They sit at the back of a mammoth exhibit hall, away from the dealer booths and legions of collectors buying baseball cards. A rainbow of colored Sharpies and ballpoint pens at the ready, a who's who of stars file in from late morning until late afternoon, fulfilling the wishes of fans who show up with anything and everything that can be written on.
It's an autograph party that happens only once a year. No show boasts as many different signers as the National Sports Collectors Convention. Tristar Productions is the company that puts it all together, a process that begins almost as soon as the previous year's show ends.
"We're always looking for guys who haven't done these things and that's the challenge," said Tristar's Jeff Rosenberg, just steps away from the long, but organized lines of fans and collectors waiting for autographs of several Hall of Famers. "Finding new, fresh blood."
Collectors' appetites can be voracious. Willing to pay $150 and more for autographs from players who rarely make public appearances, the National becomes easy pickings if you buy your tickets early.
This year, Rosenberg and Tristar scored a major coup when Mike Tyson agreed to sign 500 autographs on Sunday afternoon. At $120 to $250 a pop and despite a sometimes prickly reputation, Iron Mike sold out...even if he wouldn't sign "Iron Mike" on anything.
"“It’s his first big card show," Rosenberg explained. " We thought he’d do well but he easily sold out."
Rosenberg didn't just roll the dice on Tyson. There was some scouting involved.
"I actually saw him at a store in Las Vegas. I was really apprehensive about bringing him in but I saw how great he was with the public. He was so nice to them. He signed whatever they wanted. I just thought it would work.”
Indeed, Tyson made fans happy. Few guests, however, can match one Pro Football Hall of Famer on the niceness scale.
“I hate to pinpoint one name because so many of them are great to the people," Rosenberg said. "But we hear it so often about Bart Starr. People say ‘he was my idol in the ‘60s and he’s just so nice and warm'. I happened to be standing by him a little earlier and there was a line of people standing there to get his autograph but they had to take him away for some photos. He said ‘ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry. I’ll be back in a few minutes' and all of the people said ‘that’s OK Bart, we’ll wait for you’. You just don’t get that with a lot of players. He just has this sort of warm approach that people really respond to. You would like to see some of the young players just hang around him to see that you can be a superstar but also treat your fans well.”
Starr's script was highly sought after during his appearance on Saturday, especially by Packer fans who made the short trip down to get an autograph from a hero. Starr is one of many who have a contract to sign exclusively for Tristar.
Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown, a frequent show guest, remains popular some 45 years after his last game.
While Tyson, Starr and a number of other athletes from football, basketball and hockey drew crowds Thursday through Sunday, baseball signers are still the major attraction. 300-game winner Randy Johnson made a rare appearance at $180-200 per autograph. Reggie Jackson was there. Cal Ripken? Still immensely popular, especially for those who bought an autograph and found out they'd get their picture taken with the former Oriole great too.
“Some of the local guys were very popular. Don Zimmer sold really well. He managed here (for the Cubs) so he’s going to draw more here than he might in some other places."
Rosenberg now turns his attention toward other matters, including the company's trading card business, its online sales and annual winter show in Houston, an event that also draws a big guest list. The NSCC autograph agenda is seldom far from his mind.
"A few weeks after the show, they’ll start the process for next year," he said. "We just put massive lists together of who we think people would want to see an meet. You have to have the regional draws and the national players. From there you talk to their agents and see what you can do.”
To see all of our National Sports Collectors Convention stories, click here.