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How NCAA Teams Should Tackle the Autograph Issue

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.

Peyton Manning autographed photo

A personalized autograph on a photo with a matte finish would be treasured by a fan while being difficult to alter and resell.

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?

About the author: is the founder of Autograph University. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and 1-year-old son. Follow him on Twitter at @mattraymond or on Google+.

12 comments… add one

  • Sal August 13, 2013, 10:14 pm

    I disagree with the no footballs because when I have graphed college football the majority of people especially the real fans get team footballs signed.

  • Canadagraphs August 14, 2013, 6:59 am

    I am going to disagree with your suggestions somewhat Matt. Not because of my view as a seller, because NCAA isn’t something I will ever hound, but because I see flaws in them.

    - limiting players to ONLY signing a specific item given to them by the team might be fine for the random casual fan, but for those who COLLECT SPECIFIC things, this doesn’t work. Lets say you only collect photos, or team signed helmets or whatever it is. Collectors also bring premium items. Granted not as many as a dealer, but there are MANY collectors who also only want the autographs on an item that will go with the other X amount items they have done that are exactly the same. So because of this, the 1st point, not the best option.

    - 2nd point I don’t see too much issue with… except that matte or glossy is irrelevant. Both are easily wiped.

    - Point 3, goes back to some of what I stated in point 1. How do you tell someone that has been collecting their alma mater for 10 yrs on signed team helmets, no more. Screw your specific collection that you’ve invested 10 yrs & who knows how much $ into? Yes, more often the person with the high end item is a dealer, but that 20% who isn’t are now being penalized.

    - The 1 auto policy I have ALWAYS had a problem with at any event.
    I think 2 is a suitable limit. The reason I pick 2, then if you DO have that “friend/uncle that’s a big fan but cant be there” you can get them 1.
    A dealer isn’t standing in a line for 2 hrs to get 1 or 2 of someone unless its someone big. You aren’t going to buy them a new car signing 1 more item for a couple of them to appease a few dozen more who legitimately want to get 1 for their son, dad, brother etc. The way this generations athletes sign, they can do two in the same time as 1. MAYBE they get to 1% less people by doing two than one.
    Personalizing, that’s fine on a single item. What about team items? I went for a team once, who had the “only personalize” policy. I had a team logo 8×10 photo, that was it (I was really only there hanging with a friend & decided to get something signed). I got FIVE guys on it before it was full. ALL 5 of them personalized it…despite me pointing it out to each 1 of them that it was already personalized by 1, or 2, or 3, or 4 people prior.

    Sorry Matt. I applaud your effort in trying to create a solution. But the system you have in place still will penalize some. Doesn’t mean I don’t agree something needs to happen. The Louisville situation, sounds pathetic & whoever at their school that decided this, should be publicly mocked & fired for such idiocy as to think hes solved any type of problem with this “solution”.

    • Matt Raymond August 14, 2013, 8:17 am

      I really appreciate the perspective and suggestions on how to make this proposed policy better – several great points here. I think we can all agree there is no one solution to accommodate everyone but there are better alternatives to canceling these events.

      Matt

      • Canadagraphs August 15, 2013, 12:55 am

        There is ALWAYS better alternatives to canceling an event.

        I also did say, I encourage you to work on this still. Someone always has to be the 1st person, with the 1st draft of something that eventually becomes the standard. Whether its you, or someone else down the line, someone had to take the 1st step. Whatever eventually becomes the standard, odds are pieces of it will have been born out of your post.

        But for now, I felt there was flaws…. doesn’t mean that you wont eventually fine tune it to a point where the flaws are minimal (I don’t think perfection for this type of thing is ever a reasonable expectation).

