Ravens players cash in on demand for autographs, appearances

Ravens running back Bernard Pierce autographs a football for Mike McGeeney, 13, of West River, at Man Cave Sports in Glen Burnie.
Ravens running back Bernard Pierce autographs a football for Mike McGeeney, 13, of West River, at Man Cave Sports in Glen Burnie. (Colby Ware, Baltimore Sun)

Ralph Johnson knows they will come.

Bring a Ravens player to Man Cave Memorabilia, the store his daughter owns in Glen Burnie, and the fans will turn out.

That includes the guy who collects autographs on the hood of his Jeep. And the one who has players sign his skin, then goes directly to a tattoo shop to have the ink forever embedded a few levels deeper.

"That's a little nuts," said Johnson, who arranges the signings. "And that was before the Super Bowl. It's at a new level now."

While Ravens players continue sorting through endorsement offers, many of them are taking advantage of their heightened popularity with appearances and signings. There's immediate money to be made in that market, as much as $100,000 for a few hours of the most popular players' time. Signing endorsement deals is a more complicated process and one that's not as lucrative as it once was.

Tom Condon, one of the most powerful agents in the NFL, said this month at the University of Baltimore's annual sports law symposium that the endorsement market dried up during the recent recession and has yet to come back. Large companies are more apt to focus a majority of their budget on proven stars rather than spreading out smaller deals to up-and-comers.

"The shoe companies and the trading card companies really cut back, and they haven't re-emerged," said Condon, who earned his law degree from the University of Baltimore during the offseasons of his NFL playing career from 1974 to 1985. Agents increasingly are "focusing on finding guys who are intelligent and have good character" because that's what companies are seeking in pitchmen, Condon added.

The Ravens had one big-name player in linebacker Ray Lewis, but he's retiring. Quarterback Joe Flacco could rise to that level but may be reluctant to take on additional demands.

"There are maybe 10 guys in the whole NFL who have a truly national profile," said Dan Safran, a Baltimore-based agent who handles marketing for several Ravens. "So you have to attack what you can get. The rest are picking up smaller deals locally, and taking advantage of chances to get out and connect with fans and make some quick money."

The market is searing hot: Man Cave averaged a signing about once every six weeks and is tentatively planning one per week — starting with running back Bernard Pierce on Friday — for as long as demand supports it. Great Moments in Timonium had Jacoby Jones — fresh off his much-talked-about appearance on "Jimmy Kimmel Live"— in the store last Sunday. It took only a day and a half to sell all 300 tickets for the event at $30 apiece, and patrons were lined up before 9 a.m. for the kick returner's noon arrival.

Jones and others appeared at an event for Macy's at White Marsh Mall on Feb. 5.

Players who remain in town or live nearby are better able to take advantage of this additional revenue source; those who are gone might make appearances in their hometowns or on their college campuses. Players who've gone to their offseason homes may be enticed to make a trip back to Baltimore for the right price, though.

Two large-scale events are planned for Feb. 22-23. "A Ravenous Celebration" will bring together more than 10 players and club officials at the DoubleTree Pikesville for signings over the two days, while a "World Champion Victory Party" on Feb. 23 will bring several players to Power Plant Live in downtown Baltimore and give fans the opportunity to buy signatures as well as spend "one-on-one time with the players."

While Lewis memorabilia remains the most popular at local stores and his autograph the most sought-after, fans and collectors have begun embracing Flacco as the face of the franchise. But the quarterback has never sought publicity and plans to make only a few stops on the autograph tour, according to Ray Schulte, a local sports marketer who monitors the collectors market closely.

Flacco also will do a private signing, Schulte said, in which he'll autograph pictures, helmets and footballs to be sold to local and national shops. By avoiding making frequent stops in retail shops, Flacco increases the demand for his autograph and can charge a higher price for the private signing, Schulte said.

While Flacco and Lewis may be able to charge rates nearing six figures for certain engagements, players like Pierce and Jones are more likely to bring in a tenth of that. They're usually paid per item signed, or by the hour. Shops offset that cost by selling tickets, and also boost their inventory by collecting signed goods from the player to sell at a later date. Fans also spend money when they arrive to buy tickets, or after the signing, and maintain a sense of fondness for the store where they met one of the world champions, Johnson said.

"It's been like Christmas every day here," he said, "and having the players start coming in is going to be really special for a lot of people."

Safran said he generally spends the months after the Super Bowl concentrating on signing players about to enter the draft, but instead has been inundated with work related to clients like Ravens safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard and cornerbacks Cary Williams and Lardarius Webb. He said he's busy negotiating long-term local endorsement deals for some of the players he works with but declined to provide details. Signing them up for a few hours in front of adoring fans isn't as difficult.

Said Schulte: "What happens with these guys is they're on the highest emotional high, and they're coming down and trying to figure out their lives now, get back to a routine with their family. But they're also Super Bowl champions, and they can charge a premium for a lot of what they do."

That makes an autograph session all the more enticing.

Some of the Ravens players most popular with collectors are the ones who might not be Ravens much longer. This may be the last time fans can easily connect with free agents such as Reed and Williams.

"A lot of people are looking to complete the ultimate: a football or helmet signed by every player on a Super Bowl-winning team," Schulte said. "Now is the time to get them before they're off living in Seattle after signing as a free agent."



Recommended on Baltimore Sun