The 1970s-1990s – Hobby stores arbitrage and demise

Long before the days of the internet, auction platforms and hobby stores, it was a very simple arbitrage market for collectible shoes, artwork, games, and cards. The market wasn’t efficient at pricing hobbyist collectibles. 

Finding rare cards was difficult, it was only available through newspaper ads, neighbors, acquaintances, and hobby stores. Rarity was empowered by the proximity of where, and how you can buy a product. Baseball cards’ popularity grew in the 1970s – 1990s and spurred the growth for new hobby stores to sell the trendy commodities. It costs very little to produce baseball cards, and it was easy to sell paper cards for a significant profit.

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By the early 1970s, the first professional card dealers emerged

During the dial-up internet era in the late 90s, consumers were not familiar with the internet and suspicious of buying products online. Consumers still trusted a local hobby store over the internet. Hobby stores took advantage of customers’ distrust of the internet products and sell the same merchandise for a much higher price.

There were many times, I paid a premium price at the store over the listed “official card price index” report from hobbyist magazines. It wasn’t easy to buy from the internet, there was no way to confirm or guarantee that the money you paid online was going to honored. It was common for hobby stores to list the same merchandise at higher prices than the market’s selling price.

Over time consumers started trusting online marketplaces like eBay and slowly collectible items became price efficient. Sports card revenues hit their peak in 1991 at $1.2 billion, and the cards were flooding the market. Since then, it has dropped to under $200 million and Hobbyist lost interested in baseball cards. The saturation of hobby stores hit a peak after owners realized there were more baseball cards than they could sell. Hobby stores started looking like junk storage rooms and most baseball cards lost its value. 

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Baseball Cards Liquidation sale

Savvy-experienced store owners who recognize the early demise of their baseball cards quickly sold their entire inventory and stores. The market gave plenty of signals that Baseball and collectible cards were not worth much. The hobby store owners that were smart made it out with a decent profit and shift their attention to the next collectible thing. The new owners who took over the hobby stores were the last ones holding the bankruptcy bag.

Where was Under Armour in 2001?

Before Under Armour became a famous sports brand worn by professional athletes, it was a small business founded in 1996 in my home state, Maryland. Kevin Plank, founder of Under Armour designed shirts to help cool down an athletes body during training. Under Armour clothing was available through a regional mid-size sport’s retail chain called Modells. Modells were also one of the first major retail chains to carry their brand.

I still remembered the moment UA apparel caught my attention in Modells. As soon as you enter Modells, Under Armour was the solitary thing you could look at because it was visible in front. It was situated on the button on the front left entrance and Nike was located near the front right entrance of the store. UA had this skin tight shirt on display that looks hi-tech and innovative. UA shirt was like no other clothing apparel that I have ever come across, the material felt light and smooth. I decided to buy a $40 shirt in 2001 that was worth my entire paycheck for mowing two lawns.

Purchasing an expensive shirt wasn’t the best financial decision, but I felt cool for being the first kid in my neighborhood to have an Under Armour shirt. I did not know anything about Under Armour business model yet, but I knew their shirt pulled in my skinny teen body felt like I transform into a superhero. I felt proud wearing UA gear and shouting “we must protect this house” during basketball games and gym workouts. I was attracted to the brand because the unique logo and the marketing motto “Protect this House”.

The UA business model started out, targeting the male demographic customers. UA is much more than a one trick pony company that sold skin tight shirts. They rapidly expanded their business in over 2,500 retail stores near the end of 2002, and shortly less than a year later it started offering Women’s apparel. In 2005, UA went IPO to expand their brand domestically and introduce more products.

15 years after, I am still wearing the UA shirt to basketball games, this time with a real superhero “Batman Embalm” that cost me over $50 dollars.    I bought more UA apparel and a few pairs of their place, but I am not the only kid anymore to purchase UA gear. There are children all over the world wearing UA and Adults in the gym are challenging my status quo as a superhero with their own UA superhero shirts.

UA grew tremendously and became competitive enough to challenge the sporting apparel industry leaders like Adidas and Nike. Its IPO gained over 800%, turning from a market size of ~ $770 Million to the current valuation of ~$8Billion! In that respect is no doubt, UA became a successful business and a household brand. Early UA investors have tons of earning money over the last decade. UA continues to expand to multiple clothing apparel lines and even introduce hi-tech sport electronics.

The business environment was very challenging in the early 2000s.    On Jan 2002, Kmart became the largest retailer in American history at that time to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By the summer of 2002, US Airways, shared Kmart’s faith and declared Bankruptcy. Many trade names from the early 2000s have disappeared and became irrelevant. Today, many investors and shoppers recognize the UA brand. UA offer products for nearly every major sport and is a world-wide brand. While Under Armour has been wildly successful so far, they are really small compared against Adidas and Nike. Stay Tuned for my next BLOG on learning what is keeping Under Armour, UNDER PRESSURE!