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The Autograph Industry is BROKEN! Here's how we fix it

July 06, 2021 18 min read

The Autograph Industry is BROKEN! Here's how we fix it

You know there's a lot going on in the autograph industry. I've been doing this for about 18 years now so I've seen a lot and there's a lot to improve on and we have improved a lot of different things, and that's what today's video is going to be about. The biggest complaints that I get or it seems like I hear from everybody are a couple things. Number one autograph prices, number two autograph authentication, three autograph quality for jersey prices, and four the lack of photos available for signings. So I'm going to be touching on every one of these topics today and give you my opinion on how they can be improved. This is going to be a little bit longer video than I normally like to do just because I kind of want to go into a little bit of depth on each topic, so I apologize in advance, but I'm gonna try to move through it as quickly as I can and get right to the point with this stuff.

So first off let's talk autograph prices. So some people understand that a guy like Mike Trout can command a $400 plus price for an autograph and a lot of people don't understand that, and that's okay too. So let's talk about first off why an autograph for a guy like Mike Trout can command a $400 autograph price. First thing, competition. Maybe not in Mike Trout's case because he's already got an exclusive, but when an athlete is on the free market and guys are competing for him they want to sign him to an exclusive deal. Dealers are going to compete. They want to sign this guy, whoever it is, and the price is going to naturally go up when these people are competing. They're going to throw more money at this player to get him to sign with them, so competition is going to be driving up the autograph signing price and thus inevitably creating a higher price for the customer. Also you got to think about it too, athletes nowadays make millions and millions of dollars. Guys like Mike Trout are making 40 million dollars or something like that. I mean just an incredible money. He's not making that much in 2020 because he's only playing a third of the year, but you get what I'm saying. These guys are making an unfathomable amount of money and a $1,000 or $5,000 or even $10,000 is just nothing to them. They're just not interested in doing any events where that's gonna be the reward for them.

So the days of guys going and signing for $500 or $1,000 is long gone. These guys make way too much money nowadays, and it's like you and I going to do an event for 20 or 50 bucks okay, it's just not that big of a deal for us so these guys are gonna have to be getting paid in order to convince them to come do an autograph signing. It's just the way it is and it's just the reality right now. So what can be done about this?

One thing that us dealers can really do to help alleviate this cost for the consumer is to do kind of bulk pricing on multiple items. So customers will typically get in some cases more than one item for an athlete. They'll get a baseball, a bat, jersey, whatever it is, they're getting a couple different signatures sometimes and we can offer a discount to the customer. Sometimes our hands are kind of tied though where we have to follow a certain price and we can't go below that pricing with exclusive athletes. For example like Peyton Manning and Mike Trout. So we can't do it with some of those guys but a lot of the other guys who don't have exclusives we can do bulk pricing and that's going to help kind of reduce the cost for a customer that's already at the signing. They're already getting one item. If they're going to get two, three, four, or five items we can offer a little bit of a discount there to help ease the overall cost per signature.

Another option is to really give customers choices, and I'm really big on choices. Some people kind of go the other way with this but for me I think everything should be separated out kind of like an a la carte kind of thing. If you want to pay for authentication, pay for authentication. If you don't want to pay for it then don't pay for it. I mean it's ten bucks, you're getting five items, that's 50 bucks right there but let's say we go ahead and include it in the price. For you that just drives up the price already so that's going to increase your overall cost. So I'm all about giving people choices.

A lot of other people who have physical stores will offer if you want to come in and pay cash or you want to come and pay check, they're not going to include that three percent PayPal fee and hey, three percent off of a thousand dollar order is 30 bucks so you can save a customer 30 bucks. They're not getting authentication on those five items, hey now you've saved them 80 bucks right there. Plus maybe they get a little bit discount for getting those multiple items so you can actually save them a decent amount of money. It may end up being $10 or $15 which doesn't sound like a lot, but it can add up over the long haul. So these are just some things that we can help do to alleviate this. Yes, we all want to charge cheaper pricing, but there's just so much involved in an autograph signing, not just the athlete's autograph price but you've got your business overhead, you've got your advertising costs, you've got your raw goods costs that you've got to get. There's just a lot.

Number two thing that I think we can improve on, and this is probably one of the biggest ones I want to touch on today, is autograph authentication. Now this is an area where we've made really big strides.  I'm talking about the Major League Baseball program. Most authentication now comes online. That's great and you can at any moment type in your number and you can see the item that's on there, but there's more that we need to do in order to kind of make this area bulletproof and this is the area that I think we should be getting bulletproof on. The days of putting a sticker or a hologram on an item and then typing into a website a lot of stuff. Again, that's great for right now, but I really think that's kind of outdated and I think it really opens us up for fraud because any hologram, any sticker, can basically almost be replicated, and if you don't know anything about a sticker or a hologram and you're just buying something for the first time you're probably not going to know the difference. You do your little google search and you say, “Oh I heard JSA is good.” You buy something with a JSA, you don't think anything of it. Maybe it's a not a real hologram or it's been copied or something like that. You just don't know. So there's better ways that we can do this.

