A popular diamond commercial on the radio airways in Northern Virginia has the company owner talking about the thrill of “going straight to the mines” for the treasures they acquire. The words convey thoughts of excitement, mystery and of untold surprises and rewards that exist for those daring and experienced enough to make the trek. Here in Northern Virginia exists another such man, feeding his clients with treasures that come from “mines” so to speak. His name is Mark Hayne of Gridiron Exchange and the subject of this article is making a “team buy.”
“Team Buy” is the hobby term for getting jerseys in bulk directly from the team. Over the years, Mark has been involved in making such acquisitions with respect to football uniforms as the name Gridiron Exchange implies. For Mark, this process and concept began back in the mid-1970s while a college student at UAB when he picked up equipment and uniforms from the World Football League. Mark is an avid collector as well, especially with respect to the Atlanta Falcons, the WFL, and UAB. He has been gracious enough to give us all some rare perspectives on the elusive target… the “team buy.”
DG: I had mentioned earlier about your picking up old WFL items. As I recall, this pre-dated your days as dealer. How did you come across this stuff and what did you get?
MH: The first game-used items I ever obtained were from the Birmingham Americans in December 1974. After Birmingham won the World Bowl (league championship game) with a 22-21 victory over the Florida Blazers on December 5, 1974 at Birmingham’s Legion Field, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department was waiting in the Americans’ locker room to confiscate all of the team’s equipment. The Americans had not paid for the equipment, so the local sporting goods store (Hibbett’s) that supplied the team had the equipment repossessed.
It was no secret that the equipment had been repossessed, but I never gave it a second thought that Hibbett’s would make the equipment available to the public. As luck would have it, I was a junior at UAB and the fall quarter had just ended, so my best friend, Mike Eady, and I did what we usually did during school break – we jumped in the car and made the rounds to the local sporting goods stores as we never tired of browsing through all of the goods, especially the latest models of baseball gloves. (My love of baseball and a good baseball glove is another story for another day).
Hibbett’s had several stores in the Birmingham area with the main store and warehouse located on the western edge of downtown Birmingham. We strolled into Hibbett’s around 2:00 in the afternoon and the first thing I spotted was Ronald Foxx’s blue #40 Birmingham Americans’ jersey hanging on the wall behind the counter. I had never owned or even thought of owning an actual game-used jersey until that very moment. My knees began to shake and my voice cracked as I asked the clerk if the jersey was for sale. I was a full-time student with the only money in my pocket being the leftover cash from selling my books at the UAB Book Store at the end of the quarter. I was hoping that I had enough to secure a jersey.
The clerk said that the jersey was not for sale, but they expected to have an answer in a couple of hours, so he said to check back later in the afternoon. Not only would the Foxx jersey be available for sale, so would all of the equipment including jerseys, helmets, pads – anything and everything. My head was swimming at this point thinking of which jersey I would get.
Mike and I drove home and spent the next two hours debating which jersey each of us would buy. We made the call to Hibbett’s around 4:00 to see if a decision had been made. Sure enough, the jerseys were now available for sale. There was one problem for me, however. Jerseys were priced at $30 each and I only had about $20 left after finishing my Christmas shopping. Mike had some cash as he worked part-time, so he had a few bucks I could borrow. Luck would come my way once again as my Mom was coming in from work as Mike and I were about to leave. I asked Mom if she could loan me some money to buy the jersey. Instead of loaning me the money, she gave me a blank check and said to consider it part of my Christmas as she knew how much I loved the Americans (I never missed a home game in the championship ’74 season). Needless to say, this would be one of my most favorite Christmas presents ever!
When we arrived at Hibbett’s, we were led to an upstairs storage area. Laid neatly on the floor was each player’s set of jerseys. The Americans wore fishnet jerseys in the first 10 games of the season before switching to mesh for the remaining 10 regular season games and two playoff games. There were two sets of each style and color, so each player had eight jerseys. My very favorite player was Alfred Jenkins who went on to be an All-Pro with the Atlanta Falcons. He was the team MVP, and of course, the favorite player of a lot of other fans. Disappointingly, we arrived too late as all of Alfred’s #80 jerseys had been taken. I was crushed, but only for a moment as my second favorite player, #30 Gerard Williams, was still available. Now, the tough decision was whether to buy a home white or a blue road. And should I get a mesh or a fishnet? I quickly chose the mesh over the fishnet, but choosing a color took a lot of pondering.
Finally, I went with the blue as it was simply more appealing to my eyes even though they never wore blue at home games. I had enough money in my pocket to buy a $15 pair of game pants, and I went back a week later and picked up a game ball for $25 (the wild looking old-gold football with orange stripes) after managing to raid my meager savings account out of desperation. All of this may sound like chump change in 2007, but back in 1974, it was a lot of money to this college student who was depending on student loans to pay for my education.
