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updated: 9/4/2020 6:39 PM

Watching people opening trading cards online is actually big business

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  • Chris Keller of Elgin owns Top Shelf Sports Cards and hosts "group breaks" five nights a week that are streamed live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Group breaks involve people buying a slot to split the cost of a case of cards, which is purchased and provided by the host. After a randomized drawing, the cards are split among the people who bought in.

    Chris Keller of Elgin owns Top Shelf Sports Cards and hosts "group breaks" five nights a week that are streamed live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Group breaks involve people buying a slot to split the cost of a case of cards, which is purchased and provided by the host. After a randomized drawing, the cards are split among the people who bought in.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Chris Keller of Top Shelf Sports Cards in Elgin opens a pack of cards during a group break and finds a Luis Robert card while broadcasting on his YouTube channel, topshelfbreaks.com, Thursday night.

    Chris Keller of Top Shelf Sports Cards in Elgin opens a pack of cards during a group break and finds a Luis Robert card while broadcasting on his YouTube channel, topshelfbreaks.com, Thursday night.
    COURTESY OF TOPSHELFBREAKS.COM

  • Newer trends in sports trading cards include not just signatures but also embedded pieces of memorabilia, such as jerseys, bats and helmets.

    Newer trends in sports trading cards include not just signatures but also embedded pieces of memorabilia, such as jerseys, bats and helmets.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Top Shelf Sports Cards in Elgin sells sports and movie memorabilia in the store and online, in addition to hosting group breaks of collectible boxes of cards five nights a week that are streamed live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch.

    Top Shelf Sports Cards in Elgin sells sports and movie memorabilia in the store and online, in addition to hosting group breaks of collectible boxes of cards five nights a week that are streamed live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

If watching online gamers on Twitch is a bridge too far from your childhood memories of playing Space Invaders on your Atari 2600, then you may not be in to what's happening in the sports trading card world.

A resurgence in trading cards is being fueled, in part, by an experience called "group breaking," and Chris Keller, who owns Top Shelf Sports Cards in Elgin, has been in on the trend that started about a decade ago.

"When we were growing up, we collected our sports cards, and they made them by the tens of millions," Keller said. "You could go in a little shop and buy a hobby box for 20 to 30 bucks and you got 24 packs of cards."

Today, there are fewer licensed companies, and they're making fewer cards. And the boxes now cost hundreds of dollars but guarantee a certain number of autographed or memorabilia cards, which can contain embedded pieces of uniforms or player-used equipment.

"Father and son aren't coming in here and buying two of these," he said.

That's where group breaking comes in.

Five nights a week, Keller sits in the studio at his shop and broadcasts live to an audience that usually numbers 30 to 40 people. Some breakers, as they're referred to, get 10 times that many viewers.

Among those watching are 10 to 15 participants who have purchased shares of a box or boxes that will be opened live on camera. Participants are numbered using a randomizing program, as are the sports teams represented in the box of cards. The numbers are matched up, and the breaker opens the box and sorts through the cards, showing the paying participants what they've purchased.

"Some of these cards are worth thousands, or tens of thousands," Keller said. "It's exciting when I pull a big value card. Last night, I pulled a Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback and first overall draft pick) autographed card, which was worth $2,500 to $3,000."

Keller said he doesn't make any money on the actual broadcasting, just the sales of shares of the boxes to be opened. He sells 50 to 75 boxes of varying sizes and prices every night. That's what makes group breaking such a lucrative sales technique for card shops.

If he sold them as boxes on his store shelves, "each box could sit up there for weeks," he said.

He sells the boxes at the retail price, but now that's divided among the 10 to 15 people involved in the break. So a $600 box of cards, which could collect dust on the shelf, moves a lot easier.

Keller said participants can get in to a break for as little as $10 a spot to more than $500 a spot depending on the box, though his breaks average about $30 to 40 per spot. Participants can buy multiple spots in a break.

He said he'll do $2 million in sales this year just on the group breaking, which makes up 80% of his business.

Keller, who has a background in radio, said he tries to entertain while opening the boxes.

"Breakers are kind of like hosts or DJs," he said. "People sit there all night and watch, and join in with the chat room."

He starts his broadcasts at 7 p.m. and goes as long as the demand is up, sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. Most viewers are on YouTube, but he also broadcasts on Facebook and Twitch. He's been doing it for more than six years.

"It's really taken off," Keller said. "People used to say, 'Who would watch people play video games?' Well, that's what this is right now, but in the early stages."

To check out Keller's group breaks, visit topshelfbreaks.com.