Ryan Holland’s first love was baseball. As a 7-year-old, Holland saw his beloved Minnesota Twins win their first World Series championship in 1987. Along with the sheer jubilation of having his favorite team win the title, Holland dove into a hobby that would one day become his vocation: card collecting. Holland, now 41, owns Real Sportscards, a sports trading cards business, located on Champlin Drive off of Highway 169.
Through his youth, Holland’s card collecting was put on hold with other things and activities preoccupying his time, but in 2005, he got back into the hobby. At that point, eBay was just starting to take off, which allowed card collecting to shift mediums. Buying and selling cards became the norm, and Holland soon became enamored with the process. “I really found I enjoyed the wheeling and dealing and the sales cycle of the hobby,” he said.
For the next 10 years, Holland would buy and sell trading cards as a side hustle from his full-time job in the corporate sales world. In 2010, Holland came up with an idea. He would open cases of cards live online for people to watch and see what cards are included in that group. Before YouTube or Instagram Live, Holland would stream his opening on blog.tv and then upload it to Facebook the next day for people to watch.
Then in 2016, with live streaming picking up steam in the mainstream world, Holland officially turned his hobby into a business called Real Sportscards and created a Facebook group with 500-1,000 people from around the country watching Facebook Live streaming of card case openings.
“What Live streaming did was allow people to start collecting together,” Holland said. “Over time, it just became something that was like, ‘Oh wow this is a way that people actually like to collect.’ It was the non-traditional approach back then…we were on the cutting edge. No one was doing it like that.”
WORKING TWO JOBS
All that was happening while Holland still had his full-time corporate job. On a regular day, Holland would work from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and then come home and work to buy and sell trading cards. A lot of days, he would work until late into the night. From his home office, he led about 10 hours a week of live streaming the case openings, all the while sorting, packaging, and shipping the trading cards all by himself.
“I remembered thinking this could actually be a thing and make a business out of it,” he said.
Finally, in 2018, Holland told his wife and family that he was quitting his regular gig to fully pursue card selling. Holland remembers his dad saying he was crazy to do that. But regardless, Holland was all in. “I felt pretty good about the decision to go all-in,” he said. “And it took off from there.”
Holland said in 2019, there was renewed interest in the industry for card collecting, with thousands of collectors getting back into the hobby. Soon, Holland and his six part-time employees began to outgrow his house, and they began the process of looking for a new permanent home.
Early on in 2020, Holland looked for a vacant lot to house his card business and eventually bought the building formerly occupied by Champlin Family Dental on Champlin Drive in February. But one month later, the world would be shaken up due to COVID-19. Even though their remodeling schedule took a couple of months before they planned to open up, they had to wait until restrictions were lifted due to the pandemic.
Holland was disappointed, but in the same breath, knew the online business was booming. With no live sports, which included sports betting or fantasy sports, card collecting became one of the main ways for sports fanatics to stay in the industry. “That was their avenue to sports,” Holland said.
Collectors were pulling out their old collections and the trading market went crazy. “Before COVID [our industry] was growing, but COVID kicked it into overdrive. 2020-2021 has been an absolutely wild ride,” he said.
WHERE THEY STAND NOW
Fast forward to 2021, where Holland and his 11 full-time employees go live 12 hours a day, seven days a week opening up cases and interacting with collectors. They even added a second location in Wisconsin which has six full-time employees.
Inside their Champlin location, Holland wanted to create a casual vibe, with space for people to hang out and watch sports while being immersed in the trading cards. In the back corner of the store, there are lounge chairs with three flat-screen TVs and bar seating for people to enjoy a game, or come together for what Holland calls ‘trade nights,’ an opportunity for collectors to exchange cards with other fanatics.
“We want this to be a community space where people can enjoy the hobby with other collectors,” Holland said.
The industry of card collecting has no doubt changed and changed rather quickly. Some may still think of card shops as a place where antique cards are topped with dust and shoved in boxes. Other collectors are invested in Non-Fungible Tokens, or NFTs, which are digital assets, like videos, photos, etc., that can be collected. But Holland wants to keep the focus on physical cards, without treating the assets like a retail store.
Therefore, Holland designed contemporary-looking display cases, decked out with iconic Minnesota sports figures in the background like Kirby Puckett, Kevin Garnett, and Herb Brooks, for some of the trading cards to be presented.
“The people collecting trading cards still want something tangible that they can hold or put in their safe or display it on a shelf in their office which NFT’s can’t really satisfy,” he said. “We wanted to have this shop more like a gallery honoring these cool collectibles than a retail store. That really resonated to collectors.”
As one of the largest retailers for Topps trading cards in the world, Holland and his team sell on average around 10 million cards a year. People in the trading card industry estimate that there are roughly two million collectors in the country, with that number expected to only increase in the years to come.
For Holland, the biggest challenge is to keep up with the skyrocketing demand for these highly sought-after cards. “There is always more demand for products than we can handle,” he said.
The Facebook group, which began with 500 people, now includes over 18,000 collectors. As a nationwide brand for trading card buying and selling, Holland doesn’t want to lose his roots as a community-based business. “Community is still the most important thing to us, whether it is here or online,” he said. “Maintaining an intimate community when you get very large is a big challenge.”
Some of the goals he has for the short term is to evolve into more of a media company, with live content people can use for sports education and entertainment. The biggest medium he envisions taking a leap is live streaming, where conversations can turn from strictly card collecting, to questions about current sports figures and products, or market dynamics, or card value predictions.
As he looks back on how his hobby has turned into a successful business, Holland still can’t quite believe it turned into what it is today. “I never imagined it becoming this,” he said. “This is way more than we thought it could be. But now, we think it can be way more.”