The sports memorabilia marketplace today is a multibillion-dollar, global market. However, it is fraught with hazards, due to the large percentage of counterfeit memorabilia, which some estimates peg at 90% of all items on the market. This article overviews the sports memorabilia market and the growing problem of counterfeit items. Then, it examines the prospect for radio frequency identification (RFID) to be used to provide a verifiable chain of custody for articles of sports memorabilia – from the point the item is signed through all subsequent transfers. The article concludes with an analysis of the implications of the introduction of such track and trace authentication technology into this fragmented marketplace and the benefits for all parties involved in sports collectibles.

Keywords: radio frequency identification, chain of custody, authentication, sports memorabilia


Autograph seekers. They are a part of every professional – and often amateur – athlete’s life. They are a fixture at sports teams’ training camps, host hotels and stadiums, and anywhere these signature collectors know that athletes will have to pass through on their way to or from an event. They also are a part of the well-known athlete’s every move, as autograph seekers can make it uncomfortable, even impossible, for athletes and their families to enjoy a meal in public or a trip to an amusement park. Many of these autograph hunters are kids, looking to get that one autograph of the professional baseball or football star they admire–the one whose poster they have hanging over their bed. Some of the signature hounds are adults, looking to have literally any athlete they can find sign any team item such as a ball, a bat, a helmet, a jersey, a game program, or so forth, in order to turn an ordinary item into a collectible.

The motivation of many of these autograph seekers is indeed innocent, hoping to have a memento of their favorite athlete or sports team for their wall or mantle. The kid who admires his or her favorite sports star, whether it’s Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, Kobe Bryant, Alex Rodriguez, or David Beckham, can have a lasting memory not just from the signed item but from their brief encounter with a sports legend. All too often however, the motive for the autograph seeker is money. Indeed, the chance is there to cash-in on an athlete’s celebrity, and the players and their teams know it. The worst of the lot are grown-ups who hire children to seek out star’s autographs on a paid basis; they work on the premise that the “cute kid factor” might entice the sports star to stop and sign an item for a 9-year-old child that they wouldn’t for a 40-year-old man. As Baseball Hall of Famer Robin Yount commented, “There is money to be made out there on autographs, (and) you see more people doing it these days for that reason — the business end of it” (Olson, 2006, n.p.).

Yet, the real truth of the matter is that while a signed article can be a point of personal pride, even perhaps a family heirloom, the actual value of the item to knowledgeable sports memorabilia collectors is very limited. That is because of the need to provide verifiable proof of the autographed item’s authenticity. Yes, you may have been at the New Orleans Saints’ training camp in Jackson, Mississippi (as my sons and I were this past summer) and personally witnessed star running back Reggie Bush autograph a football. However, if you were to want to sell the ball, as opposed to displaying it on a shelf in your son’s room, there’s no irrefutable proof that could assure the first buyer, let alone subsequent buyers in the future, as to the validity of Bush’s signature. Not that this stops autograph seekers from trying day after day to get that elusive personalization of basketballs by LeBron James, footballs by Peyton Manning, baseballs by Derek Jeter, and item after item by a myriad of stars. So disruptive to athlete’s lives are some autograph hounds that teams today commonly limit access to their players, not just out of concern for their economic well-being but for their physical safety as well (Maske and Lee, 2007). And, some athletes, such as Michael Jordan, make it publicly known that they will not sign an autograph except through the special events (and often private signing days) for agencies they have contracted with to represent them in what has become an increasingly lucrative market for athletes, supplementing, or even exceeding, what they make on the field by simply signing their names (Johns, n.d.; Fisher, 2000).

The sports memorabilia market today is a global marketplace, estimated to generate revenues in excess of $5 billion annually (Friess, 2007). Items of sports memorabilia are sold in a variety of venues, including physical and online stores, shows and auctions, and in private sales (Smith, n.d.). Small, independent “mom and pop” sports memorabilia stores were once a staple of strip malls across America. According to industry observers, the number of such stores has plummeted from approximately 4,700 a decade ago to just over a thousand today (Keteyian, 2006). Much of this decline can be traced to the shifting of buying and selling sports memorabilia to eBay and other major online auction sites, much as has occurred with other collectibles, such as coins, stamps and antique items (National Auctioneers Association, 2008). However, the ease of access and widening of the marketplace has fostered an explosion of online memorabilia sales. One can see evidence of this by punching in any well-known athlete’s name on eBay, and whether you search for David Beckham, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods, or even a lesser known star, you will come-up with dozens, even hundreds, of autographed items up for sale at any given time.

