Shop Local: Fan Support Pushes Sports Obsession to Expand

NILES, Ohio – During his 14 years at Sports Obsession, manager Andy Agona has dealt with many obstacles, including multiple recessions, staffing issues and most recently, the pandemic.

Funny, he says, that perhaps the biggest thorn in his side has been the Cleveland Browns’ inability to field a starting quarterback for more than a few months at a time.

“At one time, we had four Browns quarterback jerseys on clearance. Four of them,” Agona says, repeating the number to emphasize the ridiculousness of the situation.

The store will soon relocate to a larger space inside the Eastwood Mall.

Since Agona started working at the store inside Eastwood Mall in Niles in 2008, the Cleveland Browns have fielded 23 starting quarterbacks.

“At one point we said we weren’t going to carry them anymore but [Baker] Mayfield kind of changed that,” Agona says.

Sports Obsession carries hats, jerseys and other sports memorabilia for all 32 NFL teams and most other sports teams.

“We specialize in selling everybody’s stuff, not just the local teams,” Agona says.

As such, he says they often have tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise tied up in any individual player at one time. So, when that player gets traded or replaced, as so often happens to Browns players, the store gets stuck with the now-obsolete merchandise sporting the player’s name.

“People come in and ask us why we still have it a month later,” Agona says. “We can’t throw it away.”

Another recent example courtesy of the Browns is former running back Trent Richardson, who the team drafted in the first round with the third overall pick in 2012.

Richardson was traded to the Indianapolis Colts two games into the 2013 season.

“It took until three years ago to sell out of his jerseys. We sat on them for the better part of a decade before we could get rid of them,” Agona says.

In addition to hats and jerseys, which are the store’s best-selling items according to Agona, Sports Obsession also sells collectibles and random items such as steak knives and toothbrushes, and more recently has begun to carry a lot of autographed items.

“Those have been a big hit,” he says.

Sports Obsession started in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 2004 as NASCAR Obsession, selling primarily NASCAR-related items.

But as demand for other sports items increased, particularly football and basketball items, the store made the switch and rebranded itself Sports Obsession.

Owner Brian Bowers opened additional stores in Grove City, Pennsylvania., and Buffalo. The Eastwood Mall location opened in 2007, while the store in Buffalo closed last year.

Agona became aware of the store while he was working as seasonal help at Old Navy in the mall around Christmas time.

Bowers asked him if he would help out at Sports Obsession for a couple days leading up to the holiday and Agona has been working there ever since.

“It’s a good job. It’s fun,” he says.

Heather Allen, like Agona, started working at Sports Obsession part-time during the Christmas season, starting in December 2018.

Like Agona, Allen, a Denver Broncos fan who has been playing fantasy football for 22 years, found the work environment to her liking.

Clerk Heather Allen holds a figurine of her favorite team, the Denver Broncos.

“They’re just great people to work for,” Allen says of Bowers and Agona. “We build friendships. You don’t just come in, punch a clock and go home.”

“When people work here, they work here for a while,” Agona says. “So, we try to find the right person.”

The Eastwood Mall location employs six, but Agona would like to hire at least one more employee, although finding applicants has become more difficult since the pandemic started.

“When you list a job, you don’t get half the applicants you used to,” he says. “It’s been really tough.”

Sports Obsession closed for two months during the pandemic shutdowns in 2020.

During that time, the store built a website, SportsObsession.com, to sell  products online.

“We had no idea how big it would get, and it’s just exploded,” Agona says.

Employees were equally anxious about in-person sales when the lockdowns were lifted and the store reopened.

“We were busier than we’ve ever been,” Agona says, estimating sales in 2021 were up 40% to 50%.  “It was almost not manageable, we were up so much. And it was tough with all the staffing issues.”

Sales have cooled off a bit but remain above average, Agona says.

However, unlike most businesses, Sports Obsession isn’t experiencing lack of product due to supply chain issues.

“We might be the only store around that is completely stocked,” Agona says.

While some individual items, such as some of the knickknacks the store typically carries, have been harder to come by, most everything else has been business as usual.

In fact, the store is overflowing with so much product, Sports Obsession will relocate from its current 4,400-square-foot space to a 7,600-square-foot space inside the mall later this summer.

The space is currently two storefronts that will be converted into a single, larger storefront to accommodate Sports Obsession.

Pictured at top: Andy Agona says there is no shortage of apparel adorned with team brands.

Shop Local is sponsored by PNC and the Eastwood Mall Complex.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.