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Monday, July 14, 2003
Nothing memorable about this special "event"

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Behind the end zone at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Terrell Suggs stands in front of a table stacked with Baltimore Ravens jerseys. One by one, he slips them over his head and shoulder pads, then quickly back off again as if on a quest to find one that fits.

Terrell Suggs
Terrell Suggs' Upper Deck rookie card may include a swatch of clothing from either a Ray Lewis or Peter Boulware jersey.
The NFL hasn't played a game here since the Raiders left town for Oakland back in 1995 and, as evidenced by the names and numbers on the uniforms, Suggs will never wear any of these jerseys in an actual game anyway. "They're not going to really sell the numbers," said Suggs, who had slipped off Ray Lewis' No. 52 jersey and on Peter Boulware's No. 58, "they're just going to sell a piece of the clothing."

As he reaches behind his head to remove yet another jersey, an attendant stands ready to place it in a pile with others that soon will be shipped back to Carlsbad, Calif., home of trading card giant Upper Deck. There each jersey will be cut into 1,000 swatches and inserted into trading cards that will become part of this year's NFL rookie card collections.

"Event worn" is the tout that has made these special trading cards so popular and has helped to bolster a once-sagging NFL card market that is expected to hit $84 million this year. But as Suggs and 29 other recent draftees proved in May, the "event" is the NFL's Players Rookie Premiere -- an occasion for which players are paid to pose for pictures taken by trading card companies -- and the jerseys often aren't "worn" for very long.

Nothing wrong with that, said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFL Players Association, which oversees the event.

"There is absolutely no intent to fool anyone," he said. "We've gone over the procedure with the card companies and we're very comfortable. Whether a player wears a jersey for a few minutes or 20 minutes, what difference does it make as long as it's worn at the event?"

Since game-used memorabilia isn't available from rookies who have never played in a professional game, card companies have seized on the opportunity to collect clothing worn and gear used at created events like the Rookie Premiere. The pictures they take will appear on the cards, and so, too, will the swatches of jerseys or shoes they quickly try on, or perhaps a piece of a football they briefly toss around.

Byron Leftwich rookie card
Byron Leftwich's rookie trading card, produced by Donruss, notes that the swatches of jersey and football in it were collected at the "2003 NFL Players Rookie Premiere." It does not, however, explain what the event is, or how long the items were used.

"Get a little foot sweat going on," a card company employee tells Byron Leftwich as the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie quarterback makes his way through box after box of football cleats. Players often never bother to tie the laces before slipping off the shoes and tossing them back into their box.

At a nearby station, players seated in folding chairs pitch footballs back and forth to an attendant standing five feet away. After four or five tosses, the balls are deposited into a box with the player's name on it.

Bill Dully, president of Upper Deck's rival, Donruss, explained the process:

"We want them to put the cleats on. We ask them to; they step into them. We ask them to put the jerseys on; they step into them. They take them off. We inventory them. And we send them back here to the building where we put them into an inventory control system. And then we put them into cards.

"What mainly makes it OK is that on the back of the card we do state in writing that this is an 'event-used' item and was taken at the NFL Rookie photo shoot. There is no gray area in our language how we market or what we put on our cards."

Officials with industry leader Upper Deck refused multiple requests for comment. The company also declined to issue a statement regarding event-worn materials included in their cards.

Victor Shaw of Faribault, Minn., a buyer and seller of game-used memorabilia, including event-worn cards, said he was already a skeptic of game-used cards in general because the swatches of material are too clean and actual proof of visible game use is rare. A spot of blood or dirt can increase the cards value by five to 10 times, he says. But after watching a video tape of Leftwich going through the motions of trying on shoe after shoe, Shaw said collectors will be disappointed.

You need to wear it some time. You can't just try it on. That's not really fair to the collector. We're expecting something that the player was with quite a while, not just that he touched it. ... If it's not even part of the action, then why bother?
Collector Victor Shaw, on "event-worn" jerseys that are included in rookie trading cards
"You need to wear it some time. You can't just try it on," Shaw said. "That's not really fair to the collector. We're expecting something that the player was with quite a while, not just that he touched it."

"If it's not even part of the action," he asked, "then why bother?"

Swatches of sports memorabilia, including game-used materials ranging from footballs and helmets to baseballs and bases, have been layered inside cards since 1996. These cards have helped to keep alive the sports card industry, which has steadily declined from its height in the early '90s. Memorabilia cards are expected to be the driving force in the NFL card industry again this year, and event-worn rookie cards will comprise between 1 and 5 percent of all football memorabilia cards, according to Greg Ambrosius, a senior editor for Sports Collector's Digest, an industry trade publication.

But when Donruss' "2003 Playoff Absolute Memorabilia" arrives in two weeks at the local hobby store in Hanover, Pa., 11-year-old Jeff Wise said he would be less inclined to put his entire $20 weekly allowance toward buying packs for the chance to get an event-worn rookie card. He said he's not giving up his event-worn collection, but his passion has been dulled because he does care how long the players have worn the items.

"You don't want it to be just tried on," says Wise, a Ravens fan who owns more than 100 memorabilia cards -- some "game worn," some "event worn." "You want it worn ... like an hour maybe. Not just like run out for two passes and take them off. Or not just throw two passes and switch it. Wear it for 20 passes and run out for a pass 20 times."

Many players at the NFL Players Rookie Premiere seemed unaware of exactly what was going on at the event-worn stations. Leftwich said it is hard for a player to monitor everything that was going on over the two-day period and how all the items would be used.

"Putting a lot of stuff on. Taking a lot of stuff off," Leftwich said at the Rookie Premiere. "I don't know what they are going to do with the stuff."

Afterward, he added: "I ain't gonna give up their secret. But you know what they're doing. When you sit there and think about it, you're just doing it. You don't have a problem with it, you're just happy that they asked you to be a part of it."

Suggs said he didn't have a problem putting on the items, "as long as people know that we only had it on for a few minutes."

Shaw has read the back of the cards, but after seeing the amount of use event-worn materials actually get, he said the card companies still don't tell collectors enough. If they did, he reasoned, the secondary market for the cards might be sent on the decline, the result of fewer collectors buying boxes of the cards.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick's 2001 rookie trading card, produced by Upper Deck, has a swatch of a Falcons' jersey. It is trading on the secondary market for more than $1,700.
Collectors could stand to lose on the secondary market, as well. A 2001 autographed, event-worn jersey card featuring Michael Vick recently sold for more than $1,300, but collectors could shy away from spending as much on items that reek of assembly-line production.

But Howard Wheeler, a longtime collector from Syracuse, N.Y., who recently purchased two Antwaan Randle El rookie cards, was skeptical that word of how memorabilia is collected for the card will hurt their value.

"(It is) bogus, in essence. They are barely putting them on," he said. "But for some of us, that's as close as we ever get to any of these players."

One industry insider believes the game-worn card market is on the decline anyway.

"In 1997, when Upper Deck started doing memorabilia cards, they had three versions of jersey cards all year," said Rich Klein, price guide analyst for Beckett.com. "Now, if you want, you can be guaranteed to get a memorabilia card in every pack."

Dully says Donruss constantly reviews how collectors perceive his company's products. "Today, I'm comfortable, but it is definitely an evolutionary process," he said.

That process isn't evolving fast enough for Kathy Wise, Jeff's mom, who now isn't too happy about where her money is going.

"I would think that they would make more of an effort to make them a genuine product -- a little more than they've done," she said.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.Rovell@espn3.com