By Chuck Kaufman
n afternoon of autograph signing is a very good payday for retired athletes. Countless players from the 1950s, '60s and '70s make infinitely more money signing autographs 25-plus years after they played than when they lived out of suitcases for six months of the year.
An afternoon of signing for today's active ballplayers is also a very good payday. Like the salaries they receive for playing a game, the fees they get for signing is equally impressive. Those fees are reflected in the cost of the autograph.
Interestingly, the fee for today's heralded young players is often higher than those for record-setting, World Series champion, MVP award-winning Hall of Famers. Bob Feller and Whitey Ford single-signed baseballs go anywhere from $30 to 50, generally. Torii Hunter, the Minnesota Twins' young All-Star centerfielder, signed at a show in December for a $35 autograph ticket.
By today's celebrity athlete standards, $35 is getting (gulp) reasonable. Top active players can charge and get triple-digits for a signature. Niall Hayden of Collectors Showcase of America, which produces shows in Chantilly, Va., and Raleigh, N.C., said CSA is targeting players who've had good seasons, but haven't yet signed long-term contracts. Once players have signed the whopper contract, the cost of endorsements and appearances goes up exponentially, he said. "Torii Hunter's still a $35 autograph, which seems kind of cheap, but it's really kind of expensive when you consider he's a great young player, but he hasn't won a world championship or an MVP award or had a record-breaking career," Hayden said.
Young players and veterans alike demand and get guaranteed money, which prompts promoters to markup the price to allow for the risk of paying that fat fee up front and possibly not sell the full compliment of autograph tickets.
Not too long ago, top rookies would make appearances and sign for $5 or $10, which was on par with what one might pay for, say, a Brooks Robinson autograph.
Thus, promoters are looking for players who won't turn their noses up at making a low four figures for a signing appearance. Yep, not a bad day's "work" for normal folk.
Hayden said he's looking for young players who have star power and are regional favorites. CSA thus will soon pursue Patrick Ramsey, the young quarterback for the Washington Redskins, and Julius Peppers, the Carolina Panthers defensive end who also was an All-American at the University of North Carolina. The promoters tried to entice young star Vladimir Guerrero of the Expos, but his manager indicated that his client wasn't looking to supplement his salary. He makes plenty.
Young players such as Derek Jeter or Alfonso Soriano are taking their high fees to such memorabilia producers as Steiner Sports. Some young individual athletes carry a six-figure price tag. Some producers have the stomach to weather that kind of risk; other promoters have a low six-figure total for an entire autograph show lineup.
Media exposure makes hot commodities out of young stars. In turn, player agents are charged with maximizing that value; and agents are getting increasingly involved in the memorabilia business.
Houston Astros outfielder Lance Berkman completed his second consecutive outstanding year in two seasons and is beginning to get some attention outside the region for autographed memorabilia. Teammate Roy Oswalt, hot off of a 19-8 record with more than 200 strikeouts, is another player whose autograph price will rise with his first big, multiyear contract.
If Oswalt and Berkman were part of the Yankees, they'd be fetching major market money not only for their on-field efforts, but for their autographs. The economics of sports memorabilia mirrors player salaries. For promoters to find name players that they can afford, they may have to dip into minor league all-star players. For autograph collectors, it will be a purchase that's akin to finding and buying that stock that's on the way up. Same mentality.
Of course, Torii Hunter is a player from a small market as are other young players in this year's baseball playoffs Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito of the Athletics; Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Fernando Vina of the Cardinals; and David Eckstein of the Angels, to name a few major young names. Collectors know, however, in this day of free agency that talented young players can jump to big markets. Autograph prices, along with their salaries, will jump as well. Of course, winning gives players another bump in value.
Dave Jackson, who organizes shows in St. Louis, recognizes the pricing challenge. Albert Pujols was at the higher end of the scale for a young player, Eduardo Perez was not nearly so high. A Pujols autograph ticket back then sold for $45 each. Every ticket sold.
The fee for Ozzie Smith prompted Jackson to charge $65 per ticket, which was significantly less than what Ozzie was getting up East, he said. The price difference is a matter of overhead and a promoter's profit threshold.
When the Cardinals named Jimmy Journell as the top pitcher in its entire system, Jackson signed him to sign autographs, but the fee is low enough that the star prospect will sign free for the public. "The fee for him was so nominal that I can give him away as a free autograph," Jackson said.
While it may be obvious to attribute high prices to agents who are only doing their jobs, Jackson realizes that without them he might not have another contact to get a player like Pujols. "I may not have gotten him without the agent because the player today has all the money he needs from his salary, so he might be inclined not to make an appearance."
At the same '82 Cardinals reunion show where Ozzie is signing for $65, Mike Ramsey, another player from that team, is signing for $12. "For a lot of guys, doing these shows is a way for them to meet the fans and have a good time,"
Jackson acknowledged that the public is frequently amazed and displeased with the high-priced autograph tickets, but those who are knowledgeable about autograph prices realize that Jackson's prices are free of gouging.
"My customers know I'm not going to take advantage of them on price," he added. "Perhaps my overhead is lower than other promoters. Customers know I'm not going to take advantage of them on price."
Tri-Star Productions, produces shows nationally, in Phoenix, San Francisco, Kansas City, Cleveland, St. Louis and its home in Houston. They've played host to the biggest, and hence, the most expensive autographs, including Muhammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio. Yet, paying young players and presenting them as free autographs has been part of the company's culture, not a reaction to the economy. "Last year we had Adam Dunn sign for an hour, for free," said Bobby Mintz of Tri-Star. "Nobody knew who he was. He signed for a half-hour and sat and visited with folks for a half hour. If we brought him back now to sign for free, he'd sign for five or six hours."
Tri-Star is having him back this winter, but Dunn's home run power and impact on the Reds has created a fee that will support a $40 autograph ticket for a flat or ball. "His perceived value is much greater," Mintz said. "The athletes and agents have much more access to information via the Internet. They'll go on eBay and see what other guys are getting and want that money or more." He agreed the ego-driven, perceived market psychology for autograph fees is similar to that of establishing salary levels. Tri-Star also has done the same for the Astros' Oswalt and Berkman. Oswalt and Berkman went from free to $20 and $49, respectively, for flats and balls. "The players and their agents understand that if they attach a price to their autograph, chances are their demand will diminish, but they realize that there's a perceived value for their playing status," Mintz added.
For whatever the motivation, the players at both ends of the age spectrum are the most affordable to consumers. For most show promoters who can't bear the full financial burden of presenting the biggest names of their sport, they also may represent guests that will allow various shows to survive. Hopefully, they will maintain fee levels that won't chase away the paying customers, the fans. Of course, pro athletes are proving that greed can ruin a good thing.
Chuck Kaufman, autograph columnist for the Sports Market Report, is also editor of Sweet Spot magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to vintage and autographed sports memorabilia, and www.sweetspotnews.com.
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