Number one, is and this is this is absolutely critical, there has to be an image associated with the item. When you go to verify it online that image is showing the exact item that's associated with that particular number. That is basically going to hopefully remove them copying from these stickers and all these fake holograms and all that kind of stuff because it's already got a picture on there of the exact item that's been signed, where it's been signed, you'll see the exact one. So not only would they have to copy the sticker and also have to copy the autograph, and that's really asking a lot right there, you'll easily be able to tell if something is different in that particular instance. So we gotta have photos  on the  website and it seems like every single company has had their holograms stolen by a bad employee or faked or copied or whatever you want to call it. So we've just got to get away from the sticker and number deal to something that can be with an image.

So what can be done here? Again, I am I am no engineer. I am not Elon Musk let me just clarify that in case you were confused on that. I don't have an engineering background but artificial intelligence is where it is at. Now where it's going to be in five or ten years is going to be light years from where we are today, so here's what I'd like to see in kind of a perfect world. When you have a JSA, PSA, Beckett, or whoever's doing the signing, whoever is authenticating the signing, is essentially they have a software program that has artificial intelligence already built into it and basically all they have to do is scan the item with the number on there. They show the autograph and it'll of course show the item and the artificial intelligence can pick up that number. They'll get to know a player's autograph so they already can database that real quickly, and then it has a picture of the item and they do that really quickly. It's all done right after the signing. No problems and that would be the ideal thing that I would like to see. Is it going to require a little more legwork? Possibly yes, but here's the thing. If JSA is charging eight or ten dollars, that if you can get something like this for twelve dollars would you pay the extra two dollars to have something that cool? Where you can actually see your item online and have a visual image of it or even a video of it online? So when you go to sell that you can say, “Hey listen, here's the proof right here. This is the exact item you're seeing. It's got the hologram number on there and there's no problems with it at all.” I would pay extra for that. I think most customers would pay extra for better authentication.

So again the sticking point with that is it would just have to be really easy for the authenticators to upload all the stuff because right now what they're doing is they're putting the sticker on there, they're putting the card in there, they've got to log that number then they've got to go into the database to do it all. I mean they're doing legwork already so having some sort of software program where they can actually just scan the item with their phone and it automatically uploads in there might actually end up saving them time and money in the end. So I'm not sure the logistics on how that's going to work out, but that's something that would be very cool and critical to our industry to have something like that. Another idea and PSA DNA also does this already is to have some sort of invisible ink on your item from the signing. So when they authenticated on PSA DNA they put this little invisible ink on there that basically cannot be traced so that way they know that that number there is associated with that item and they can see it under UV light. I'm not sure on 100% of the specifics there, but something like that would be absolutely cool if you can hold it under UV light, you can see that it says number 12345 and you look at the number on your hologram, it says 12345 and you can match those up. Because anybody that's gonna copy that sticker is not gonna have the ability to put that information on that ball so that's just another layer of security.

Again, I'm not an engineer by any means but I've seen this stuff out there and I figure if we can go to the moon I'm pretty sure we can figure out how to prevent autograph fraud. I'm pretty sure we could probably figure this out which is going to require a little bit of the old STEM people. The ones we used to make fun of in school. These people are critical now. The science, technology, engineering, and math people. We need those people.

Number three and this is probably one of the bigger ones. For every single signing that we do is autograph quality. It's just the one thing that we just don't have complete control over because you've got the pen, you've got the athlete, you've got the surface, you've got the item. There's just so many different variables that go into the autograph quality, but one big issue here and the biggest complaint is what an athlete's autograph looks like. Now listen, athletes can sign how they want for the most part. That's their signature. Ours are sloppy too, so don't get me wrong, yes we're not getting paid for it but ours are sloppy as well. It just seems like athlete's autographs have gone downhill from the days of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio and all that kind of stuff, and this is mainly due to athletes  signing extreme amount of items in a short time frame.

It goes back to what I was saying when they were getting paid. If they're doing a two-hour event, they command X amount of dollars for that two-hour event and as a dealer it's like, “Well if I got two hours with this athlete and I'm already paying them X amount of dollars, I want to get as many items as I can within that two-hour window.” A lot of this is due to laziness on the athletes part. Of course they don't really care what the final product looks like, they've already got paid. They don't have any fighting in the dog anymore. They're done. That's it. They've gotten their money, so that I totally get and understand,  and I get their angle too is being paid a couple grand for some of the lower guys is not really all that big of a deal and it's not all that exciting to sit around signing autographs, but listen, you agree to do it you should put forth your best autograph if possible.

