special report on ANTICOUNTERFEITING They say beauty is in the eye of beholder, and the same could be said of value when it comes to sports memorabilia. However, the true value of such items is becoming increasingly difﬁcult to assess and the market is often ﬂooded with fakes. And that s where RFID can step in to help
photo by by Dana Graves
Global Identiﬁcation - October September 2008 2006
by Prof. David C. Wyld, Southeastern Louisiana University
utograph seekers. They are a part of every professional ‒ and often amateur ‒ athlete s life. They are a ﬁxture at sports teams training camps, hotels and stadiums, or 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 them 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 pro baseball or football star they admire ‒ the one whose poster they have hanging over their bed. However, some of the signature hounds are also adults, looking to have literally any athlete they can sign any team item ‒ a ball, a bat, a helmet, a jersey, etc. ‒ in order to turn an ordinary item into a collectible. The motivation of many of these autograph seekers is innocent. 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 kids and adults alike
is money as the chance is there to cash-in on the athlete s celebrity. The worst of the lot ‒ grown-ups who hire children to seek out stars autographs on a paid basis ‒ work on the premise that the cute kid factor might
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
Use of RFID for sports memorabilia parallels its application in other markets like pharma entice the sports star to stop and sign an item for a 9 yearold that they wouldn t for a 40 year-old man. 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 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
are some autograph hounds that teams today commonly limit access to their players. 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 to represent them in what has become an increasingly lucrative market for athletes, supplementing, or even exceeding, what they make
Dan Werner, Prova s VP Marketing, holding up the authenticated David Beckham Jersey worn during the 2008 All-Star Game inToronto, Canada
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on the ﬁeld by simply signing their names. The sports memorabilia market today is a global marketplace, estimated to generate revenues in excess of $5 billion annually. However, it is a market
ing to upwards of 90% of all sports collectibles. Thus, this is perhaps the ultimate example of a caveat emptor (buyer beware) market. And with this comes a great need to have a solution that
Thousands of memorabilia items can now be authenticated and catalogued at events thanks to RFID tagging unlike any other, due to the giant presence 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 ‒ 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 however believe the true ﬁgure to be even higher, rang-
can assure buyers and sellers of the authenticity of an item, not just presently but into the future as well, a chain of custody if you will. Which sounds like a perfect case for RFID ‒ and it is.
The Sports Memorabilia 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, the
odds are that the ball is not worth any more than what you would have paid for an unsigned ball at a sporting goods store. 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. 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. The second trusted source is the sports agencies that contract with athletes to be exclusive pur-
What makes an item qualify as an article of sports memorabilia? A baseball is just a ball, until it s signed by a star player. A jersey is just a big shirt until it s worn by an all-star. Then, such items are worth a lot of money, right? Oh, that it were that simple. The website, sportsmemorabilia.com, recently gave a deﬁnition to differentiate between two terms that are all too often used interchangeably ‒ sports memorabilia and sports collectibles. In their online publication, A Comprehensive Guide To Collecting Sports Memorabilia, they deﬁned the two terms 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. Source: www.sportsmemorabilia.com
Global Identiﬁcation - October September 2008 2006
veyors of their autographed merchandise. In the United States, the market leaders are companies such as allauthentic.com, Mounted Memories, Steiner Sports and Upper Deck. Let s look at Upper Deck. 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, but also thanks to 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 experimenting with what it calls its PenCam technology, which provides further authentication assurance by providing a video capture from ‒ you guessed it ‒ a pen equipped with a tiny video camera that immortalises the actual signature
of the athlete on the item as it is being rendered, and is then catalogued and accessible on the company s database. Thus, items from trusted agencies such as Upper Deck 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. The impact can be seen in the fact that small, independent mom and pop sports memorabilia stores, once a staple of strip malls across America, are now on the decline. According to industry observers, the number of such stores has plummeted from approximately 4,700 a decade ago to just over a thousand today. 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.
