Local sports stores hold strong despite pandemic’s impact on professional seasons

In 2015, the Kunnert family made the decision to close its Dubuque sports merchandise store, Kunnert’s Sports, after 39 years in business.

It was a decision made in the wake of increased competition from chain and online retailers. Kunnert’s once had established itself as the go-to store in downtown Dubuque for sports merchandise. But since the late 1990s, sales were on the decline, and the time of local sports merchandise store had seemingly come to an end.

“We had all this competition that was really hurting our sales,” said former co-owner Pat Kunnert. “The first year Dick’s (Sporting Goods) came to town, our Christmas sales were way down.”

This year, the sports industry is in more upheaval than ever before, with the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altering professional sports seasons and dramatically curtailing in-person attendance of sporting events.

However, for the remaining sports merchandise and memorabilia stores in the area, sales are holding steady, and one business is even gaining yards.

“There’s a lot of loyalty by people to support their favorite sports teams,” said Jake Willey, owner of Superstars of the Game in Worthington, Iowa. “People aren’t spending money by going out and going to games, so they are instead spending that money on buying something like a collectible for their favorite team.”

For years, Superstars of the Game operated as a primarily online retailer of autographed sports merchandise, including jerseys and helmets. That changed when the business opened its first retail location at 2617 University Ave. in Dubuque.

“We felt there was a need for it since it’s not your typical sports shop,” Willey said. “We specialize in signed items, which is something you’re not going to get at a chain. Nationwide, we’re seeing a resurgence of sports card and collectible shops, so it makes sense for us.”

Willey said he intends to give tri-state residents a store in which they can find their prized piece of sports memorabilia from their favorite team, and trends in the industry show interest in such items is increasing.

According to Kenneth Research, global licensed sports merchandise sales are anticipated to increase from $26.5 billion in 2018 to $34 billion in 2023.

While numerous industries experienced drastically declining sales because of the COVID-19 pandemic, local sports merchandise stores said the sales of their products have stayed firm.

“We haven’t noticed a downward effect at all,” said Mike Kieffer, co-owner of Country Crafts & Sports in Galena, Ill. “For the whole store, sales are actually up so far.”

Kieffer said his business started selling sports merchandise about 10 years ago, and since doing so, year-to-year sales have either increased or remained steady. The reason, Kieffer argued, is sports fandom. The businesses selling professional sports merchandise have the advantage of devoted fans wanting something to commemorate their favorite team.

“When they see something with their favorite team, they want it,” Kieffer said. “Fans have a lot of love for their favorite team, and they want some way to show it.”

While the pandemic affected lives in numerous ways, including the capacity to engage with and watch professional sports, sports merchandise sales indicate that the love of these teams hasn’t dissipated.

The remaining local sports merchandise stores face the competition of major chain stores and online retailers. However, Willey said he believes there is plenty of room for local retailers to occupy a spot in the market.

“We’re not really competing with a company like Dick’s,” Willey said. “People want to come and buy something special from their favorite team, and we can offer that.”