Autograph University: What criteria do you use to identify athletes to add to the Steiner Sports roster?
Brandon Steiner: It’s a basic criteria—have they done something that will stand the test of time? It’s being hot and being relevant. Is that athlete relevant? What they’ve accomplished doesn’t necessarily have to be one thing or another, but have they accomplished something that will be remembered and will stand out over the course of time? Hall of Fame stats are always a nice little thing because people are always collecting Hall of Famers. Or that special game-winning moment or the Cy Young or the 5,000 strikeouts or scoring 50 points in a game, or obviously, championships. Those things generally are staples for us to go take a big position on somebody. Because if all else fails and the guy gets traded or things don’t work out, then now what are we doing?
And I’ll tell ya, that’s a great question and the answer has become really, really hard. It’s getting harder and harder now as time goes on and there’s more talked about and more sports. Moments get kind of watered down a little bit so you have to be careful making those decisions with your heart and making them really strategically and making sure you really know what you’re talking about…a la Curt Schilling.
AU: How often are you prospecting—trying to sign a player before they peak—versus reacting to an event such as a championship or a phenomenon that comes out of the blue like Linsanity?
BS: You try to anticipate where you can—and in some cases you can—but I’ll tell you something, reacting…you need to capitalize that word. Because everything is moving so fast, there are a lot more sports on and a lot more sports that are relevant because there is so much available to so many people. You gotta respond, you gotta react. I think it’s the make or break of our business and what has given us an edge and got into people’s minds—that they know when something great happens in sports, we’re going to be there. I like to look at us like FedEx. We’re going to get there and we’re going to get there early. We try to anticipate some things and on some occasions you can with certain records. We know Derek Jeter is going to get 3,000 hits, certain players are going to go in the Hall of Fame. But I think reaction is huge.
AU: As their exclusive memorabilia partner, do you advise athletes about signing for fans at the ballpark or in public?
BS: No. First of all, it wouldn’t matter if I did because the level of athletes that matter the most to me are doing what they want to do. They’re very sensitive to the fans and the quality of athletes we’re trying to sign are not going to walk away from kids, they’re not going to walk away from fans. What I would say to you is, some have asked me, “What should I do here?” And we’d try to get them to personalize and try to get them to be more aware of the guy that…all of a sudden there is a kid with a jersey and behind him is a guy with twenty jerseys in a bag. That’s what makes things kind of complicated. It’s just so confusing now because there have been so many scams where they’ve got kids working for them and they’re working out of a hub at a dinner. They’re at a table and they’ve got all kinds of collectibles and stuff and they’re just working the gamut. You know we had a guy go to a Yankee dinner and walk away with 60 Derek Jeter autographs, 85 A-Rod—it was insane. So you’re dealing with some of that kind of mistrust and all of a sudden it gets misconstrued that players don’t want to sign for fans. But first of all, I’m a big fan of the fan getting the autograph—I don’t think a fan has to get his only and last autograph from me. I just want to do it in an orderly way that is not taking advantage of a player to the point where you’ve got these guys that are trying to scam them.
AU: In your new book you write about growing up poor in Brooklyn, scraping together a few dollars to see Yankee games which led you to your first autograph experience. What advice would you give to a poor Brooklyn kid today who wants to get an autograph from a hero like Derek Jeter or Mark Teixeira but almost certainly won’t be able to afford to sit close to the field or purchase an autographed item from a memorabilia company?
BS: That’s a good question and it’s another one of those questions that I’m definitely going to have to think about tonight before I go to bed. Because it always bothers me that the purpose of what you’re doing is to share it with as many people as you can and not discriminate, and not just have people with a lot of money be able to participate in what you’re doing, and that’s certainly not my purpose and my goal of Steiner. Having said that, that’s a great question and a tricky one to answer because it is hard—more now that even when I was a kid. It’s harder now because the better seats are so much more exclusive and expensive.
What I’d tell the kid is, don’t focus on what you don’t have, focus on what you do. And work really hard at being really good at something. At least that was my goal as a kid. I just wanted to make sure that I had good seats to the game and could go when I wanted to go. And I worked really hard—I didn’t really realize I was going to be in the sports business. But I would tell the kid, hey, there are people that will support you going to school as long as you want to go to school, as long as you try really hard and do your best. There’s a lot of financial aid, regardless of the economy. Work really hard and you might not be able to meet that player now but you will be able to meet that player and do what you want when you get a solid job a get a good career going. I’d also tell the kid, listen, in today’s world with the Internet, keep your eye on sweepstakes, keep your eye on contests—not as many people register for those. You never know. I always say, luck does play a part sometimes in good fortune. So if it’s important to you, keep an eye out for those things and you could win.
I’m perpetually grabbing people off my Facebook, off my LinkedIn and haphazardly inviting them to meet players and sending them free autographs and stuff like that. I always do it, and I’ve inspired some kids who would never ever be able to afford anything like this. So I try to surprise the kids when I can—and certainly not enough—but I try to do it. When I’m at the ballpark ever now and again I’ll go up to the top level to the bad seats and give them my seats. I try to do that when I can. That’s always more fun to me that even going to the game, just seeing the look on these kids’ faces and knowing the experience when they get to sit in my seats. I’ll go up to not the greatest seats and give out gift cards and my card and when they email me I’ll send them gifts, autographed stuff I know these kids can’t afford. That’s what I do.
