The National Sports Collectors Convention at the Atlantic City Convention Center. Thursday, August 4, 2016. (Viviana Pernot/ Staff Photographer)

Viviana Pernot

ATLANTIC CITY — Luring a sports-collectors convention back to town 13 years after the group benched the city took some old-fashioned teamwork.

It also illustrated how the city has come to chase noncasino business and attractions in the years since Atlantic City lost its gambling monopoly on the East Coast.

The National Sports Collectors Convention ran from Wednesday through Sunday at the Atlantic City Convention Center, drawing big-name stars and a record-setting sale of a rare Wayne Gretzky rookie card for $465,000.

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“Back in 2003, the casinos didn’t need us. There was no reason to bring another event to Atlantic City in the summertime,” said John Broggi, NSCC’s executive director.

This time was different.

Officials from Meet AC — the city’s convention bureau — followed the group around the country to several annual conventions, trying to convince them to give the city another chance, he said. The attraction for the city was a projected attendance of near 30,000 people filling 4,600 hotel room-nights.

“That’s a great piece of business for Atlantic City — for any city, for that matter,” said Gary Musich, Meet AC’s vice president for sales.

The NSCC wouldn’t give a count on how many people showed up at the convention, but Broggi said it ranked in the top five of an event that just finished its 37th year.

Thirteen years ago, attendance “fell flat” on an August weekend, he said.

“The room rates were over $500 a night (in 2003), there was no such thing as EZPass, and the Garden State Parkway was two lanes almost the entire length,” he added, giving some of the selling points that Meet AC used to make their case for a return visit.

Adding conventions and nongambling attractions has become an increasingly important segment of Atlantic City’s tourism industry after Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New York opened casinos that siphoned away gamblers.

Musich credits five hotels in Atlantic City and more outside the city for putting together the room blocks the convention could offer to lure visitors.

“You have to do it as a team. You have to do it as a destination,” he said. “It’s everyone doing their little piece.”

The NSCC lets its exhibitors vote on where they have the annual show. But the next opening is in 2020, and Broggi said Monday he’ll recommend that the show come back to Atlantic City that year because of the changed atmosphere he found this year.

“Having the ability to be in Atlantic City in the summer and having casinos welcoming us and helping us was new,” he said.

But the sports collectors and dealers might never have found out about Atlantic City’s new attitude if Meet AC hadn’t been so persistent and “literally tracked us around and tried to make sure we knew the changes that had taken place,” Broggi said.

Mike Reynolds, a national account director for Meet AC, did a lot of that traveling. He says the campaign went on for close to five years.

“I got on a plane and went out to see them in Chicago. I went to see them in Cleveland,” he says.

And at least at the start, “they were very resistant,” Reynolds added, but he kept emphasizing “how important they were to us and how we wanted their business.”

To show that in action, the Meet AC staff also got together with people from the collectors convention and worked out marketing efforts that included banners and advertising on digital message boards in the city.

Musich adds that the NSCC also stepped up its own marketing in its prime target areas, including Philadelphia, New York and North Jersey. And some of the star attractions helped in those latter areas — the show included an appearance by dozens of members of the Super Bowl-winning 1986 New York Giants.

The convention got an early bonus when the Gretzky rookie card smashed the previous record for a hockey card. The old high had been $75,000.

“Any of that kind of stuff generates interest,” Musich says. “We’ll take all that.”

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