One of the age old debates centers on the question of what came first, the chicken or the egg. I suspect a similar debate might focus on if popularity drives value or if value drives popularity. When dealing with sports memorabilia, you also have to look at what factors determine popularity or a collector’s desire to have an item of a particular player. At first glance, one might equate on field success with value/collecability. If you have followed this industry/hobby for more than a day, you know this is not always the case. Consider the precipitous plummet in value for game used items for players such as Bonds and Sosa. Still other similarly tainted players such as McGwire and Rose have faired a bit better.

In recent weeks, the NFL suspended Steelers Quarterback Ben Rothlisberger for six games in the upcoming season violating the league’s conduct policy. We tend to think of this “conduct clause” as something new in the sport, but in actuality it is not. Paragraph 6 of the standard NFL contract that Johnny Unitas signed in 1956 (for $7,000) contained this language:

“ if in the opinion of the Head Coach, the Player’s work or conduct in the performance of this contract is unsatisfactory as compared with the work and conduct of other members of the Club’s squad of players, the Club shall have the right to terminate this contract upon written notice to the player of such termination.”

I suspect this proviso in the Unitas contract was intended to cover conduct incidental to the game or sport, but what was changed over time is the amount of money the league stands to make or lose based on the popularity/collecability if you will of the player in question. According to one source I found, an estimated $575 million dollars is spent each year on NFL merchandise. For folks reading this article, team jerseys are items that likely come to mind.

Top Sellers from via as of 5 May 2010:

1. Tim Tebow, Broncos (New Player)

2. Donovan McNabb, Redskins (New Team)

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets (New Team)

4. Drew Brees, Saints

5. Tony Romo, Cowboys

6. Payton Manning, Colts

7. Brett Favre, Vikings

8. Ndamakong Suh, Lions (New Player)

9. Sam Bradford, Rams (New Player)

10. Troy Polamalu, Steelers

A look at this same information for the period of 1 April-31 August 2009:

1. Brett Favre, Vikings

2. Jay Cutler, Bears

3. Troy Polamalu, Steelers

4. Michael Vick, Eagles

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers

6. Tony Romo, Cowboys

7. Mark Sanchez, Jets

8. Tom Brady, Patriots

9. Adrian Peterson, Vikings

10. Eli Manning, Giants

11. Terrell Owens, Bills

12. Peyton Manning, Colts

13. Hines Ward, Steelers

14. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers

15. Jason Witten, Cowboys

16. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals

17. Joe Flacco, Ravens

18. Matt Ryan, Falcons

19. Aaron Rodgers, Packers

20. Michael Crabtree, 49ers

Some of this movement in the charts reflects new players or players new to a particular team such as Tim Tebow and McNabb’s move to the Redskins. It also indicates that well liked fan-favorites continue to do well. Payton Manning, Brett Favre and Troy Polamalu are not new players with new teams, yet their sales are still in the top ten. Polamalu only played in four games last season and missed everything beyond week 10.

None of this is lost on teams or league executives, regardless of sport. They realize fans want to like their players and want to spend money being fans. Take a look at your team. If its history goes back a few decades, look at how often the team has changed or altered the style of their jerseys from year to year. The changes may be subtle and only involve adding a patch or new alternate jersey…but a change is a change and the change (and dollars) adds up quickly as few want to go to the stadium, arena, or ball park looking “so last year.” Sad to say, but in my opinion, even death has become commercialized. Black armbands that were once worn and then removed have given way to patches that collectors define as subtle style differences.

While I am all in favor of the NFL or any other leagues “conduct policy”, I remain a bit jaded when I hear quotes from Roger Goodell such as “you (Rothlisberger) are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans” especially when it is clear that fans liking Big Ben means Big Bucks for all concerned.

Chicken or egg? Popularity drives value both in the retail and game used market. As I wrote a few years back, if you are looking at sports memorabilia as an investment, buy older stuff that exists in less quantity and of players whose legacy is secure. If you wish to collect to collect, then collect what you enjoy and enjoy what you collect.


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