So what can be done about this? Well first off dealers need to try to do their best to set the expectation with the athlete about the quality of the autograph and you can do this in a kind and professional way. You can do this with talking with the agent as well, but build up some rapport with the athlete and say, “Hey listen, our customers are really excited to come meet you here, you're one of the fan favorites here, and they've got some items they're working on. They'd really appreciate it if you gave them a nice autograph today. That's what they really came for.” and  just build it up for them and make it exciting for them to be there and make them feel good about being there so they can  give you the best autograph possible for the customers. So that's definitely something that we can do and at least bring it up in the conversation so the athlete is aware that you are aware that, “Hey, I know that we know that we want a good autograph here.” Kind of one of those deals. Don't be afraid, and this is what I think it gets to be a really sticky point sometimes is don't be afraid to tell the athlete that the autograph sucks. That's too sloppy. No that's not going to work, and again you can do this in a kind and professional way. Make it funny, however you want do it, but if we can do that as dealers and say, “Hey man if we could  make that a little bit bigger or make that a little bit cleaner that'd be great.” Some sort of way to encourage them to do a better autograph, I think that is going to be great for the end customer.

I really think that that is going to be critical. The authentication of course, also making sure that we get a nice autograph for everybody, but again speaking with the athletes but also speaking with the agent too. Anybody that this athlete actually listens to, whether it's their wife that's there, sometimes it's their brother or best friend. Whatever it is, build some rapport. We are essentially the first line of defense.

Here's one thing that I absolutely love and I'm just going to touch on it briefly for a little bit, and again going back to choices is giving the customer a choice of autograph. Now listen I understand that the athletes being paid for the autograph, they should give you the best autograph possible, we've already touched on some reasons why that may or may not happen, but I really like for example like Mike Trout. He gives a price that you can do for the full name autograph, it's Michael Nelson Trout. It looks beautiful. People really like it. Yes it costs extra, but if you're really that gung-ho about getting the best quality autograph I'd like to at least see you have the option to be able to purchase a full name. Usually it's like an extra inscription cost, but I'd like to see it on the menu there saying this is our standard autograph, here's what it looks like, if you want a full name autograph here's what that's going to look like and then give the customer the option on what they would like to choose. I think that would be a lot more transparent with people and they can see exactly the type of autograph they're going to get before they buy and then also see what they can upgrade to.

If you want the full name Shaquille O'Neal autograph, he writes out every single letter. I think people would really dig that and people would really be excited about that and be empowered by that because they actually have a choice now and they can see what they're buying kind of beforehand. If you've ever seen Manny Ramirez's autograph it changes by the hour, so it would be just super cool to have them give that option there. Plus the athlete may actually be really enjoying it because now they know they’re getting paid for this better autograph. Everybody's happy, everybody knows what they're getting, it's a win-win deal. At the end of the day though remember, it's their autograph, they're gonna do what they want.

Number four is jersey prices. We all know officially licensed jerseys can get expensive. The Nike game ones, those are 100 bucks. The limited ones are $150. Elite ones are like $350. Very expensive and that's why people gravitate towards the china and the custom ones. I get it, 25, 30, or even 50 extra bucks for a jersey or something like that is pretty steep for some people, I totally get it and understand. What I really would like to see here is for jersey companies to give a cheaper jersey option for the customer. Now here's what customers mainly want. They want a jersey that has a sewn on number. That's pretty much all they care about. That allows for the best quality autograph which as we discussed today is what customers really want. They want a nice quality autograph. I'm not a jersey manufacturer, I've never made jerseys, I know the least thing about clothing. I don't even buy my own clothes, my wife Natalie buys them for me. I haven't been shopping in years, I could care less about clothes, but here's the thing with jersey is there's got to be a way to make the actual jersey itself out of the cheapest possible material. Just a color of whatever the jersey is we can even get rid of the patches and all that kind of stuff. You can keep the NFL logo on there, that's fine, but just have the player's name on it and a nice sewn on number that looks nice. I think we can do that and get to the 60 to 75 dollar range.

Yes by reducing the price these companies are not going to be making as much money probably per unit, I totally get that, plus you've got licensing costs and all the other kind of stuff that's involved in it, but I think at the end of the day if you have something you call the autographed jersey  where it doesn't really fit well, maybe it's kind of cut short here whatever it is, but it's a cheaper jersey that we use for autographs and sell that one as the autographed jersey. Even branded as that. I think people would really start gravitating towards that because people want official license jerseys. They want a nice quality jersey. Some just think right now they're overpriced, and I agree on the most part for some of them, the elite jerseys at $350 or whatever they are, yeah that's a tank of gas, I mean it's a huge tank of money right there. So again, if we can get to that 50 to 75 dollars, that would be absolutely cool and I think you'd have actually kind of cornered the market a little bit. Again, it comes down to licensing all that kind of stuff, but there's got to be a cheaper material that we can use in order to help reduce that cost. Like I said, leave the patches off, whatever we can do to get that price down.

