October 21, 2008

Yes, Autographs Aren't Always Free

Yesterday morning I came across a story in the Edmonton Sun about Oiler fans in an uproar because they were being charged at a collectibles show for autographs from Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano.

As a person who worked in the sports memorabilia industry for one of the bigger name companies, this story completely baffles me.

People got upset that they were being charged for autographs, despite the advertisements clearly stating the $25 charge? A caller to the Team 1260 Edmonton this evening stated that he saw an ad for the show in a local newspaper, so I can only assume here people themselves heard about the show and assumed free autographs because it was a player appearing in public.

Those screen caps are from the Bossa Productions website, a company that hosts many collectible shows annually. Cogliano was at the signing on behalf of AJ Sports World, an Ontario-based memorabilia company that the Oilers forward is exclusive to. Being an exclusive in the memorabilia world means that the player can only sign items on the behalf of the company it's partnered with.

AJ Sports World is a big name in the industry, specifically to hockey along with Frozen Pond. Both have store fronts that sell memorabilia, souvenirs, as well as host in-store player appearances, where, yes, fees are charged for autographs. Want a Carey Price to sign your 8x10? That will cost you $59. Need Ray Bourque signed your Bruins team stick? You'll need $79. Wishing Martin Brodeur could sign your 2003 Stanley Cup puck? Fork over $159.

Like I said before: sports is a business.

This is the first time I've heard such a large outcry about autograph fees. During my time in the business, I heard all the time from customers who'd complain about the prices and spout off the typical lines about their high salaries, how they should be for free, and so on.

What people forget is that sports has become a business. A big business.

While seeing Andrew Cogliano out on the street and asking for an autograph will not cost you $25, inside of a business setting, it's completely different. Players are paid for their appearance time and for most athletes, there's a certain number of autographs that need to be signed as part of the contract. The autographs count whether it's sold as an actual ticket to a customer or kept for the store to add to their inventory for sale. I don't know the specifics of AJ Sport World's deal with Cogliano, but this is typical for most signings. It costs money to get the players to the appearance as well as their time, especially as busy as it gets during the season.

Let's not forget that not every autograph given is reserved for fans. I would imagine many of the autographs that Cogliano and Gagner signed were for other memorabilia dealers who will later go on to sell those same autographs for profit, whether for their own companies or on eBay.

"Tom Henderson", a commenter on the Globe and Mail's article on the subject said, "It's not as if they are turning away kids at these events. Autograph shows are mostly the domain of persons interested in increasing the value of their collectable items. The show is selling people the opportunity to get their rookie cards and such signed. This supposedly increased the value of the items. Its a business event not a sporting event."

The article in the Sun was also poorly researched, as evidenced by this tidbit:

"It's not clear where the money was going, but several people working the event - who didn't want to be identified - confirmed that it wasn't for charity.

Cogliano said the signing was part of his contract with AJ Sportsworld, but declined to comment further after being told not to talk to the media.

Gagner, looking at the table in front of him and slumping his shoulders when asked why they're charging fans, declined to answer."

The littlest bit of research on memorabilia signings would tell anyone how these things work. Purposely putting Cogliano and Gagner in tough positions and painting AJ Sports World as the "bad guy" at the same time shows the lack of knowledge on the subject. Of course, the writer throws in quotes from an angry patron talking about "the kids", yet doesn't note that the $6 entry fee will allow these kids the ability to purchase packs of hockey cards, minus the gum nowadays, that will run them much more than any "kid" can afford these days.

Fans complain all the time about autograph fees, but for every collectibles show that charges for an autograph, there's plenty of charity and team sponsored events that allow fans to get an autograph from their favorite player for free. The entire idea of a collectibles show is for vendors to sell their merchandise and for collectors to buy/sell/trade their items. Like I said, it's a business setting all around, dollars being exchanged, like the $6 it would have cost you to enter the show in the first place.

As the demand for players has increased, so has appearance fees and memorabilia costs. I know of one former baseball player who charges $15,000 just to show up, then receives a percentage of each autograph sold. I've seen the $600 price tag of a Derek Jeter signed 16x20 photo, unframed of course. That'll cost you an extra $200-300. I understand the disgust that some fans have towards it all, but it's a reality and the market is there for high priced signatures.

Sports memorabilia has become a billion dollar industry. Everyone wants a piece of athletes to help make them a profit. With that comes a cost and that cost will always be thrown into the lap of consumers and fans.

Ballhype: hype it up!

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Stevens8204 said...

Great post Sean. As someone who has a brother still heavily involved in sports autographs and collectibles, you have to expect to pay. Nothing comes free anymore.

Milton Byron said...

I have been in the sports collectiables industry for over 30yrs and long gone is the free autographs at a collectors show. You may get free autographs at a shopping mall opening or promotional event, but at a sports collectiables show, good luck to find anything free, let alone the autpgraphs.

Doogie2K said...

I was initially annoyed by the story, but then I realized that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't really...anything. If it's for charity, that's fine. If it's at a collectibles show, I get that. Like you said, they're not hanging little "LEMONADE 10c"-style signs around their necks when they walk down Jasper Ave, FFS.