AU: As a kid my dad would take me to a sports card show for my birthday. Along with some cards I’d buy a few autograph tickets. I remember getting Emmitt Smith shortly after one of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl wins for $35. Over the last twenty years the business of autographs has exploded—a Super Bowl MVP today routinely commands a couple hundred dollars for a signature. What are your thoughts on the industry sustaining this growth over the next two decades?
BS: First of all, I feel better about the business for two reasons. One is, I think the business is a lot more cleaned up, and I’m not saying there are no bad autographs on the market, but there are a lot of ways to educate yourself and be careful and aware. So the business has never been better that way, as far as authentication and knowing that if you want to find a real autograph you can get it. That’s a good thing. On the second hand, what happened with this last drop in the economy—and it hasn’t really gone full circle like I was hoping it would—is a lot of players have come down. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the big name players. The big, big name players I really don’t have a solution for, but the small and middle-level guys have now come back down to Earth a bit. So, that’s a little promising. The width of the variation of collectibles that are out there is certainly expanding with a lot more affordable stuff, and I see a lot of my competitors being extremely sensitive to price points—I think we all are.
The unfortunate thing I don’t have the answer for at this point is the bigger name guys who are still very pricey. We need that to come back down to Earth but I’m not sure that’s going to happen. It definitely has an effect on the growth and stability of our business. It’s a game-breaker and it’s certainly out there in the balance. I’m just dying for a big name player to say, “You know something? I’m going to sign for thirty-five bucks an autograph. I know I can get a hundred but I’m going to do this for the fans. I’m going to sit here and sign the extra three or four hours every couple months and more people can get an autograph.”
AU: As their business partner would you support that decision?
BS: I’ve tried. I’ve done it with Mariano. Mariano is one of the few players, when he broke the record we actually lowered the price. With Mariano I said, “Listen, I want to do something different. You’re going to break this record, everyone’s going to want it and we normally say you’ll go for X but I want to lower the price for this record. Let’s see how it does.” And I think people really appreciated it. The retail value of it was $200—all in, with a case and a ball and everything else—but for him it was a lot lower than what we had been selling it for. We just did a signing with Derek Jeter with 8×10 photos and we’ll be doing some promotions around that. He bought into it and was supportive.
Little wins. I’m very supportive of it. I’m not only supportive of it, I’m acting on it. But if you were an avid collector out there with not a lot of money I’m probably not your favorite person in the world. “You’re killing the business! You’re overpaying these guys!” I don’t know, in today’s world the reality is these guys may just not sign at all. You think these guys are going to say, “You know something? Screw Steiner, I’m just going to sit here and sign my fan mail all day.” No way.
AU: There is certainly that sentiment in some segments of the collecting community. The fact is, if you sell a Jeter photo for X and you sell out, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for you to sell it for less next time.
BS: Imagine it from the players’ standpoint. Why sign for $50 when I can get $100? I’m signing as much as I want as it is now. It’s a debacle all the way around. Listen, I bite and scratch and claw for price. It’s expensive to do this stuff the right way—you know, with authentication, the leagues and licensing. If you’re an avid collector and you go in my B.I.N., which is my outlet store, you can steal stuff at very affordable prices. I’m very proud that when you go look at some of the prices of balls and autographs that you can get for $15, $20, $30, it’s pretty cool. It may not be LeBron James but there are some decent names, some good stuff. I love that outlet because that’s where I would have been as a kid.
AU: Steiner Sports is bigger than ever, you’re involved in a number of community projects and you have a new book being released. You also recently blogged about how you wished you spent more time with your family earlier in your career. Looking forward, what are you most passionate about and where do you see yourself spending more time?
BS: It’s helping others. It’s focusing on sharing my relationships to help the most people. It’s definitely split up—some of that I do for the business but I’m definitely looking to do that for charity and cause-related situations. If you see what I’ve been up to the last four or five years—I’m not just saying that, I’m pretty committed now to goodwill and good projects. I definitely want to do some speaking around the country, share my story and hopefully inspire and motivate others. The reason for the blog and the speaking and the book is to help people understand the importance of business, which is to do as much as you can for as many people as you can. You can do things that are going to help people with their dreams. That’s really where the fun comes in. That’s my hope. Am I going to go golf all day? No, I’m not going to do that. I’ve never been that kind of guy. I like working and I’ve definitely made it home for dinner a lot more the last seven or eight years. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ll be here at six o’clock in the morning until two in the morning anymore, those days are probably over. I like working, especially when I’m committed to creating and doing something. But there’s definitely a portion of my time—not at the end of the day—but at the start of the day that is going to be helping others, and giving people some hope that need that help and support.
Brandon Steiner’s new book, You Gotta Have Balls, will be published September 19.