Sports Viewers: the new baseball card? Baltimore start-up firm hopes that fans will collect the gadgets


Can collecting pictures of baseball players inside tiny viewers stir even half the passion of collecting baseball cards?

Christian Kirby, Diana Shade and Stephen Farley hope so.

The three are principals of Baltimore-based Sports View Inc. The new company manufactures and markets color slides of popular Major League Baseball players -- such as Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan and Dwight Gooden -- inside a telescopic viewer imprinted with the player's team logo.

The $2.95 viewers, which have been rolling into area stores this week, also carry a selection of players who have been inducted )) into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sports View's goal, says Mr. Kirby, is to penetrate the retail market, eventually selling sports viewers in stadiums, novelty shops, candy stores and sporting goods shops across the country. The company also wants to expand its product to carry National Football League and National Basketball Association players.

"We want to sell everywhere that baseball cards sell," says the 26-year-old Baltimore native and designated spokesman of the firm. "In five years, I fully expect that we will be the second-most collected [sports] novelty after baseball cards."

Mr. Kirby's aspirations are no doubt lofty. The sale of new baseball cards last year was approximately $400 million, according to Baseball Update & Marketing Report.

But some things do seem to be going the fledgling company's way.

Sports View convinced Major League Baseball Properties and the Major League Baseball Players Association to license its product -- giving Sports View access to player photos and official team logos and the only rights to its new viewer concept.

And officials at Memorial Stadium are debating whether to make a stadium version of the viewer a giveaway for the last several home games of the season in the 33rd Street park. That deal could mean the sale of 50,000 viewers.

Sports View is negotiating the same type of arrangement with the Chicago White Sox. The viewer would feature a photo of the old Comiskey Park and would be given away at the new Comiskey Park, which is in its first season.

But despite its successes, Sports View is having trouble hitting home runs with the large retailers around the country that could help make the young company's dreams come true.

The larger retailers Sports View has contacted -- Wal-Mart, Royal Farm and Southland Corp., to name a few -- have said they are resistant to untested items, Mr. Kirby says.

"Mass merchandisers have become more cautious about new products, especially with the recession and all the bankruptcies," says Pete Shinnamon, one of Sports View's sales brokers for Virginia and Maryland.

Shinnamon & Associates is one of the more than 20 sales brokers around the country distributing the Sports View memorabilia to retailers.

Sports View can't afford market research that could prove or disprove the sales value of Ben McDonald in a telescopic viewer, says Mr. Kirby. Start-up costs for the company were roughly $100,000, a good chunk of the three founders' savings, he says.

A&A; Candy on South Broadway sold roughly 70 percent of its initial shipment of 1,000 sports viewers last August when the product first made a limited debut toward the end of the baseball season.

"That's sort of middle-of-the-road," says A&A;'s proprietor, Brian Deverling. "The packaging was different then. It was packaged in a chintzy plastic [bag], and it was hard for customers to justify paying $3 for it."

Sports View took Mr. Deverling's tip and this year mounted the viewers on a cardboard backdrop with the baseball association logos and information about the product on the back.

One big lesson Sports View has learned is that the manufacture and marketing of a collectible sports product riding on the popularity of individual players carries with it huge risks.

For instance, Darryl Strawberry, Dave Parker and Glenn Davis were to be featured for this year's viewer collection. But Mr. Strawberry was traded to the Dodgers from the Mets; Mr. Parker from the Angels to the Brewers; and Mr. Davis from the Astros to the Orioles.

"Suddenly, we couldn't use their photos anymore. We had to get new photos in new uniforms and have the viewers made up. That can take months," Mr. Kirby says.

But Mr. Kirby said he believes that the product will sell. "People are going to get excited about these," he said. "Kids will start to trade and collect them."

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