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April 2005
Coining a New Fan Favorite
By Heather Head

Jeff Gordon fans are craving something new this year, and only certain special children are getting it. At each race, Gordon hosts a small number of children from the Make-a-Wish foundation, and to each child he gives a unique, highly coveted SportCoin stamped through with his car number and boasting his signature in relief. Only 150 of these coins have been made, and the only way to get one is for Jeff Gordon himself to hand it to you. This is the business of SportCoins, Inc.

 

The Coin Makes Sense

The idea for the coins themselves took root on the soil of the U.S. Air Force Base Ramstein, in Germany. Larry Camp, owner of sports marketing and PR firm Camp and Associates, was touring the base with Richard Childress, Mike Wallace, and several other big names in the NASCAR industry. Toward the end of the tour, says Camp, the base commander handed Childress a coin with his insignia stamped on it. Childress turned to Camp and said, “These are neat. We ought to do these.”

Coincidentally, Camp had already tossed the idea around with another associate, U.S. Marine Corps’ Derek Campbell, who had suggested creating a coin for one of Camp’s marketing clients, Raybestos Corporation. Initially, the idea had foundered.

But now with Childress behind the concept, Camp immediately picked it up again. “Richard Childress is the most prolific car owner at this time in NASCAR,” he explains. “If he thinks this is neat, this will work.”

On the plane from Ramstein, Camp pulled out a scratch pad and wrote a business plan. Meanwhile, back in the states, Campbell was also still contemplating the idea, and the day after Camp returned from his tour, Campbell called and requested a meeting.

Campbell pushed across the table a coin he and Gregg Yetter had commissioned for their small racing team. “What do you think about that?” he asked.

“I reached into my briefcase,” says Camp, “and pulled out the coins I had collected in Europe, and I laid them out and threw the business plan up on the table. And I said, ‘Quite honestly, Derek, I think a whole lot about it.’”

 

Circulating Excitement

It is no accident that the idea arose on a military base. The military has a long tradition of what it calls the “challenge coin.” The story goes that during WWI, a wealthy lieutenant had bronze medallions struck for each of his men to carry. Shortly thereafter, one of his pilots was captured in enemy territory and stripped of all identification except the medallion.

The pilot eventually escaped to France but was about to be executed as a spy due to his lack of identification. Fortunately, the medallion convinced his new captors of his friendly intentions, and he was eventually returned to his squadron. Thereafter, it became traditional for all members of the squadron carry their medallions at all times.

Like many military traditions, the concept has wide application for the civilian world, from sports to corporate, and that is where SportCoins, Inc. comes in. Realizing their idea had potential, Camp, Campbell, and Yetter, along with Todd Headington, owner of MTM Honor Coins, a company that makes challenge coins for the military, began laying the groundwork for what they felt confident would be the hottest new trend in sports collectibles.

Headington had researched mints around the world, searching for the highest quality coin available at a reasonable cost, and chose a mint in China for use by his company. The resultant coins are pleasingly heavy, deeply embossed, artistically enameled, and carefully hand-finished. Possible colors, shapes and designs are limited only by imagination, and the mint can produce medallions up to 5 inches in diameter.

Camp brought his NASCAR connections to bear, obtaining licenses for all of the NASCAR owners, drivers and teams, and promoting the idea among his clients and connections. He had personal coins produced for Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Robby Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and many other top drivers.

Additionally, the team generated buzz at a grass roots level by designing and issuing personal coins for several of the big rig drivers who haul racing equipment around the country for NASCAR. With custom artwork depicting each driver's CB “handle” (the nickname a person uses for CB communications), and the quality and heft of a true SportCoin, the medallions were an instant success.

The second week after the lucky drivers received their coins, Debbie Weller called Camp from Freightliner and said she wanted coins for all of her drivers too. Those coins were delivered in January, and were so popular they caused problems at Daytona a few weeks later.

