From a pure capitalist standpoint, Stanford defensive end Ben Gardner wants to know why there’s such a fuss about Texas A quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Not because of his jet-setting lifestyle, from throwing out first pitches at Major League Baseball games to attending the NBA Finals and Mardi Gras. Not the social-media posts that got Manziel in trouble with his coach, Kevin Sumlin, nor his early exit from the Manning family’s passing camp.
Manziel’s alleged for-profit autograph sessions are what opened Gardner’s eyes, and as the news rumbled across college football, Gardner took to Twitter to ask, in the spirit of free enterprise, what’s the problem?
“People are willing to pay money for Johnny Football’s autograph,” Gardner typed. “Doesn’t American capitalism suggest that he should be able to take advantage?
“College athlete or not, who knows whether he will have the same type of pro career that will offer those opportunities Excuse Johnny Manziel for striking while the iron’s hot.”
Manziel’s iron is blazing. In less than a year, he slayed No. 1 Alabama, won the Heisman Trophy and became the nationwide sensation known as Johnny Football. To extend Gardner’s premise, what if this moment in time marks Manziel’s peak earnings potential and value as a football player and personality?
“It’s possible that he’s at the career point of highest economic value, but that is a statement in the face of large uncertainty,” said Rodney Fort, a University of Michigan professor of Sport Management.
The uncertainty is Manziel’s professional prospects. A contract for hundreds of thousands or millions, whenever Manziel’s NCAA eligibility has concluded, makes the point moot.
But say for whatever reason Manziel doesn’t cash in a professional football player.
Further, for the sake of argument, what if the NCAA rules that prevent Manziel from cashing in on the alleged sale of his signature didn’t exist?
How much would Johnny Manziel be worth today?
Before trying to answer that question, know that the market value of most college athletes is non-existent.
“The reality is 99 percent of college athletes do not have the type of value you’re speaking of,” said Jason Belzer, a sports attorney and founder of Global Athlete Management Enterprises, a marketing agency working with college coaches and sports properties.
As the commercials depicting college athletes say, “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.”
But there’s only one Johnny Football, who after becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman (Manziel was a redshirt freshman) has pushed his celebrity status — and marketability — perhaps further than any college athlete in history.
Manziel news first spilled from the sports to the celebrity pages on the night the Aggies routed Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. “Johnny Manziel Popping Dom After Big Bowl Win,” screamed TMZ’s website, compete with cigar-chomping, Dom Perignon-clutching photos of Manziel in full celebration mode.
A personality was born, and the action never stopped. Manziel left a Twitter trail throughout the spring and summer, relaxing by day (golf at Pebble Beach), and partying the evening away (spring break in Cabo).
Nobody was having more fun, and as former Star reporter Wright Thompson revealed in a profile for ESPN Magazine, Manziel could afford the lifestyle with his family money from oil and real estate.
The joy ride hit its first bumps when Manziel, serving as a camp counselor at the Manning Passing Academy, showed up late for assignments one morning, touching off a gusher of rumors about his whereabouts. Fun suddenly became recast as irresponsible behavior.
But the fallout from that episode quickly faded when it was learned the NCAA had opened an investigation into whether Manziel accepted money for signing photos and memorabilia at autograph sessions.
Texas A’s opener is Aug. 31 against Rice in College Station, Texas. and as of late last week Manziel’s status remained a mystery. There was still no reported proof of money changing hands, and Manziel’s case figures to be helped by autograph dealers saying they don’t plan to cooperate with the NCAA, which cannot compel them to talk.
Manziel and Texas A must cooperate, including turning over bank records, but Manziel’s personal assistant, Nate Fitch, who is alleged to have set up the signings, doesn’t need to speak with the NCAA.
The risk for A, if the case isn’t settled by the opener, is playing Manziel.
If Manziel plays and is later found to have violated rules, the Aggies likely would have to forfeit games and be subjected to further penalties.
There is precedent. Former Georgia receiver A.J. Green sold his Independence Bowl jersey for $1,000 — and served a four-game suspension. Several Ohio State players were suspended five games for selling memorabilia or exchanging it for tattoos.
But as A athletic director Eric Hyman said in letter written to school boosters, Manziel and the school are in uncharted waters.
“There is simply no blueprint for handling what Johnny and his family have gone through since December,” Hyman wrote.
No matter the outcome of the NCAA investigation, a related discussion is occurring on a parallel track. Who
own the autograph or the likeness of Johnny Manziel or any other college athlete?