Needless to say, I was addicted by this point. The WFL folded for good in October 1975, and Birmingham once again had their uniforms returned to the sporting goods store after the final game. The team was called the Vulcans in 1975, and a different sporting goods store (Fred Sington’s) had supplied the team. This time, there was only one set of each style meaning that there were only four jerseys for each player. Jerseys were $25 for the mesh and $15 for the fishnet. No helmets, pants, or other equipment were available as most was sold to a local high school and Ole Miss. Some of the helmets ended up in the hands of John Stommen (founder of Sports Collectors Digest) who made the helmets available to collectors.
My first foray into dealing began with the sale and trade of Birmingham Vulcans jerseys. I was in a little better position financially by the fall of 1975, so I picked up a jersey of each color and each style (fishnet and mesh) for my personal collection. I later picked up extras to trade, and eventually picked up a few more that I sold. This was helpful in allowing me to pick up jerseys from other teams. Howard “Smitty” Smith of San Antonio, Texas, was in the salvage business and he bought the equipment from several of the teams including the San Antonio Wings, Memphis Southmen, and the Hawaiians. I picked up a Jacksonville Express jersey when I saw an ad in the back of The Sporting News, and picked up several Chicago Wind jerseys and Southern California Sun jersey from ads in magazines such as SCD. Mark Jordan, who is still active in the hobby, ended up with most of the Philadelphia Bell jerseys, and I ended up purchasing several from him.
Through the years, I have had well over one-hundred WFL jerseys and at least one jersey from every team except the 1974 New York/Charlotte Stars, 1975 Southern California Sun (slightly different sleeve stripe design from the ‘74 jerseys), and 1975 Portland Thunder (completely different from the 1974 Storm jerseys). As a side note, there were several teams such as Birmingham that wore the same basic style both years, but there were subtle differences that can be recognized to distinguish the 1974 jerseys from the 1975 jerseys.
DG: Over the years, what organizations have you been able to make bulk purchases from and when was the first?
MH: Living in Birmingham exposed me to every alphabet league that has come along in the past 35 years ranging from the WFL, USFL, WLAF, CFL, and the World Hockey Association. As each league folded, I was always fortunate to be able to obtain a fair amount of jerseys from each team. Although I was able to buy extra jerseys for trade and resale dating all the way back to 1975 with the Birmingham Vulcans, the first major bulk buy did not come along until 1995 when I purchase over 500 jerseys from the World League of American Football.
The league started out in 1991 with six teams in the states, one in Canada, and three in Europe. After the 1992 season, the league went into hibernation for several years. The league had control of most of the jerseys and equipment from the first two years, and it was warehoused in Dallas. I had been in contact with the league on several occasions trying to obtain the jerseys of the Birmingham Fire. I wasn’t having much luck until early 1995 when the league decided to move out of the Dallas facility. They were willing to sale the jerseys at that point, but only if I was willing to buy every jersey on hand. I countered by offering to buy all of the jerseys with names-on-back, but none of the jerseys without plates. I had to make several agreements regarding my methods of marketing the jerseys, and once that was negotiated with the league office in London, the deal was done.
I will never forget the day the UPS truck arrived with the huge boxes crammed full of jerseys. My pal, Mike Eady, and I spent an entire evening sifting through piles of jerseys spread across my living room and dining room floors. I spent nearly a week carefully cataloguing each jersey, something I’ve never done since for a number of reasons (the main one is that I wish to remain married to my wonderful wife for another 24 years). I still have the log and can easily match up any WLAF jersey I see in the marketplace if it came from my original buy.
After the WLAF buy, a couple of bulk purchases quickly came my way. I struck a deal later in 1995 with the defunct Las Vegas Posse of the CFL (1994 season) and purchased approximately 40 helmets and a number of jerseys they had remaining that had not been sold to collectors and local fans. In the spring of 1996, I made a deal with another defunct CFL club, my hometown Birmingham Barracudas. Again it was approximately 40 helmets along with jerseys, a few pair of pants, and several equipment bags.
My first major NFL score was the Detroit Lions in 1999 where I ended up with approximately 800 jerseys. One thing that I do different from most other dealers is that I normally will not finalize a deal until I have first inspected the inventory. With the Lions, I made the trip to the Silverdome to look at the inventory which dated from the mid-1990s back to the early 1970s. While going through the boxes, I was stunned to find a number of durene jerseys from the early 1970s. For serious football collectors, durene jerseys are akin to baseball flannel jerseys. I was successful with my bid which included close to 100 durene jerseys. I kept a few for my personal collection, and all the rest are long gone except for the five white durene jerseys that remain on my price list. Hey, I had to get a plug in for my price list!
DG: Have you found it tougher or easier to make contact with teams willing to work with dealers with respect to selling equipment in bulk?
MH: That depends on the team. Over the years, a majority of teams have not bothered to respond to my inquiries. Some have been very cordial in replying, even if the answer was “no”. I can say that I’ve only been treated rudely once or twice. Overall, it is tougher to find teams willing to sale at this point as they realize that with the internet, Tent Sales, and team activities surrounding events such as Draft Day, they can market the jerseys themselves and reap more profits by selling directly to the public. They have a huge advantage over a dealer such as me as they can focus on local fans in addition to selling on the their team website whereas I market mainly to a set group of collectors.
