In the Memorabilia Game

The New York Times / Marek Fuchs
Sepember, 2001

Twice a year, Franco Harris leaves his home in Pittsburgh to go to an office here and autograph footballs, photographs and other items.

Mark Messier and Derek Jeter also make the trip, as do dozens of other athletes.

Their destination is Steiner Sports, one of the nation's largest sports memorabilia and marketing companies. Based in New Roc City, the company has 70 employees and expects revenue of $30 million this year.

The company was sold to Omnicon Group last year, but its founder, Brandon Steiner, remains as chairman. He is a man who has made a career out of befriending pro athletes.

"I have spent weekends with Walter Payton, days upon days with Roger Staubach, and Lawrence Taylor stories . . .? I could go on forever," he said. Darryl Strawberry, whom he loves, was at his bachelor party.

Mr. Steiner's entrepreneurial fervor can be measured on the Richter scale and his excitement trickles down to a new venture not involved in the Omnicom deal: Last Licks, a store he co-owns in Scarsdale, which sells ice cream and candy alongside sports memorabilia. With tweaking, he smells another winner.

Though Mr. Steiner, from spiked blond hair on down, seems like no one's employee, he was working as an assistant manager at the Hard Rock Cafe during its heyday in the mid-1980's, when he realized that no one was "paying attention to the athletes." Mr. Steiner began catering to them and friendships were made.

Noticing that agents represented players but no one represented the companies hiring athletes for marketing purposes, Mr. Steiner collected the media guides for every professional sports team. He sent the athletes he knew, in addition to ones in the guides, a survey asking them to detail their likes and life experiences. He received enough responses to start a database.

With it, he offered companies the chance to wed their products to the most suitable athletes.

A recent Steiner Sports product, for example, is a video that was sent to Ford's sales force that opened with rousing clips of Yankees World Series victories. Cut to the team manager Joe Torre, looking straight into the camera and mentioning Ford employees by name, before drawing many parallels between the successes of Ford and that of the Yankees. He spurs them on with the words, "Sacrifice isn't just a bunt."

Mr. Steiner also set his sights on the collectibles business, seeing that there was little organization and no easy way to cull forged signatures or fraudulent items from legitimate ones.

He came up with a systematic process. When Mr. Jeter sat in a Steiner Sports conference room signing 1,000 to 1,500 items (which would sell on the retail market for $250 to $1,500), each one was registered as it was signed. Then Mr. Jeter signed an affidavit attesting to what he had signed, and an auditor from Arthur Anderson & Company confirmed the signing. Only then was a Steiner Sports hologram affixed to the items, certifying their authenticity.

"The fraud probably helps us," Mr. Steiner said, "because there is a credibility about Steiner." Steiner Sports has exclusive deals to create collectibles with the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, U.S.A. Soccer and the United States Tennis Association.

It was to combat forgeries, take advantage of its distribution abilities and "organize this collectible part of myself, which is big business" that Franco Harris, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers, decided to sign items through Steiner Sports.

On a recent day, he signed stacks of photos from his "immaculate reception," which famously won a 1972 A.F.C. Divisional Playoff game in its waning seconds.

"The play just keeps getting bigger and bigger over the years," Mr. Harris said.

As Mr. Harris was signing, Mr. Steiner walked into the conference room. "I know," Mr. Harris said, laughing, motioning to his pen, "I'm the slowest guy in the world."

Mr. Steiner countered, "Oh, I'm sure there are some defensive lineman who would probably say you're pretty fast."

But joking aside, do athletes ever find it peculiar that people are so driven to pay for items they have touched and signed?

Through Steiner Sports, for example, Mr. Jeter signs "game use" items, which means that a pile of Mr. Jeter's sweaty batting gloves, dusty cleats and cracked bats are sent to Steiner Sports to be signed by Mr. Jeter, then sold.

"When I was younger," Mr. Jeter said, "I just collected baseball cards. Now, you use anything and people will collect it. For me, it's a little overwhelming."

Mr. Messier agreed, saying he always finds it incredible that items he owned years ago will be saved by people for so long to be brought to him for an autograph. Mr. Messier grew up in Canada, where the autograph culture wasn't big. Seeing how large it was here was one of his biggest shocks in coming to America more than two decades ago.

Mr. Steiner said that Canada still remains a smaller market. "The Canadian fan base isn't willing to buy collectibles," he said before adding, "and there's some respect you have to give them from that."

Mr. Steiner, however, puts no stock in the conventional wisdom that the younger athletes feel entitled and are hard to deal with. Many, like Mr. Jeter, are the most courteous and accommodating young people he knows. The younger athlete is also "more media savvy, which really helps."

"They understand that they have to accommodate the company they are working with because the athlete is a company themselves," he said. "That's how they think of themselves."

Mr. Steiner added that working with the older athletes is not necessarily easier than working with younger ones.

"Joe DiMaggio was a pain," he said. "Not a nice man. We had our share of debacles with him."

The majority of the relationships he has had, though, have been close, long-lasting and mutually beneficial. And Mr. Steiner never misses an opportunity to expand these relationships.

As he sat next to Mr. Jeter, Mr. Steiner turned to his right and asked the shortstop: "What's your favorite ice cream again?"

"Gold Medal Ribbon from Baskin-Robbins," Mr. Jeter answered.

Mr. Steiner then told Mr. Jeter that he had to come by to see Last Licks, his ice cream store, mentioning the athletes who had seen it. He said that once he tweaks the concept, it was going to be big.

"I mean," Mr. Steiner said, "it hasn't all hit me yet, but you have kids, ice cream and sports. There's something there."

"You just need the vision?" Mr. Jeter teased.

"I have the vision," Mr. Steiner said, making Mr. Jeter laugh. "I just need to get some contact lenses."


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