“I do think attitudes are shifting, and the general public believes athletes should receive something,” Belzer said.
As Belzer says — or most college administrators would tell you — compensating athletes reverses the amateurism ideal that is the foundation of college sports.
But something feels wrong to Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland.
“I will say that there’s absolutely a disconnect when administrators and people are making a lot of money,” Borland said at Big Ten football media days in July, “and players’ parents can’t (afford to) come to the game.”
Commissioners of the major conferences used media days last month to express the need for NCAA reform, suggesting the schools that generate the bulk of revenue should have the ability to oversee their financial matters.
The larger conferences want to give money to athletes, as much as $2,000 to $4,000 annually to account for the full cost of attendance. The conferences that have signed multi-billion television contracts in recent years can afford it but have been voted down by conferences that cannot.
While this is happening, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, with former and current athletes suing the NCAA over the use of their likenesses in video games, is making its way through a California federal court.
With athletes beginning to ask, where’s mine? Manziel may not have waited for an answer while he signed autographs.
So, what is Johnny Football worth?
Plenty of dollar figures have been tossed around related to Manziel, the most recent the amount he allegedly received for signing autographs.
ESPN reported Manziel was paid “a flat five-figure salary” at one autograph session and $7,500 at another with six sessions alleged.
Signatures, especially on helmets, jerseys or photographs, carry value, and there is a jackpot for former Heisman winners. The 1989 winner, Andre Ware, who had a 14-game NFL career after playing at Houston, reportedly charges $44 per autograph and does a couple of shows a year. Former Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 winner, can earn up to $50,000 annually from autograph sessions and appearances.
On eBay earlier this week, the top asking price for a Manziel autographed full-sized helmet was $2,000. A framed signed photo and pass ticket to the Heisman ceremony was offered at $1,499.99, the same price for a Manziel-signed Cotton Bowl football.
Jerseys, photos, trading cards, even a baseball — all with Manziel’s signature — are up for bids on the online auction site.
In fairness, athletes don’t always know what becomes of their signatures. Manziel repeatedly has told the story of being asked to sign helmet decals for troops overseas, only to notice them show up on eBay.
Other college stars’ autographs are also available, even by those who haven’t played a game. Basketballs and photos signed by Kansas’ freshman hoops prodigy Andrew Wiggins are up for bids.
And because of the burgeoning online memorabilia market, schools are starting to restrict what athletes can sign. At Kansas football’s Fan Appreciation Day last week, any item a fan brought from home was to be personalized, making the autograph less valuable as a collectible.
Florida was ahead of this game, instituting a school policy in the 1990s that limited its football players’ autographs to school-issued team posters. No helmets or jerseys.
Ironically, if Manziel is suspended for the autographs, their value likely would drop.
“It would be a unique situation, being that the thing that has so much value now would be what leads to that downfall,” said Chris Ivy, director of sports collectibles for Heritage Auctions, a Dallas-based company that assesses and auctions collectibles. “I would think their value would take a hit.”
And the signature is the true value, more than the jersey. Texas A reported $59,690 in income from jersey sales for the fiscal year ending June 30. The school didn’t break sales down by replica jersey number or even by sport, and Texas A receives only 10 percent of the wholesale price under its agreement with Adidas.
Autographs and signed memorabilia would be one stream of revenue based on Manziel’s value, perhaps the most direct one. What about a stake in the money he’s meant to Texas A?
Not long after the Aggies put the finishing touches on a 11-2 season, the university announced media exposure generated by Manziel — the season, the records, the Heisman — was worth $37 million. The report measured impressions and exposures from the regular-season victory over Alabama that made Manziel the Heisman favorite through the bowl triumph.
A seat at a banquet table with Manziel and A’s other Heisman winner, John David Crow, went for $20,000.
Public or corporate appearances, speeches and golf outings would be other income opportunities.
Manziel can’t cash in on any of that, and it remains to be seen what, if anything, he brought in for autographs.
But if cleared, he gets to be Johnny Football, make plenty of money for Texas A and at least until he signs a professional contract live the way he chooses.
“I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that’s catastrophic,” Manziel said before the autograph revelation. He hasn’t commented publicly since.
“Of course I made my mistakes, but I’ve just continued to grow up. You’re going to hit bumps in the road. It’s just a part of life.
“At the end of the day, I hope people will see that I’m a 20-year-old kid in college and I’m just trying to enjoy life. Hopefully that doesn’t upset too many people.”