Former NFL player turns side hustle selling Pokémon cards into a job
After six years of playing as a linebacker for some of the top teams in the NFL, Blake Martinez officially retired in November.
But his post-football career has been anything but routine. Rather than going on to be a sportscaster or another typical career route, Martinez—who was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the fourth round in 2016—has turned his hobby of collecting Pokémon into a full-time, second career.
Martinez, 29, is an avid Pokémon fan who got back into actively collecting the trading cards again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, prior to his retirement, he saw some early success with his sale of a Pikachu card known as “The Swirlustrator” that sold for $672,000.
Riding high on that achievement, Martinez shifted into high gear to build out his own Pokémon empire. The former football player took time away from his latest WhatNot steam to talk to Fortune about his pivot into this unique career path.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you hang up the cleats for a career selling Pokémon cards?
There was a lot that went into the decision to leave the NFL. With my knee injury, I was like football is kind of fading for me, so what is something next I could do?
But since it happened, it’s been a whirlwind. I started BlakesBreaks five to six months ago full-go, having people working underneath me, having the structure where it’s not just me, going on and selling Pokémon cards. Once I retired, it was one of the things that got my full attention.
How did you get into Pokémon trading?
It started when I was like six years old. I would do my chores, collect my allowance, and then go to the local Circle K to buy some packs. Then, about three years ago with the COVID-19 pandemic, prices of trading cards, sports cards, any and every collectible went through the roof. So I thought, I need to check the value of my Pokémon cards. But just like everyone else, my mom gave away my cards in a yard sale or to other kids. So I was like, dang, I’ve got to get back to collecting again.
I started watching on Twitch a couple of streamers who were doing box breaks, where they open up a box of Pokémon cards and then open up the individual card packs for people who bid. You hope to get a hit. So I started to dive back into these. I would buy into these breaks for like $1,000 a pack at the time—it was crazy money. It was fun and exciting, but I wanted to be the one opening the packs.
So I went on eBay and—the worst idea ever, there’s so many fake boxes, fake material out there—I bought two boxes of Pokémon cards for $30,000. It was insane. It was one of those moments where you’re saying: What am I doing? How do I get this money back? Please work out, please work out.
But I ended up doing a box break with it and actually doubled the money. So I made $30,000 in profit off my $30,000 investment. That was a spark of confidence and made me keep wanting to do that. So I started doing it once every two weeks on WhatNot and it just skyrocketed from there.
What’s the business look like today?
It’s been going crazy. I think I spent $6,000 on Pokémon cards to start the business. In the last month, I probably spent $1 million on cards to sell across my whole team. When I retired, it was probably at $1 million in revenue; now we just broke probably $5 million to $6 million in revenue in the last month. We’re probably earning $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue per week.
We buy and sell Pokémon cards. I reached out to Pokémon to get wholesale pricing and distribution, but the waitlist was too long. But they gave me a list of every wholesale distributor, and I took a couple of hours and called every single one. Two distributors accepted my offer to bring me on.
I think of WhatNot as retail entertainment. So we buy packs and then get $8, $10, $20 for opening the pack for viewers. We’re not as focused on trying to find rare cards and sell them. There’s not much risk.
There’s about 25 team members, or “breakers,” spread across Colorado, Florida, and New Jersey. We actually closed on a warehouse in Colorado that has one of our teams located in. We have a new warehouse that we’re moving into in Miami this week, and then we’re in talks to get another warehouse situated in New Jersey.
I look back with my partner and we sit back and laugh because it’s like, did you ever imagine that we’d be spending $1 million on Pokémon cards in two weeks? Nah. I thought it would happen, but not this fast.
Why do you prefer WhatNot?
I actually was blessed in a way. When I went to school at Stanford, I got introduced with people that work in Andreessen Horowitz and got to be really good friends with their family. The way I got introduced to WhatNot, was I got in like a family fund with them. So when I started getting into Pokémon again, they said, “Hey Blake, you should go check out this app, WhatNot—you’re already technically invested with them.”
I’ve been on every other platform, whether it’s eBay or Twitch. Nothing beats WhatNot. They open the card packs live in front of you, so you know if it’s real or not. Whatnot is pretty much the greatest thing that ever happened to me and a bunch of people.
What’s the day-to-day schedule look like for you? How much time do you invest in the business?
My wife would say I’m working 24/7. I typically work 60 to 80 hours a week—spending about 10 hours streaming. But I’m on phone calls 24/7, at least on the phone from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. One nice part about the job is that I work from home. I’m fully remote. I have a stream room at my house. I do go to conventions, which is nice. I’ve been to Hawaii, and I’ll be in Orlando at the end of February and another in New York.
Image courtesy of Blakes Breaks LLC
What’s the biggest challenge in doing this job versus your time in the NFL?
One of the biggest things is getting everyone on the same page. People think anyone can go and sell Pokémon cards successfully. It’s not that easy.
Product management is another challenge. We’re growing so fast, so that’s a challenge. It’s a unique business, but it still has some of the same structure to any business out there.
But I’m making double, if not triple, of what I was supposed to make with the NFL. [Editor’s note: for reference, Martinez earned a base salary of $1.035 million during his last year in the NFL.] When I hurt my knee in 2021, it helped make the choice easier. I can do this job for the rest of my life.
What does your personal collection look like today?
I’m a niche buyer now. I keep it minimal. When you sell a card for $672,000 or whatever it was, it numbs you to other cards. Pokémon held a contest where kids drew and illustrated a card and they got 10 copies. They’re crazy rare and crazy expensive, like $50,000 to $100,000.
But I’m still nostalgic. I have a card that’s worth like $5, but I’ll keep it forever.
Where do you want the business to go?
I’m already looking to become more than just a Pokémon trader, so like an everything trader. We’re in talks with somebody in Canada to start Blake Canada where we sell pretty much everything.
We’re talking about getting a channel made right now, again within WhatNot, that would be BlakesComic. We’re planning to purchase 100,000 comics through a partnership that I closed with DC over the last six months. Hopefully in the next few weeks, we’ll be selling comic books 24/7.
Then also opening BlakeFunko. We’re gonna close with a guy that also lives in Colorado who will run our whole Funko collectibles operation. The five-year plan, I want to hit $100 million in revenue.