The Dilemma: Should College Athletes be Paid for Autographs?

Recent headlines claiming that Texas A&M Quarterback Johnny Manziel reportedly signed over 4,300 autographs for sports memorabilia dealers has generated an interesting topic –  whether athletes with NCAA eligibility should be allowed to market, or at least be compensated for their signatures.

Some pundits have used this discussion to address the larger issue of whether college athletes should receive compensation on any and all fronts.  For those of us with experience in the autograph market, this assumption that the ability to generate large sums of money for a wide-ranging assortment of NCAA athletes, is one that seems a little far-fetched.

We’ve represented clients, both athletes and historical figures, in the autograph market for nearly two decades, and very few of these deals involve a simple pay for signature scenario.

First, many involve the athlete attending a number of public appearances where the promoters often use their attendance as a draw for fans.  The athlete is required to travel a certain number of times during the length of the agreement in order to attend a prescribed number of shows.

Next, many autograph deals, especially with certain entities such as the trading card companies, can contain a requirement for the athlete to provide a certain amount of memorabilia, some of which has been used during a game.  These items are then either cut up into small pieces which are inserted into trading cards, and/or, the pieces are awarded as prizes to lucky fans.

Finally, the values placed on these signatures, in terms of the amounts paid to the athletes, are only for a limited amount of autographs that the athlete provides.  Like any market, supply and demand rules. An athlete under such an agreement would be guaranteed a certain amount of autographs at a certain price.  No entity likes to hold much inventory in this business these days, so a commitment of many thousands of autographs to be purchased from an athlete in one agreement is not common.

The ability to generously compensate a college athlete, and specifically any more than a handful in any one season, by a single entity in this market would be a difficult one.  University Boosters could play a role as they are not be concerned about flooding the market or watching their margins, but instead about putting the required amount of dollars into the athlete’s wallet.  Boosters could give away the autographs to charitable events, athletic functions, or other venues as a form of both currency and good will.  The biggest autograph dealers in the country could then someday be a booster from Oregon or Oklahoma State or Alabama.

If the NCAA someday decides to research only the ability to provide autographs for compensation, they may find that the only parties willing to undertake such a venture are the loyal Booster groups. The common requirements of making appearances during the season/school year, providing jerseys and equipment that the university has purchased, and a limited marketplace for autographs at a certain price, they will most likely find other parties unwilling to undertake such a venture. This does not sound like a scenario that the NCAA would currently find acceptable.