forbes.com / Wayne McDonnell
Earlier this month, thousands of sports memorabilia aficionados and avid trading card collectors spent five days navigating through the massive maze of over 600 dealers and distributors spread across 350,000 square feet in Baltimore’s Convention Center. Several of the attendees at this year’s 31st National Sports Collectors Convention suspended frugal personal finance practices temporarily and heartily participated in the time honored tradition of impulse buying. They splurged on sports mementos, autographs, and trading cards.
By the end of the convention, the average attendee spent hundreds upon thousands of dollars feeding their sports addictions and passions. As sports enthusiasts were being tantalized by an endless array of Topps and Upper Deck exhibits, an excursion to Camden Yards and even a cavalcade of Baltimore sports legends, a suspicious and ominous presence casted a daunting shadow over the normally joyous festivities. Once again, the integrity and viability of the entire memorabilia industry is being called into question.
Sports memorabilia has been consistently plagued with scandals and fraud for the better part of two decades. The recent controversies involving Mastro Auctions has only intensified the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s already burning desire to eliminate the unsavory element from the multi-billion dollar industry. As we have seen in previous investigations, sports memorabilia is inundated with a morally bankrupt cast of characters who prey on the emotions and vulnerabilities of ardent fans who yearn for a connection with their childhood heroes and icons. Many are of the opinion that the current Chicago grand jury investigation will lead to indictments chronicling criminal charges against executives within the industry. Besides forgery and counterfeits, agents are sternly looking at the doctoring of trading cards and “shill bidding.” To put it simply, “shill bidding” is bidding on your own item in an auction in an attempt to raise the price at which the item will sell.
By far, the most attractive aspect of the 31st National Sports Collectors Convention was the TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion. Spread across five days, close to 80 former athletes and sports legends signed various items at different price points. The TRISTAR Productions web site provided one of the most thorough and comprehensive menus pertaining to athlete appearances, photographs and pricing. Not only did it include pictures and dates of availability, but they also offered platinum express passes and color coded V.I.P. and All Access passes. While Mike Boddicker, Lydell Mitchell, and Mark Moseley offered free autographs to the fans, football legends such as Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, and Jim Brown charged up to $200.00 for their signatures.
Droves of middle aged men anxiously waited on endless lines for hours just so they could catch a brief glimpse of their childhood heroes. They waxed poetically about statistical accomplishments, games that they had gone to as a youth and even their favorite personal memories. These stories and anecdotes were shared amongst the brethren of collectors who stood in between roped off lines longer than they had originally anticipated. For a fleeting moment, these men were granted the distinct honor and privilege of not only verifying the authenticity of their autograph, but also coming in close contact with an idol from a simpler time in their lives.
The significance of this event could have been captured with a photograph or even an inscription on the autographed item. In some cases, a photo opportunity was an additional expense that started at $20.00 and could have reached $180.00 depending on the athlete. In the case of Cal Ripken, Jr., the photograph was free as long as you had already purchased a ticket for an autograph and you used your own camera. Autograph prices for Cal Ripken, Jr. ranged from $150.00 – $250.00.
The rules and protocol regarding inscriptions are odd and at times, beyond comprehension. For the most part, the basic rule of thumb is one accomplishment per inscription or personalization up to five words. However, certain players have rigid requirements when it comes to inscriptions. According to TRISTAR’s web site for the convention, Tom Seaver would not sign an inscription with “Tom Terrific,” “The Franchise,” or “George Thomas.” On the other hand, Gordie Howe was signing “Mr. Hockey” as an inscription for free if someone had asked for it. The prices for inscriptions at the convention began at $5.00 and reached as high as $100.00.
However, the most absurdly priced athlete at the 31st National Sports Collectors Convention was undoubtedly baseball immortal Willie Mays. Prices for autographs began at $300.00 for a baseball and reached $800.00 for a specialty bat. If an inscription was added, it would cost an additional $125.00 and Mays would not write “Say Hey Kid.” Also, photo opportunities were not available and Mays had the ability to refuse to sign any item.
As we have witnessed firsthand, there is an overwhelming desire for sports fans to either own a piece of history or passionately collect memorabilia. Yankee fans who were sitting in the right or left field bleachers two weeks ago were thoroughly disappointed to see that Alex Rodriguez’s 600th home run conveniently landed in Monument Park and wound up in the hands of a security guard. His 500th home run ball was auctioned off earlier in the year and fetched a whopping $103,579.00. Besides the tremendous financial commitment, genuine collectors are emotionally invested as well. To some, an autographed baseball sitting on a mantle is a priceless heirloom that will never be parted with. To others, they are easily lured and eventually succumb to the impure motives and greed that have polluted the sports memorabilia industry.
When it truly comes down to it, the casual collector doesn’t know who to trust anymore. Whether you are buying an autograph online or even attending a national convention, it is a terrifying experience for someone who just wants to pick up a single authentic autograph or even a piece of memorabilia. Thanks to the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Operations “Foul Ball” and “Bullpen,” we have seen a proliferation in memorabilia authentication programs. Companies such as Mounted Memories, Upper Deck and TRISTAR have led the way in cleaning up the corruption.
In my opinion, two of the safest programs in the industry belong to Major League Baseball and Steiner Sports. Major League Baseball has certified over 3,000,000 items since its 2001 inception. Besides using a third party authenticator consistently at every game, Major League Baseball allows its fans to trace their memorabilia purchases online by using a unique ID number and hologram. Steiner Sports subscribes to a four step process in their authentication program: witness, affidavit, hologram and certificate. Also, it doesn’t hurt that Steiner Sports has exclusive team partnerships with the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and the University of Notre Dame just to name a few. Brandon Steiner has impressively secured as well exclusive relationships with countless athletes and icons highlighted by Derek Jeter, the Manning family, Hank Aaron and Mark Messier.
Even though some memorabilia companies have diligently tried to restore order and legitimacy to their industry, it will once again fall upon the shoulders of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the courts. The fates of those who have defrauded innocent collectors must be decided and industry-wide authentication regulations must be implemented and strictly enforced. If sweeping changes aren’t made in an expeditious manner, a once multi-billion dollar industry will become obsolete and irrelevant.