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The Economy Has Stumbled, but the Sports Memorabilia Market Hasn't Bumbled

By Les Carpenter
Sunday, February 1, 2009

TAMPA For days, the money never came to the Super Bowl.

Then finally on Saturday, there came the delightful sound of commerce once more. It came in the back of a tent, in a stampede of humanity called the NFL Experience as the flowing cadence of an auctioneer's voice coaxed wallets from people's pockets for the right to yessssir-own-your-very-own-1984-

Tony-Dorsett-Dallas-Cowboys-

professional-model-jersey-and-do-

I-hear-$1,600?

A man walking by in a baseball cap gasped.

"Sixteen hundred for a shirt?" he stammered.

Who in these times of peril pays $1,600 for a football jersey? Actually, the winning bid was $1,800, which was far less than the $24,000 someone paid for Johnny Unitas's helmet or the $17,000 that bought Jim Brown's Cleveland Browns game-worn jersey from the 1960s. The gavel kept falling, and passers-by stared in disbelief.

"I don't think I could afford that," said a fan pulling along his young son, shaking his head as a Boston/Washington Redskins sweater from the 1930s sold for $5,000.

On this week, at this Super Bowl, in this economy, it was interesting to see who could.

That man sitting in the back of the room, wearing a black Troy Polamalu jersey buying for himself an $800 leather helmet from around 1920? He's a vice president for a health care company in Columbus, Ohio.

"Yeah, I happen to be doing well, health care is doing well," he said with a small laugh.

The younger man in the black golf shirt who was frantically trying to outbid someone else for a pylon from last year's Super Bowl game?

He sells real estate in Denver.

"I sold four houses in December and one in January," he said, still fuming he had to give up when his rival bidder -- holding on the telephone with an official from the auction house -- went up to $1,500.

Or how about the tall, slender woman in the gray pantsuit and short blonde hair? She spent $5,300 on the ball that was used for the opening kickoff of last year's Super Bowl. She seemed so excited she dropped the white cardboard paddle each bidder held to attract the auctioneer's attention.

"When you think about something you really want, you are happy to get it," she said.

She is Ted Williams's daughter.

"This is the first auction I ever attended," Claudia Williams said.

And in addition to the football from last year's Super Bowl, she also purchased an ancient radio headset that might have been the first attempt at putting a radio in a helmet. She also bought Tom Landry's white, collared practice shirt with his last name and the words "Dallas Cowboys" stitched on the front. This will be a present for her father-in-law, who is a big Cowboys fan.

"I have my Christmas shopping done" said Williams, who also owns a baseball memorabilia company called Green Diamond Sports, which sells some of her father's items from nearby Hernando, Fla.

The fact is, even as everything continues to fall, the impact crashing into the Super Bowl, there remains a few signs of life -- even here, where it is clear the money people once tossed around for vanity and fun is suddenly gone. In the back of the tent in the middle of the NFL Experience on Saturday, the economy was not only surviving, it was downright robust.

"Our industry has held on and actually been up slightly," said David Hunt, whose company, Hunt Auctions, ran the auction and has done high-end baseball memorabilia shows at the last five baseball all-star games. "A lot of the economy is something that keeps changing. Take the Johnny Unitas helmet. Johnny Unitas's helmet is Johnny Unitas's helmet. It's not a bank that changes its name. Or a bank that goes out of business or an IRA that loses money."

Instead, Unitas's helmet might be the best investment around, a notion the other collectors at the auction seemed to agree with.

"Collectibles and things like that are almost recession-proof," said Mike Kenyon, the real estate agent who missed out the pylon. "It defies logic. It's still going up in value. You would think this would be the first stuff that would go down."

Go down it did not on Saturday. Sure, there were some disappointments. For instance, Hunt hoped to sell the Brown jersey for $20,000 to $30,000. But none of the collectors or dealers who called in bids went higher than $17,000. Nobody in the audience, who save for a few serious collectors were mostly just fans passing by, thought this was worth the equivalent of half a year's mortgage payments just to own Brown's jersey.

Then again, the jersey LaDainian Tomlinson wore in the Chargers' last playoff win went for $5,400 -- $5,000 more than Hunt figured -- in a large part because it might have been the last game Tomlinson played for San Diego, or perhaps at all.

"Sports fans are different," Hunt said. They're impulsive and buy things based on emotion.

"They aren't here to buy a tiffany lamp. They will walk in and buy things."

And even as the bottom falls out and the Super Bowl appears to roll down with it, there will at least be someone buying something.

For a few hours in one place on Saturday, the ringing of the register could still be heard. And for a few hours, the Super Bowl felt like the Super Bowl once more.

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