However, the move to greater online sales has only worsened the problem with counterfeit sports memorabilia (Van Riper, 2007). Indeed, it is a market unlike any other, due to the giant presence of counterfeit items. In fact, one law enforcement official described the sports memorabilia market today as being “like the Wild, Wild West” (Keteyian, 2006). Market analyst Havoscope (2008) has concluded that over half of the sports memorabilia market is comprised of counterfeit items. The official estimate from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is that 70% of all signed sports collectibles on the market in the U.S. are counterfeit (Fisher, 2000); forged signatures on items which themselves may or may not be what they are purported to be (after all, even official merchandise from sports leagues and special events, such as Super Bowls, World Cups, or World Series, can be faked). Industry observers believe the true figure to be even higher, ranging to upwards of 90% of all sports collectibles (Prova Group, 2006)! Thus, this is perhaps the ultimate example of a caveat emptor (buyer beware) market.

Anyone can buy a piece of sports memorabilia to hang on the wall or show in a display case, and, if you’re happy with the price you paid for it, all the better. However, unless you personally witnessed the athlete signing the football or the baseball bat, the odds are that the item is not worth any more than what you would have paid for an unsigned version at a local sporting goods store. Thus, there is a great need to have a solution that can assure buyers and sellers of the authenticity of an item, not just presently, but into the future. As we will examine, the certification process today itself is problematic and only contributes to the problem.

For the first time, the advent of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology provides an opportunity for the sports memorabilia marketplace to have the ability for buyers and sellers alike to rely upon a readily accessible and verifiable “chain of custody” for autographed items from the time they are signed by the athlete through all subsequent sales and transfers. In doing so, trust can be built into what has historically been an untrustworthy marketplace, assuring confidence and supporting the genuineness and value of items of sports memorabilia. The author presents both an overview of the sports memorabilia marketplace and RFID technology and follows up with a look at how RFID is being used today to authenticate and to track autographed items of all forms. The article concludes with a look ahead at the implications of the introduction of this new technology and a discussion of what lies ahead.

The Sports Memorabilia Market

A baseball is just a ball until it is signed by a star player. A jersey is just a big shirt until it is worn by an all-star. Then, such items are worth a lot of money, right? Oh, that it were that simple. The terms sports memorabilia and sports collectibles are all too often used interchangeably in the marketplace. According to the recent publication, A Comprehensive Guide to Collecting Sports Memorabilia, the two terms can be differentiated in the following manner: “Photos, cards, jerseys or related sports equipment that have been signed by an athlete are considered memorabilia when that signature has been certified by a reputable distributor. Replica and authentic sports products that are unsigned, or are signed but not authenticated, are considered collectibles” (SportsMemorabilia.com, 2008, n.p., emphasis in the original).

The sports memorabilia market can be segmented into two very distinct segments: trusted sources and other. Trusted sources include both sports memorabilia shows and sports marketing agencies (Fisher, 2000). In the former category, there are a growing number of such events, where athletes are available, generally on a paid basis, to sign a limited number of items, both brought in by fans and bought at the show. At these shows, items are signed, with witnesses present and able to authenticate the athlete’s signature on a certificate of authenticity (COA). This certification is what raises the status and value of an item from being a sports collectible to becoming an item of sports memorabilia (Branton, 2008). The second trusted source is the sports agencies that contract with athletes to be exclusive purveyors of their autographed merchandise. In the United States, the market leaders are companies such as the following:

  • ALL Authentic (http://www.allauthentic.com/)
  • Mounted Memories (http://www.mountedmemories.com/)
  • Steiner Sports (http://www.steinersports.com/)
  • Upper Deck (http://www.upperdeck.com/) (Johns, n.d.).

Take Upper Deck for instance. This sports marketing agency has multi-million dollar contracts with current and former athletes from a whole host of sports, including basketball (NBA players Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson), baseball (Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr., Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, and Stan Musial), football (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Troy Aikman, John Elway, and Joe Montana), and golf (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus). Upper Deck is a market leader not just because of its status as the exclusive retailer for these star athletes of today and yesterday, but also for its 5-step certification process that stamps the item with a unique hologram and provides the owner with a certificate of authenticity and registration with the Upper Deck database. The company is even using with what it calls its PenCam™ technology, which the company had the misfortune to launch on September 11, 2001 (Henninger, 2002). The PenCam provides further authentication assurance by providing a video capture from–you guessed it–a pen equipped with a tiny video camera that captures the actual signature of the athlete on the item as it is being rendered, which is then recorded and accessible on the company’s database (The Upper Deck Company, 2008).

Items from trusted agencies do command premium prices, due to the fact that buyers and sellers alike have a very reliable chain of custody for their items of sports memorabilia. However, the vast majority of the sports memorabilia market is a murky, “other” place. In most cases, both offline and online, it is a very untrustworthy market, filled with intentionally counterfeited signed sports paraphernalia and fake items that are being bought and sold by mostly unknowing participants (SportsMemorabilia.com, 2008).

