It’s no accident the overwhelming popularity of the NFL in Las Vegas sports books has spread into fantasy leagues and the memorabilia industry.
“I’ve watched the business grow from primarily trading cards to what we call a memorabilia industry,” said Bill Watson owner of Icon Authentic. “I have been in the business since the early 1980s when 90 percent of sales were trading cards and 10 percent autographed items. Today it’s just the opposite, like 80/20.”
The memorabilia industry has gained in popularity through the years, evidenced by Gale Sayers’ recent appearance at Red Rock Casino and the upcoming two-day Joe Montana booking at MGM in late January.
“Memorabilia is so popular because people feel connected on an emotional level,” Watson said. “It brings them back to their childhood. People don’t typically buy just one item, like say a jersey. They come back in a month or two and buy a helmet or a football signed by their favorite athlete.”
The biggest threat to the industry and collectors is forgeries. Many of the collectors, for example, may save a Honus Wagner rookie card or one of Jim Brown believing it is the real deal. Often it is, but when assessing value too often they learn it’s a fake.
“The memorabilia business, according to the FBI, which did a sting operation for forgeries, estimates about 75-80% of memorabilia items are not real,” Watson said. “Fortunately, there are companies now that are third party authenticators, who verify and attend signings with athletes to give credibility that the item is real.”
Watson’s guarantee as owner of Icon is that his items are authentic. His proof comes from a company called Professional Sports Authenticator, a publically traded firm based out of Newport Beach, California.
“Icon Authentic is the only memorabilia company that PSA is a distributor for, in Nevada,” Watson said. “Some 90% of our products we sell are authenticated by PSA.”
Through methods a bit too complicated to go into, a Michael Jordan signature may have 40 different varieties depending on when and how hepenned his name.
“Jordan signatures go back to when he was very young,” Watson said. “He signs his autographs differently when sitting down or standing up. Most of the autographs sold on Craigslist and the Internet are not real. You have to be very careful.”
Much like sports betting with that one-to-one approach, the memorabilia industry prides itself on dealing directly with the customer, collecting and selling real items and bringing celebrities into their operation.
“That’s one of the reasons people buy from us,” Watson said. “We only sell real autographs and actually bring the athletes to our store. We invited PSA to come and authenticate these items, which they do periodically.
“Casinos are attracted to any kind of celebrity whether sports, music, movies or reality stars,” Watson continued. “Nightclubs and pool clubs will pay up to $50,000 a day just for a 5-to-10 minute appearance from a Kardashian or a famous athlete. It’s the wow factor – red carpet events, big fight weekends.”
And the biggest, the Super Bowl, comes up in less than three weeks. Montana will set up shop with Icon on Saturday, Jan. 26 from 3 to 5 p.m. in the MGM lobby next to check-in. He’s also there the next day from noon to 2 p.m.
“Earnie Shavers is in our Boulevard Mall store (Paradise and Twain) for six hours a day,” Watson said. “We’ve also had Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Vitor Belfort, Mike Curtis and many others work with us.”
Watson’s next projects are finding a permanent “brick and mortar” location and working with Gene Kilroy (special events person at MGM) on reunions involving the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers later this year and next year.
“My view of the business as an owner is that people are infatuated by the business,” Watson said. “The one element changing the business is the live experience. Online and eBay are great, but it’s better to be able to meet your favorite player in person.”
Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].