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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?

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In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Josh Hamilton (’13)

Josh Hamilton diploma

Josh Hamilton

Since finding stability in Major League Baseball and life, Josh Hamilton has emerged as a superstar on and off the field. His fan-friendly nature is well documented; in addition to his accessibility in person he is also stellar TTM (75% as reported by SportsCollectors.net). Hamilton rounds out our Class of 2013 after receiving more nominations from Autograph University readers than any current ballplayer not named Pat Neshek.

NOTE: It appears Hamilton waits until after the season to respond to mail requests with most returned in time for the holidays.

Have you received an autograph from Josh Hamilton? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Josh Hamilton signing fan mail

Josh Hamilton signing fan mail (via Twitter, 12/9/12)

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The annual Red Sox Wives Cash & Cash Drive benefiting the Greater Boston Food Bank is a collector-friendly event I look forward to each season. For each $10 or ten canned goods you donate you can choose an autographed photo from a Red Sox player. My hometown team consistently employs a roster of tough signers so it’s a great opportunity to add a few difficult signatures to your collection—all while supporting a great cause.

I last attended the drive in 2011 (I skipped last year’s following the birth of my son) with lukewarm results so I was intent on learning from my mistakes and improving my results. Since they’ve abandoned the “go fish” format of putting photos face down—which I encountered in 2010—it was just a matter of arriving early and finding a table with stacks of stars. I spotted a setup by the Ted Williams statue in a low-traffic area and staked it out. The wives who were slated to man the booth were running late and I grew anxious as I had a train to catch. I spotted a fellow collector who gave me a tip that the table at Gate E was up and running and well-stocked. Taking my chances I headed for Lansdowne Street. Check out the video and let me know how you think I did.

The selection at the table was vastly improved over years past:

  • Jon LesterDustin Pedroia autographed photo
  • Andrew Miller
  • Andrew Bailey
  • Craig Breslow
  • Mike Napoli
  • Daniel Nava
  • Mike Carp
  • Stephen Drew
  • Dustin Pedroia
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia
  • Felix Doubront
  • Jonny Gomes
  • Junichi Tazawa
  • Koji Uehara
  • Ryan Lavarnway
  • Shane Victorino

I donated the maximum of $40, giving me four choices. As you can see in the video I decided upon Pedroia, Lester (first of my collection), Victorino (also a first) and Doubront.

If you’re in the Boston area the Cash & Can Drive continues on Thursday, July 25 outside Fenway Park.

Which autographed photos would you have selected?

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In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Peyton Manning (’13)

Peyton Manning diploma

Peyton ManningAs a Boston sports fan you’d think it’d be tough to honor Peyton Manning. But the fact is it’s more difficult not to like a guy who plays the game the right way and is so generous with fans. From tales of signing hundreds of autographs after training camp sessions to his TTM response rate (nearly 60% as reported by SportsCollectors.net) through his PeyBack Foundation, Manning stands in stark contrast to his foil in New England. While his playing days aren’t over, he’s been an exceedingly rare fan-friendly superstar over the course of his career and for that we honor him in our Class of 2013.

Have you received an autograph from Peyton Manning? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Peyton Manning autographed photo

I received this autographed photo TTM while Peyton was at Tennessee.

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In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Pat Neshek (’13)

Pat Neshek diploma

Pat NeshekToward the end of the 2006 baseball season I tracked down the Minnesota Twins team hotel in Boston. I was terribly inexperienced at the time—it was only my second time graphing in person—and I tentatively approached a group of collectors conversing on the sidewalk. Immediately I noticed a tall, lanky guy who just didn’t seem to fit in. He didn’t look like the typical grapher. After about fifteen minutes he shook everyone’s hand and departed while I stood off to the side like a wallflower. I would regret that decision (or indecision). Later I learned that guy was Pat Neshek, a major league pitcher who isn’t just a friend of the hobby, he’s an autograph collector himself.

The reliever (now with the Oakland A’s) chronicles his journey through baseball and graphing on his excellent blog, On the Road with Pat Neshek, which features an active message board full of autograph-related discussion. He responds to all TTM requests (instructions are front and center on his homepage) and will even trade you a signed card of his if you send any autographed sports card his way.

When I asked Autograph University readers who should receive an honorary degree they made it loud and clear that Pat Neshek should be in our inaugural class. I couldn’t agree more.