The entire sports memorabilia market in the U.S., and indeed around the world, is still reeling from the 2001 bust of a major fraud ring. In Operation Bullpen, the FBI arrested almost two dozen individuals, most of which served prison time for their involvement in the counterfeit sports memorabilia scheme. The enterprise, which operated across more than a dozen states, had expert forgers who could quickly produce entire lots of phony memorabilia. The 2001 raid yielded thousands of fraudulently signed baseballs, jerseys, helmets, photos, and other articles. The damage however, had already been done, and it continues to this day. In all, the FBI estimates that over $100 million in fake memorabilia was sold through the scheme, much of which is still on the market today, being traded by often-unsuspecting buyers and even sellers. The FBI found that not only could the forgers create knock-offs that could fool even the most knowledgeable sports memorabilia authenticator or collector, they uncovered that the criminals had turned the authentication process to their advantage. This is because the crooks were equally adept at falsifying the COAs and holograms put in place in the industry to assure the genuineness of the items (Nelson, 2006).

While 2001s Operation Bullpen was the largest fraud scheme uncovered in the sports memorabilia market to date, criminal arrests continue to plague the industry, with several cases reported in 2008 (Coen, 2008). The FBI estimates that such fraud makes for over a half a billion dollars in annual losses, impacting thousands of customers, and making it more difficult both for athletes to retain the value of their names and for legitimate firms to compete in a skeptical marketplace (Smith, n.d.; Johns, n.d.).

One of the major problem points for the whole memorabilia sales and trading process is the certificate of authenticity that accompanies an item. Ostensibly in place to provide a potential buyer with the assurance that the item he or she is considering purchasing is a genuine article, but today, the effect is almost the opposite. This is because of rampant fraud in the creation of these COAs. Today, there is no industry standard for certification process or for the paper COA itself. Thus, there are rampant problems with these documents. Some fraudulent memorabilia sellers create their own fake COAs to accompany their fake items (SportsMemorabilia.com, 2008; Smith, n.d.; Johns, n.d.). While there are several reputable third-party certification services, who will analyze an item and its history to determine its authenticity, there are also disreputable ones, known to certify, in the words of one law enforcement official, “almost anything” (Franks, 2006).

What is clearly needed today is a true chain of custody capability to authenticate items of sports memorabilia from the athlete’s signature through all future trades of the article. With the rampant fraud issues, which can only be exacerbated by both the high dollars attached to many athletes’ items and the accelerating technology that can be used to create both forged articles and proofs of authenticity, there is certainly a common interest for memorabilia collectors, athletes, sports marketing agencies, and the stores, shows and auctions (both online and offline) where the items are bought and sold to develop, for lack of a better term, a fool-proof solution. RFID presents the prospect for just such an incontrovertible chain of custody solution for this marketplace.

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Conceptually, RFID is quite similar to the venerable bar code. Both are automatic identification technologies intended to provide rapid and reliable item identification and tracking capabilities. The primary difference between the two technologies is the way in which they read objects. With bar coding, the reading device scans a printed label with optical laser or imaging technology. However, with RFID, the reading device scans, or interrogates, a small electronic tag or label using radio frequency signals. The specific differences between bar code technology and RFID are summarized in Table 1. There are five primary advantages that RFID has over bar codes. These are as follows:

  1. Each RFID tag can have a unique code that ultimately allows every tagged item to be individually accounted for.
  2. RFID allows for information to be read by radio waves from a tag, without requiring line of sight scanning or human intervention.
  3. RFID allows for virtually simultaneous and instantaneous reading of multiple tags.
  4. RFID tags can hold far greater amounts of information, which can be updated.
  5. RFID tags are far more durable. (Wyld, 2005)

Table 1

RFID and Bar Codes Compared

Bar Code Technology RFID Technology
Bar Codes require line of sight to be read RFID tags can be read or updated without line of sight
Bar Codes can only be read individually Multiple RFID tags can be read simultaneously
Bar Codes cannot be read if they become dirty or damaged RFID tags are able to cope with harsh and dirty environments
Bar Codes must be visible to be logged RFID tags are ultra thin and can be printed on a label, and they can be read even when concealed within an item
Bar Codes can only identify the type of item RFID tags can identify a specific item
Bar Code information cannot be updated Electronic information can be over-written repeatedly on RFID tags
Bar Codes must be manually tracked for item identification, making human error an issue RFID tags can be automatically tracked, eliminating human error

RFID is being introduced today across a variety of industries to better identify and control individual items, ranging from health care applications (Wyld, 2008 a, b) to the food service and gaming industries (Wyld, 2008c). Major retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target in the United States and Metro and TESCO in Europe are making major investments in RFID technology, believing that this is the future of retail inventory control, supplanting the venerable bar code method of item identification (Wyld, 2007a, Wessel, 2008). Today, we are seeing exciting in-store applications in bookstores (Collins, 2006), pharmacies (O’Connor, 2008), electronics retailing (Swedberg, 2007a), and grocery stores (Swedberg, 2007b), bringing about new possibilities in customer service, business intelligence, and inventory management.