DG: What is the largest quantity of uniforms you purchased at one time and how did that or has that worked out?
MH: The Detroit deal is still my largest. It worked out very well as there are a lot of great Lions fans and collectors out there.
DG: When you show up and begin looking through the inventory being offered, what things are you looking for and what impacts your decision on whether the deal is worth making?
MH: I try to obtain an inventory list before I make the trip to the team facility as I want to know what is available. There is no use in taking a day off work from my “real” job and invest in transportation expenses if the inventory does not look appealing. Sometimes a potential deal needs to be killed before it starts. If the inventory list looks appealing and a trip is arranged, my goals are:
1. Check the jerseys being viewed to the jerseys shown on the inventory list. Small discrepancies are to be expected, especially if it is a huge number of jerseys.
2. Inspect the jerseys for game use. With a large buy such as the Lions, it is impossible to view every jersey while at the team facilities, but a good idea can be gained by randomly checking jerseys in each storage box/container.
3. Look for other issues such as nameplates (don’t want too many jerseys without plates), blank jerseys, and if any “retail” jerseys have been included in the mix in error (I’ve observed this on several occasions where one or two replicas ended up in the mix).
What most collectors don’t understand is that “more” for a dealer is not necessarily better for a dealer. For example, it doesn’t do me any good to purchase 1,000 jerseys if I project that I will be able to sale only 300 in the long run. So sometimes, a large bulk buy opportunity is not necessarily a great business opportunity for a dealer.
DG: What is the strangest or most interesting thing you have encountered or come across in making a team buy?
MH: There have been so many that I hardly know where to begin. What many collectors don’t realize is that there are quirky things that will almost inevitably be discovered in every bulk buy. One of my favorite examples was in my previously mentioned purchase of WLAF jerseys. The league had contracted with Wilson to supply the jerseys for the 1991 and 1992 seasons. Out of the over 500 jerseys in the buy, all were Wilson except for one green Barcelona Dragons jersey that was made by FabKnit out of Waco, Texas. The jersey showed nice game use, so I can only guess as to the reason this jersey exists.
Seeing recycled jerseys (jerseys used in a subsequent season after it was year-tagged) is commonplace with NFL teams.
Another thing you quickly learn in making team buys is the different styles and cuts that NFL teams choose to wear. All NFL jerseys sport the Reebok tag, but not all teams wear the same style. For example, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago differ from each other for the most part. Some teams, such as the Falcons, use a “bat-wing” shoulder cut where most of the linemen are wearing sizes 42 and 44 (and yes, I’ve even seen a lineman in a size 40). Many receivers and backs will use sizes as small as 38 and 40. On the other hand, most of the 2005 Eagles jerseys have the traditional “straight” cut seam that separates the shoulder area from the body, and the linemen are at least a size 48 and go up from there. But even with that, there are exceptions to the rule. A few of the Eagles wear the “bat-wing” cut, and to further complicate matters, there was a nice black alternate of Jevon Kearse in the buy that is a size 44.
A few years ago, I had a Washington Redskins’ jersey of Bruce Smith that showed decent game use that was obtained at a team Tent Sale. I had a difficult time trying to sell it as I kept hearing over-and-over again that there was no way that Bruce Smith could wear a size 42. I even heard a few folks say that it was probably a practice jersey. First, the ‘Skins practice jerseys are substantially different than the gamers. Second, every legitimate Smith jersey from his days in Washington that I have seen are either a size 42 or 44. Some collectors really missed out on a great deal for a future Hall-of-Fame player’s jersey.
DG: Has there been an opportunity you have had in the past, that in hindsight, you regret not pulling the trigger on?
MH: I can honestly say no. Probably the best advice I was ever given came from the legendary Dick Dobbins. The late-Mr. Dobbins told me that sometimes the best deals you make are the ones that you don’t make. Heeding Mr. Dobbins’ sound advice and employing the methods previously mentioned have worked well for me over the years.
DG: I know you are both a collector and fan of the game, both college and pro. If you had the chance to go back in time and make a team buy, what would the club be and why?
MH: That’s an easy one! It would be the Birmingham Americans. It is simply my most favorite football experience ever as a fan. I still have fond memories of the team and all of their exciting last-second wins. People in Birmingham who were around at the time still speak glowingly of the Americans. If I knew back then what I know now, I would have found a way to come up with the money to buy every piece of equipment that was displayed on the second floor of Hibbett’s back in December of 1974. It would have been darn difficult for me to sell ANY of the jerseys, but with two sets of each, I simply would have sold one set of each style/color and kept the other set for myself!
Mark Hayne is the owner of Gridiron Exchange. For a list of his available inventory, please drop Mark a line at email@example.com or call him at 703-897-5073.