be dealers who take advantage of such a promotion and sell their Free Trading Card Day cards rather than sharing the love. I'd venture to say that shops like those probably won't last long. And even if they do, they're not going to grow.
But rather than focusing on what hasn't worked in the past, I'd rather see the leagues, card manufacturers, shops and everyone else in the hobby look past excuses and come up with solutions. Just like Free Comic Book Day, it'll never be perfect. Shops sell those comics too. But that doesn't stop the majority of them from capitalizing on the event to build long-term business rather than a small short-term gain.
I don't have all the answers. At this point, nobody does because I don't see anyone coming together. But that doesn't stop me from wondering why every year I can go to the comic store for freebies (which never end up being free because we make a point of always buying something as a way of saying thank you and supporting the shop) and fun but not to the card store for something that's all encompassing.