The RFID Solution for Sports Memorabilia

RFID has seen ongoing development in sports-related applications, being utilized in a variety of manners, from timing marathon runners and race cars to helping golfers find errant golf balls, and even off the field in the important areas of ticketing and event staff tracking (Wyld, 2006). Now, RFID is poised to become the latest weapon for retailers to deploy in this arms race against shoplifting, especially in light of the increasingly aggressive and sophisticated threat coming from the organized retail crime element.

The leading company today attempting to apply an RFID-based solution to authenticating sports memorabilia is the Irving, Texas-based Prova Group (http://www.provagroup.com/). Prova is currently marketing its patented Autograph Certification SystemTM for use at signing events and trade shows (Anonymous, 2008a). The concept, according to Daniel Werner, the firm’s Vice President of Marketing: “Prova decided early on to create a system that works at the moment of the signing that would put authentication in a database and lock that information onto an RFID tag” (quoted in Swedberg, 2007c, n.p.). As such, the tag is applied to the item prior to signing, and then, at the point of signing, the tag is read by and entered into the Prova database, recording who, when, and where the autograph took place. Once an item is registered in Prova’s Online Registry, the registered owner is able to print a certificate of authenticity on demand and to share the tagged item’s complete history, its chain of custody, with interested buyers or other collectors. Further, if a collector wishes to add additional signatures to an item (such as having an entire championship team autograph a football or basketball or adding the autograph of a current star, say Tony Romo, to a ball previously signed by a historic quarterback, such as Bart Starr or Joe Namath), the Prova RFID tag can record each separately and provide proof of authenticity for each autograph (Branton, 2008). The Prova system makes use of two form factors of high-frequency, 13.56 MHz passive tags for different sized collectibles, the smallest of which measures 1 inch by ¼ inch. Both of the tag forms are supplied by X-ident Technology (http://www.x-ident.com/), based in Düren, Germany. The system has been employed at special events where up to 4,000 items of memorabilia have been authenticated by Prova. And now, the firm is shifting from fixed reader stations to hand-held readers from Toronto-based Sirit (http://www.sirit.com/) to enable easier certification, as well as seeking ways to minimize the amount of data that has to be input to certify each individual autograph to speed the process (Swedberg, 2007c).


Interjecting RFID into the sports memorabilia market certainly parallels other auto-ID technological applications, most notably pharmaceuticals (Faber, 2008) and government-issued forms of identification, including passports (O’Connor, 2007) and driver’s licenses (Anonymous, 2008b). With these application areas, there is a significant threat of counterfeit items. While there is undoubtedly a far greater threat of personal harm from the use of fake prescription drugs or the use of phony passports or ID cards than a forged signature of Alex Rodgriquez on a photo or baseball card, RFID has proven to be an effective solution in these areas. Furthermore, the high dollars involved means that the return on investment (ROI) potential is significant, as the ratio of the cost of the tag to the value of the item it is affixed to can be quite low indeed. Indeed, with an unauthenticated item basically being worthless, the need to shift to an auto-ID solution is quite clear. While the sports memorabilia industry is highly fragmented, with large agencies and thousands of small sellers, and perhaps millions of collectors, a coordinated strategy is highly unlikely. However, if the major sports marketing agencies choose independently or collectively to implement Prova or another provider’s RFID solution, this would go a long way toward making RFID-based authentication a reality in the sports memorabilia industry. As shown in Figure 1, this would help protect the interests of all legitimate players in the marketplace. In doing so, an industry, best known today for being susceptible to anyone with a box of baseballs and a SharpieTM pen, can restore trust and value to its marketplace.

Figure 1
Figure 1: The Value of RFID to the Sports Memorabilia Industry


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And in the end, the value of sports memorabilia can be protected. But also, the intrinsic value of the autograph experience can be as well. After all, as Olson (2006) commented: “For the true fan, the value of an autograph isn’t the signature itself. It’s the shared moment between a fan and his hero” (n.p.).

Author’s Note

David C. Wyld, the Robert Maurin Professor of Management and director of the e-Commerce and e-Government Initiative Department of Management, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David C. Wyld, Department of Management, SLU – Box 10350, Hammond, LA 70402-0350. Email: dwyld@selu.edu

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