Have you received an autograph from Pat Neshek? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Pat Neshek autographed card

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In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Bill Walton (’13)

Bill Walton diploma

Bill Walton

While the “Big Red-Head” isn’t known for responding to TTM requests, he more than makes up for it when you encounter him in person. Bill Walton is generous and gregarious and lives up to his legend. He’s an autograph signing machine and will sign whatever you have with a complete signature, inscriptions and that infectious smile on his face. Check out the video below and see for yourself.

Have you received an autograph from Bill Walton? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Bill Walton autographed mini basketball Bill Walton and Matt Raymond

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In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Virgil Trucks (’13)

Virgil Trucks diploma

Virgil Trucks

Virgil “Fire” Trucks was an all-star on the field and one of the all-time greats off it. Until his passing in March 2013 at age 95, Trucks was automatic through the mail (97% success rate according to SportsCollectors.net) and it wasn’t uncommon for collectors to receive a personal note from the legend with their item. Along with Bobby Doerr, Trucks received the most nominations from Autograph University readers and the inaugural Class of 2013 wouldn’t be complete without him.

Have you received an autograph from Virgil Trucks? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Virgil Trucks autograph

4 comments

In our inaugural Class of 2013 we have recognized six athletes who have gone above and beyond to accommodate autograph collectors over the course of their careers. Each of these friends of our hobby will receive an honorary degree from Autograph University as a token of our gratitude. Thank you to all the readers who submitted a nomination. We selected a very strong first class and I look forward to celebrating the very best signers with you each year.

CLASS OF 2013

Bobby Doerr (’13)

Bobby Doerr diploma
Bobby DoerrHas anyone signed more autographs in their lifetime than Bobby Doerr? At 95 years old, the Hall of Fame second baseman sports a 96% success rate through the mail (TTM) according to SportsCollectors.net! Not only are you almost certain to get your item back in less than two weeks (I received my baseball back in 9 days), but Doerr doesn’t charge for requests. He may have been voted into Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee but he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer in our book.

Have you received an autograph from Bobby Doerr? Leave a comment and share your story with us.

Bobby Doerr autographed baseball

Bobby Doerr returned this baseball to me TTM in only 9 days.

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Here at Autograph University the annual Yearbook is the project I look forward to most. Why? It’s a collection we create together, one that gives graphers a platform to tell their own stories. Because as much as I enjoy sharing my adventures, I love to read about yours even more. My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed. This project really means a lot.

Our second issue features works from 15 of your peers in the autograph community (including one never before published from me). You’ll read emotional stories—from epic successes to heartbreaking failures—that take you up close and personal with collectors who share a passion for our hobby. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do and I encourage you to share it with a friend and help us spread the word.

Click here to download your FREE copy of the 2013 Autograph University Yearbook (PDF eBook).

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UPDATE: My sincere thanks to all of you for leaving such thoughtful comments. I’ve really enjoyed reading the nominations and I will announce the honorees next week. Our randomly selected winner of the Phil Jackson autographed book is Aaron Cheris—congratulations!

Every day I get your emails and lately I’ve been hearing more and more about how graphing has gotten tougher. The commercialization of the hobby is eroding the relationship between fans and celebrities, habits are changing for the worse, and prices for signings are higher than ever.

But in these challenging times the famous friends of the autograph community shine even brighter. I’m talking about celebrities and athletes who go out of their way to accommodate collectors, who pick up a pen with a smile on their face, who give back generously to their fans. These great signers deserve more than just our thanks, they deserve to be recognized. And we’re going to do that by presenting them with an honorary degree from Autograph University.

I need your help selecting our inaugural Class of 2013. Leave a comment and tell me who deserves an honorary degree and why!

The Class of 2013 will be announced on June 28 in July and I will personally mail a diploma to each honoree.
Phil Jackson autographed book

Phil Jackson Autograph Giveaway

What better way to celebrate the best signers than by giving away an autograph from one of the toughest signers? All you need to do for a chance to win is leave a comment with your nomination for the Class of 2013.

I will randomly choose a winner on Friday, June 21 at 10pm EDT. One comment per person and please use a valid email address so I can contact you if you win.

I look forward to reading your nominations. Thanks for helping me identify the best candidates for the Class of 2013!

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