Ryan Larson of RJ Duke Sports Talks Collecting and Owning a Hobby Shop
Meet Ryan Larson, an avid trading card collector who turned his passion for collecting into the successful ownership of RJ Duke Sports in McKinney, Texas. We chopped it up with Ryan about collecting, his Holy Grail, growing a business in the Hobby, and more for this installment of Collector Stories.
What sparked your interest in sports trading cards, and how did that passion lead to RJ Duke Sports?
It started in 1986 when my grandfather purchased my first pack of baseball cards. I went on to collect for several years, expanding my collection to include football and basketball. I bought most of these cards from my local card shop. I spent many days at that shop, and the owner even let me work there occasionally for some store credit despite only being 13 years old. There were other times when I’d also mow the owner’s lawn for store credit. It was during those early days that the dream formed to one day own a card shop.
What are some of your earliest collecting memories?
I started collecting at age six, getting a pack or two a week. I felt I was building something significant since I had a bigger collection than all my school friends. My collecting ego was inflated until I went to a birthday party for one of the kids on my baseball team who didn’t go to my school. This kid invited us to bring our baseball cards to trade. I roll in my binder full of “highly valuable” cards, such as my Greg Jeffries rookie and other late ’80s and early ’90s superstars. About four or five kids whip out wax boxes of 1989 Upper Deck Baseball cards when I get there. My jaw dropped seeing an entire 36-pack box. I could maybe get a pack of Upper Deck on special occasions – UD was two or three times the cost of a pack of Topps, Donruss, or Fleer. After that, I knew I had my work cut out if I wanted to have the biggest and baddest collection.
How did RJ Dukes get its start?
When online group breaking started taking off in the 2010s, I saw an opportunity to start a side business in the sports card space. In 2018, I purchased a webcam and a couple of wax boxes. My business was solely breaking for the first three years. It started rocky, as I had no wholesale distributor relationships, and purchasing wax at a reasonable price was tricky. On top of that, the revenues were not in a place that would yield consistent profit from each break. I didn’t give up on it, though; breaking became consistently profitable in 2019. Thanks to a Covid layoff in late 2020, I could work in trading cards full time. In 2021, I relocated the company from the three rooms I used in my house to my first location in a tiny 775-square-foot commercial space. It didn’t take long for us to need a larger space. In April 2022, I moved the business to a 1,300-square-foot retail location, where we reside today.
Do you have a particular favorite or a “Holy Grail” trading card?
Certain product release days excite the shop: Topps Definitive Baseball, Topps Heritage Baseball, Topps Chrome Baseball, and Topps Diamond Icons Baseball are my favorite products. I am still working on obtaining a graded 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card (like a PSA 1 or 2) for individual cards. I’ve had a couple of people come to the store and attempt to sell me raw versions, but I didn’t pull the trigger on those cards. The search continues.
Any memorable customer interactions?
The impact of making personal connections with customers in the sports card space is that we create a customer for life. An example of this occurred in 2022 when a customer came in and told us he was getting back into the Hobby after being away for 25 years. We spoke about the differences between today and the late ’90s. Given the vast array of products, he asked me how I could keep up with my collection. I told him I found a niche and only collected to satisfy that more minor need. I focus on a few players. He decided that he only wanted to collect Tom Brady, and he comes into our store weekly to see what new Brady’s are available to purchase or what new wax products are available that include Tom Brady.
How do you keep up with the constantly changing trends and valuations in the trading card market, and how does this knowledge influence how you operate RJ Duke Sports?
Keeping up with the trading card market is now easier than ever. We take in single cards daily from customers, and we typically use eBay or 130point to find comparable recent sales. These sites give us the information to make offers or trades with our customers. Another way we keep track of the market is by using Card Ladder’s data to help us understand which players we should purchase as their stock rises in the card market.
What is the future of collecting, and where does RJ Duke Sports fit in?
The future of this industry is a continuation of the recent past. Card manufacturers will continue to consolidate. More card collectors will attempt to pivot from being a collector to becoming small business owners in the Hobby. Technology will continue advancing in this space, especially in communication, presentation, and security. Our immediate move is to shift our breaking operation from our current platforms to Fanatics Live. As a frequent participant in Fanatics Live, I can see that this platform is state-of-the-art, and I am hopeful that we can start selling our vast assortment of wax products on Fanatics Live soon.