Fans surprised by $20 charge

Updated: July 14, 2004, 9:44 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Lindsay Whalen, the former Gopher's women's basketball star, returned to her home state like a conquering hero, nearly two months after starting her professional career in the WNBA.

The difference between the amateur and the professional Whalen, now with the Connecticut Sun, became quickly apparent to the fans who started to line up two hours before an autograph session at the Mall of America on Monday. Autographs now cost $20.

The crowd included by the braces and Barbie set and some gray-haired fans.

"I like her," said Allison O'Brien, 9, of Chanhassen, who waited an hour for a signature after hearing about the show on the radio Monday. "She's fast and speedy and does different tricks."

Allison's mother, Betty, admitted to being surprised about the $20 fee. "I wish I had known," she said. "But it kind of goes with the territory when you become a star."

Whalen's stay was to include four hours' worth of autograph signings Monday and Tuesday, an hourlong radio interview and a news conference. There's also Wednesday's basketball game against the Minnesota Lynx at Target Center.

With the sports and celebrity memorabilia industry estimated to be a $1 billion-a year-market, such arrangements aren't out of the ordinary. Often, autograph sessions are underwritten by sponsors and free to the public.

But there are plenty of instances when fans pay money up front for the privilege of meeting a star athlete -- playing or retired -- and getting their signature.

While it's unclear how many other WNBA players have held similar autograph shows, the signatures of other female athletes are in demand. An autographed 8x10 picture of soccer star Mia Hamm retails for $199 on the Internet by Grandstand Sports and Memorabilia of New York. On eBay, the asking price for a signed picture of Diana Taurasi, the WNBA's rookie phenom in Phoenix, is $39.99.

But it's unusual for a female athlete this young -- especially in this market -- to charge for autographs.

"This is absolutely a first in Minnesota," said Dave Mona, chairman of the public relations firm Weber Shandwick and a limited partner of Field of Dreams, where Whalen held her autograph show on Monday. "Certainly on the local scene, this is really breaking new ground."

Whalen and her agent, Chris Murray, will net $18 of the $20 fee, something those in the memorabilia business say is common. The rest covers the cost of holding the show.

But even Whalen admitted during a brief lull that getting paid for her signature "feels strange."

"It's new for me. I've never done this before," the Hutchinson native said.

Charging $20 for a WNBA rookie's signature "sounds like a fair price," according to Tom Gunther, manager of Hall of Heroes Sports Gifts and Collectibles in Garden City, New York.

It also falls in line with the going rate for other local players' signatures. The Wild's Marian Gaborik has charged similar fees at Field of Dreams, Mona said.

But Becky Heidesch, founder and CEO of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Women's Sports Services, said she feels uneasy about fans paying money outright for signatures -- especially for female athletes seeking to cultivate a wholesome image among fans.

"You have to be careful," said Heidesch, whose company focuses on the career development of female athletes. "The WNBA has been great about doing autograph sessions after games. Is the fan expecting to pay for an autograph? Will that change the image of the athlete in the fan's eyes? That's the question I'd ask the agent interested in marketing the athlete over the long haul."

Murray, Whalen's agent and president of Plymouth-based Imani Sports, said the upfront autograph charge is perfectly appropriate -- especially because WNBA players make a relative pittance compared to their NBA counterparts. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Whalen will earn $40,800 this season as the league's fourth overall draft pick. That compares with $2.4 million for the NBA's No. 4 draft pick.

"Does she have an opportunity to maximize revenue for herself? She does," Murray said. "And now she's a pro. Any time you move from the amateur to the pro ranks, there's always people who say: 'Wait a minute.' But it's commercial. Everybody wants to sell her stuff. Why shouldn't she get some benefit out of that?"


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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