  • Steve August 14, 2013, 1:33 pm

    I always enjoy your articles/entries Matt, and this one is a noble effort in the wake of the knee-jerk collegiate nonsense. A few notes:

    1. Personalizing only works for single-signed items. The last time I ‘graphed football was Toledo after they played here in Syracuse in 2011. The Pryor incident was still fresh in programs’ minds, and I was getting a measly team roster signed. About 15 guys flat-out said no (but that was likely because they’d just lost a game which featured some controversial officiating). Of the 30-ish players that did sign, 5 or 6 personalized. It’s so frustrating that you can’t convince these guys that it’s a team sheet and not a high-school yearbook.

    2. I’m fine with a “1-per” limit. It’s not as though college guys are in card sets I’m trying to finish.

    3. If no outside items are allowed, I don’t want a stupid poster…so there’d better be an 8×10 or 8.5×11 sized item (logo, team photo, roster, whatever) available too. I have probably more than 95% of all my autographs in binders (cards, photos, logos, rosters, etc.) and I can’t stand posters or 3-D items.

    The combination of my approaching (and now having reached) age 30, and occurrence of these Pryor/Manziel-type incidents has led me to give up pretty much all college ‘graphing, except Syracuse basketball once per year. The demonizing of adult autograph collectors (who don’t sell) by the media, non-collectors, and the athletes themselves has caused the level of enjoyment to go down quite a bit (but obviously not enough for me to stop doing minor league baseball, AHL hockey, and lots of TTMs).

    Thanks again for an interesting read, Matt, and good luck getting the schools to think rationally for once.

    Steve D.

    • Matt Raymond September 5, 2013, 11:13 pm

      Valid points Steve, thanks for adding to the discussion.

  • prae_21 August 15, 2013, 12:34 am

    Nothing I have heard solves the issue at hand. No policy will ever help a player decide between right and wrong. It’s hard to believe that Manziel may have single handedly done more damage to autograph collectors than anyone else! Seriously, Matt, is there any other incident or athlete like this that has negatively affected collectors? I can’t think of anything.

  • Jason August 15, 2013, 12:56 am

    Ok first of all the NCAA is doing the players wrong by making millions of them and the players not even getting a dime of it, yes it’s college but the last time I checked college isn’t free neither is food or gas. So if these guys want to make some side money signing autographs big deal go for it, boosters want to give you some money fine take it. As long as they aren’t throwing games for money what’s the problem. So here is my solution to make both parties happy:
    Set up events where you can come and get whatever you want autographed and set an amount of money that isn’t ridiculous and sell tickets and then they can split then money between the school and players. And my thing with players signing with personalized inscription kind of takes away the cool factor of the autograph. But I agree getting mad about seeing items sold on eBay, that makes it harder for people like my son and I to add to our collection. If you are going to sell the autograph then why get it in the first place. So lets hope for the best that the hobby doesn’t die over idiots selling what some people enjoy doing for their own private collection

    • Mike August 28, 2013, 7:30 pm

      Jason,

      I think your solution is the only equitable one. It is a crime that everybody gets to benefit from Johnny Manziel except Johnny Manziel. Guys like Rg3 and Manziel helped build their programs are constantly being pimped by their respective schools to help build stadiums, etc. Why shouldn’t they get a little more?

      I agree that if schools like A&M organized signings where JFF signs for $30 dollars and splits the proceeds between Johnny, charity, the school, etc….that’d benefit all parties and would honestly help curb dealers trying to pay these guys. Why pay a dealer $50-60 with a mark up when you can do it through the school for a $30 donation, etc?

      • Matt Raymond September 5, 2013, 11:09 pm

        Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. I think you bring up some interesting points.

    • Matt Raymond September 5, 2013, 11:12 pm

      Hey Jason, thanks for sharing your perspective and ideas. Great stuff. I too hope the hobby can maintain its health in light of events like this.

  • NoFreedom October 28, 2013, 10:12 am

    just stop autographs forever! Geez autograph collection is supposed to be fun now with all these “rules” it sucks! Getting personalized on multisigned items looks so stupid. Having 10 signatures and then one that say “TO Douche Bag” ruins it for me. And no I’m not a dealer and I’m not going to sell the item. Also no outside items? ?? What if I don’t like anything signed that is available. USSR bring it back!

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