“When I got there,” says Camp, “the NASCAR officials came to me and said, ‘You realize you’ve created quite the uproar. We couldn’t get the darn trucks parked because the drivers were all jumping out exchanging coins with one another.’”

 

Casting the Die

Camp compares the multitude of applications for the SportCoin concept to many arms and legs. “It has so many legs it’s like an octopus,” adds Matt Lewis, the sales director SportCoins brought in to try and make use of all those appendages.

Besides the SportCoins available at souvenir stands, medallions can be offered as incentives to purchase goods. For instance, a beer company might advertise the presence of a special coin in 100,000 cases of beer to spur sales. Or they can be used as incentives for auto parts sales people to promote a particular brand, for instance by offering a collector's set to anyone reaching a set sales goal.

The medallions can be used in corporate settings as awards and incentives. Already, Coca-Cola uses the medallions to recognize their “SPARC Award” winners. In fact, when approached by SportCoins early on, Coca-Cola immediately warmed to the idea, and uses the medallions in several applications, most notably to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Coca-Cola 600 race last year. The commemorative coins, of which there were only 1300 struck, were the first corporate coins minted by SportCoins in a commercial application.

Because the coins can be turned around from design to mint in less than a month, they lend themselves well to commemorative applications for specific events, such as race victories and other accomplishments.

And since the coins can be minted in limited quantities and even numbered sequentially, their value can be controlled and enhanced, and they can be used for many high-end products as well. For instance, SportCoins has partnered with an artist to produce lithographs of drivers. Below the lithograph they display a coin, split in two to show both sides, with the driver’s name, the year, and his accomplishments. Each lithograph is sequentially numbered, matching the sequential number on its coin.

The coins can be used for wine labels, as is being done by Childress Vineyards, or key chains, or hood ornaments. And that just begins to scratch the surface of possibility.

 

Striking Gold

All of this is good news for the Charlotte area where SportCoins is headquartered. Camp, who is majority partner, intends to remain headquartered here, although he also envisions satellite locations in New York, L.A. and Nashville. Currently SportCoins employs only four, but Camp expects that number to grow quickly.

Eventually, says Lewis, the company will have licenses and sales staff for all the major sports, as well as staff for corporate, retail and other applications.

And while SportCoins can expect some competition, it will be hard for anyone to get an edge on them. They have an exclusive agreement with their mint in China, which built a new factory just to meet the demand from SportCoins, and already they have licenses for all of the major NASCAR teams. Meaning: more jobs, more revenue, and more opportunities for growth for the Charlotte region.

Camp created his own coin with his personal logo and favorite quote. “I can speak to the fact that when I look at my coin, it gives me a lot of pride,” he says. “And Mike Wallace, when I delivered his coin to him, he took it out of the pouch and he looked at it and he flipped it over, and he turned to one of the people with him and he said, ‘You’re the first to get my coin.’ And the look on his face, and the twinkle in his eye, said he had a coin that represented him, and he felt good about that.”

Consider also the millions of people who collect state quarters, despite the likelihood that they will never appreciate significantly. There is something uniquely beautiful and important about coins, something deep in the human psyche that makes us crave them.

Says Camp, “There are gonna be a lot of people for a long time who will collect these coins.”

Perhaps that's why Beckett Racing magazine calls SportCoins the “next fan favorite.” For decades diecast cars have been hailed as the “fan favorite” collectible, but some experts believe SportCoins may vie for that position. Beckett Racing, which publishes a list of trading cards and diecast cars along with market values, has for the first time in its history added an additional collectible category just for SportCoins.

And although personal coins and corporate coins are usually not available for sale, fans can obtain certain driver coins, race coins and commemorative coins at souvenir stands. For $19.95, the coins represent a good value to souvenir seekers, considering that they would spend the same amount for a hat or a t-shirt.

And if that’s not enough to satisfy the craving, for about $1,000 you can have 200 of your own personal coin designed and minted. And that’s a deal your fans will really flip for.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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