marketplace online memorabilia sales have literally exploded . 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 lesserknown star, your search will return dozens, even hundreds, of autographed items up for sale at any given time. And yet the move to greater online sales has worsened the problem with counterfeit memorabilia. As one law enforcement ofﬁcial described the situation today, it s like the wild, wild west. One of the major problems for the whole memorabilia sales and trading process is the Certiﬁcate of Authenticity that accompanies an item. Ostensibly in place to
The mobile handheld authentication reader/writer device currently used by Prova
Authenticating the signature of Eli Manning, the New York Giants QB and Super Bowl MVP
As a result of this ease of access and widening of the
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provide a potential buyer with the assurance that the item he or she is considering purchasing is a genuine article, today, the effect is almost the opposite. This is because of rampant fraud in the creation of these COAs.
authenticity, there are also disreputable ones, known to certify ‒ in the words of one law enforcement ofﬁcial ‒ almost anything to make a quick buck in what is a lucrative market.
The sports memorabilia market needs RFID solutions to help anthenticate items in the present and the future Today, there is no industry standard for the certiﬁcation process or for the paper COA itself. Thus, there are a number of problems with these documents. Some fraudulent memorabilia sellers create their own fake COAs to accompany their fake items. While there are several reputable thirdparty certiﬁcation services, who will analyze an item and its history to determine its
The RFID Solution 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 rampant fraud issues, only exacerbated by both the high dollars attached to many athletes items and the accelerating technology that can be used to create both forged articles
Operation Bullpen 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. The FBI arrested almost two-dozen individuals, most of which served prison time for their involvement. 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 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. 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, being equally adept at falsifying COAs and holograms. While Operation Bullpen was the largest fraud scheme uncovered in the sports memorabilia market to date, criminal arrests continue to plague the industry. The FBI estimates that such fraud makes for over a half a billion dollars in annual losses, keeping the marketplace a very skeptical one.
Global Identiﬁcation - October September 2008 2006
and proofs of authenticity, there is certainly a common interest for memorabilia collectors, athletes, sports marketing agencies, and the stores, shows and auctions where the items are bought and sold to develop a foolproof solution, for lack of a better term. The leading company today attempting to apply an RFIDbased solution to authenticating sports memorabilia is the Irving, Texas-based Prova Group. Prova is currently marketing its patented Autograph Certiﬁcation System for use at signing events and trade shows. Daniel Werner, the ﬁrm s Vice President of Marketing, explains its concept: We 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. 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. More importantly, he can share the tagged item s complete history ‒ its chain of custody ‒ with interested buyers or other collectors.
What s more, 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.
ernment-issued forms of identiﬁcation. With both of these applications, 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 and the presence 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.
The Prova system makes use of two form factors of highfrequency, 13.56 MHz passive tags for different sized collectibles, the smallest of which measures 1 inch by 1⁄4 inch. Both of the tag forms are supplied by Xident Technology. 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 Sirit readers 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 and thus speed the process.
Furthermore, the high dollars involved means that the 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, with an unauthenticated item basically being worthless, the need to shift to an auto-ID solution is quite clear.
Bringing trust back Interjecting RFID into the sports memorabilia market certainly parallels other auto-ID technological applications, most notably pharmaceuticals and gov-
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 player s RFID solution, this would go a long way toward making RFID-based authentication a reality in the sports memorabilia industry. In doing so, an industry best known today for being susceptible to anyone with a box of baseballs, a Sharpie pen and some creativity can restore trust ‒ and value ‒ to its marketplace. and conﬁdence to the fan base.
A game-worn Dallas Cowboys jersey tagged with Prova s RFID solution
The most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever The highest price ever paid for a single piece of sports history was $3,005,000. In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals broke Roger Maris single-season home run record ‒ by 9 home runs. At auction, Todd MacFarlane, the creator of the Spawn comic book series, had the winning bid for McGwire s 70th Home Run Ball. In the decade that has passed since this record on-ﬁeld performance and record sports memorabilia auction, McGwire s achievement has come under suspicion surrounding his alleged use of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs during that season. This has not only tainted McGwire s record, but diminished the value of MacFarlane s investment as well. In fact, according to a recent Forbes Magazine article, the McGwire ball is now estimated to be worth approximately a million dollars - a third of its purchase price.