Patches we know are expensive plus you gotta sew them on. Also, one thing I would really like to see is typically when a dealer like myself wants to go buy officially licensed jerseys from someone, this isn't true for every situation, but for the big players it is, you're gonna have to pay a minimum of a thousand dollars right and then you can go ahead and buy them at wholesale, which is a decent discount, but not great by any means. That's a big chunk of change to throw out for some for some jerseys. I'd like to see them be able to offer buy ones and twosies and whatnot at a reduced price. That way we can offer them out to customers. People can get a reduced price on the jerseys and thus reduce their overall price of a completed item with autograph and with jersey. So have some sort of program for dealers who may only need five jerseys or whatever it is. It'd be nice to be able to see that so we can offer these things out to customers more as opposed to having to buy all these jerseys and hoping they sell, which sometimes they don't.

So last one here is lack of photo availability. This is a big one because Photophile who used to be the main photo supplier for the autograph industry went out of business in 2020 and now Fanatics has kind of taken that over a little bit, but they don't have nearly the options that Photophile had and I don't condone printing your own images and all that stuff. We all know that's illegal. Don't want to be doing that. You want to stay away from doing that so we have to find a way to give collectors access to photos that they want, not just the standard because that's why people print their own images. They like this one, it's not available or they want to do a custom artwork thing so we need to find a way to give them access to these photos without paying extortion prices like $500 for access for one photo. I mean that's just ridiculous. No collector is going to pay for that, absolutely not. Nobody can do that so what can we be doing about this?

Let me start off by saying that I'm no licensing expert. I have a decent understanding of the licensing world, not so much in the photo world, but I know this is going to be the big kicker when it comes to this stuff is the licensing. Everybody wants to get their cut. I get it okay, but there's got to be a better way. This is 2020. These are just my thoughts on it okay. There are websites out there, I'll give you an example called storyblocks.com, essentially what you do on Storyblocks is you pay a membership fee and they have royalty-free images on there. Now you can't take these images and print them but you can use them in your videos and you can use them on your social media posts. Essentially you pay a yearly fee like 350 some bucks or so to be able to get access to this stuff and they have other stuff too. They do videos and audio and all that kind of stuff. It's actually a really cool site. So basically I would like to see a site that would be licensed by the leagues where you can have like approved photographers, so  not just any Joe Schmo like me taking pictures, they'll be nice quality pictures, where somebody like myself can go and pay a membership fee of 350 or 400 bucks or whatever it is get access to these images. Not to download and print them but they can say okay I want one of this, two of this, like when you upload your photos on the CSV's website and you can tell them exactly what you want. It's kind of like a cheaper version of Getty images, but with no minimums and just sports images.

So just kind of imagine that and also on this site you would have kind of a component of like elance.com to where you would have Photoshop experts on there so you can say I want this image and I want to be able to create a custom artwork off of that and then they can do that, Of course for an additional fee, and it's all done on this website. So you don't have to download anything. Nobody's getting access to things that they don't have access to. So that's just something that I've just been kind of throwing out there. Again, licensing is going to be a huge problem. It's always a pain in the butt, everybody wants their money. I get it but there's got to be a more streamlined process to where the customer can go directly to the photographer and print their image off and use it for autographs or whatever they like.  We're not using them for commercials and all that kind of stuff, but just to print it off and to have some to get an autograph, or you want to put them on your wall. If you want to give them out to friends, whatever it is you want to do.

So those are just the five things that I see that we can improve upon. Again these are just my thoughts, they're not 100%, they're not absolute, and they're not even completely thought out on a lot of the stuff. As I mentioned the licensing stuff is something that I'm not 100% on. I have a decent idea on it, but I think there's definitely things that we can improve upon when it comes to the autograph. Authentication that would be the first thing I would start working on. We've really got to get that thing iron-clad to where a customer can buy an item and know that it's 100% authentic. That's something that we can't always say and that's a problem. I would definitely like to see the things that we have control over, for example, the autograph quality. Doing those things that we touched on there and then the other stuff is kind of stuff that we have that's out of our control. I really don't have control over the photos. I don't have control over the jerseys, but if the jersey manufacturers are watching out there I know people that if you made a $50 sewn on licensed jersey they would buy that over China nine times out of ten.

So just some food for thought. Again, make it a really nice cheap jersey. It doesn't have to be expensive.  Just put a little some number on there. Anybody can do it. I swear we can we can get into 50 bucks. So anyway hope you guys like this video. Again, these are just some thoughts on how to improve on the industry.

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