In the wake of the investigation into whether Johnny Manziel was compensated for signing autographs, several college football programs are taking drastic measures to address the autograph issue. Louisville—the latest to make headlines for revising its policies—has decided to eliminate the opportunity for fans to get autographs at the school’s annual Fan Day. The problem is this solution does nothing to address the real issue at hand (i.e., players accepting money to sign autographs). Instead these knee-jerk reactions only penalize fans, slash supply and drive up demand for these players’ signatures. Autograph dealers are thrilled. Fortunately, there is a simple, more effective way to address the “problem”—teams just need a playbook. I’m here to draw up the Xs and Os.
Programs and players need to get educated
First, it’s important for programs and their players to get educated on the issue. Student-athletes need to understand the consequences of accepting payment for signing their name, including all the grey areas that cover compensation (e.g., signing items in exchange for tattoos). No one is holding a player’s hand against their will as they scribble through a stack of photos. Will some athletes ignore the warnings and gamble on their eligibility to make a quick buck? Of course. Amateurs accepting payments have been an issue in collegiate sports for decades and it may never go away. But now thousands of fans are being punished for the actions of a few.
What troubles me the most is that so many programs are throwing their hands up and saying “No autographs at our Fan Day, we’re covered.” But they’re confusing the real issue (players accepting compensation which affects eligibility) with a non-issue (dealers getting a player’s autograph and selling it, which has no effect on eligibility). The fact is, a team can sign thousands of autographs during an event and assume zero risk as long as no one accepts payment. It’s that simple.
Now, if you think that someone profiting off the goodwill of your players is wrong and you want to affect that, it’s a perfectly reasonable position to take. You should understand that the vast minority of people getting autographs are flipping them for profit through eBay and other marketplaces. But since dealers tend to get a high volume of items signed at one time (or at least attempt to do so), the scale of the problem is skewed. There could be hundreds of Johnny Manziel items available online from only a handful of sources. If you want to impact what winds up in the marketplace you need to create policies around two things: quantity and quality.
Limit quantity and quality of items to curb reselling
Dealers are going to get theirs. There is no way around it. But programs can take steps to control what it is those resellers add to their inventory. Autograph dealers who are giving athletes stacks of photos and boxes of mini helmets to sign are in a volume business—they need to move a high number of items and continue to replenish their stock. For the reasons I explained above, the worst approach you can take is a prohibition on autographs. The best? Limit the quantity and quality of items someone can get signed.
Programs, listen up. Here is the foundation for your new autograph policy that will curb dealer activity (remember, you are never going to eliminate it) and preserve those magical encounters between fan and player that should never go away. Below I outline simple, effective guidelines that need to be communicated clearly to your student-athletes and fan base to set expectations that everyone will be content with (well, except dealers). This is intended for programs which are considering—or already are—restricting autographs at their events. If your program wants to be more liberal with your policy—wonderful.
Before I list my recommendations for NCAA programs to adopt in their new autograph policies I want to make it clear that as a collector I shudder at restrictions on autographs. While I have never sold an item I do want to build a collection of high-quality items. It pains me slightly to write this guide but I feel so strongly that the opportunity for fans to get any autograph is better than none at all.
Recommendations for NCAA team autograph policy
- Give all event attendees a team item (e.g., schedule, photo, poster) to get signed and do not allow any outside items. The University of Miami is now doing this for its annual CanesFest.
- Respond to through the mail (TTM) requests that include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with a team-issued 5×7 printed with a matte finish and signed by the player in black. Get all that? As a fan, I’d be thrilled to get this back. Personalizing these items would be even better (incidentally, that is my preference on photos). Removing a personalization on a matte finish is much more difficult—if not impossible than on a glossy photo.
- “Flats and Hats”—Players will only sign items with lower resale values such as flats (e.g., a photo, program or poster) and apparel (e.g., a hat, t-shirt, a jersey somewhere other than on the number). The point here is to set expectations that if you approach a player at a restaurant with a premium item—such as a full-sized helmet or football—the player is going to politely decline.
- One autograph per person and encourage players to personalize.
If you want to allocate resources to monitor the marketplace you now have a policy in place that will make it easier to flag potential violations. For example, on my recommendation you’ve restricted players from signing premium items so when they appear online you know they’re either inauthentic or worth investigating further.
By following my recommendations college programs can make an impact on the resale of student-athletes’ autographs without alienating their fan bases. I don’t believe anyone wants to deny a young fan the opportunity to get a signature from one of their heroes. And in turn, I’m sure the players get a measure of satisfaction knowing they can put a smile on someone’s face when fulfilling an autograph request. Let’s preserve that connection.
The solution is simple. You just need to call the right plays.
Do you agree/disagree with my recommendations? How would you improve upon this plan?