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April 2004 | Scott Engelhardt

I began this article during the 2003 season when the autograph hounds had really gotten out of control. Angie and I had moved down from row 18 to row 9 in section 113 and came face to face with the "autograph section" for the first time — a brewing problem that people in rows 1-8 had already been dealing with. Basically, during the pregame shoot around, autograph hunters would jam the railing next to the tunnel the players use to enter and exit the court. To keep people out of the aisle until the magic moment arrived (when the players left the court after their warm-ups), the ushers would have them sit in the 113 seats and would tell the season ticket holders who had paid for those seats to go elsewhere since this was the "autograph section."

When I started writing, my intent was to tear, rip and shred the EBay jerks who dominate the "autograph section" - a team of men who load up on cheap pieces of fake court wood, programs and other items to sell on EBay. Their MO is to muscle out the casual fans who really just want a couple autographs and get as much stuff signed as possible. It also happens that these are the same people who then go on to sports forums and trash the Storm, the WNBA and women's sports in general (I know who some of them are), but are fine with exploiting the Storm for a few bucks.

Instead of venting on and on about these idiots, I thought I'd try to come up with some possible solutions that meet everyone's needs, the casual fan who just wants to get a couple autographs, the serious fan who wants to get something signed by the whole team each season (myself for example), the EBay jerk who wants to make a quick buck, and the players who want to accommodate their fans but don't want to be exploited or misrepresented (like when the EBay jerks claim that Sue or LJ okayed them selling merchandise - never going to happen).

Suggestion 1 — No more "autograph section"
This only really serves the people sitting in section 113 and the players, but displacing paying ticket holders has got to stop. Period. If the players want to sign pre-game autographs during the warm-ups (as they sometimes do), let it be their decision. Encouraging a mad rush to a railing with men pushing aside kids is stupid and only going to get someone hurt.

Suggestion 2 — Hold in-season autograph events
Open to the public and advertised well in advance during games, one or two autograph events during the season would meet pretty much everyone's need for autographs. Get all the players sitting at a line of tables. There is a single line of fans going from one table to the next, in order (no rush to one player or another). Each fan gets one object signed per player for free (which could translate into one item signed by 13 players or 13 items signed once). If the fan has more than one item, they have to go back through the line. The catch is that on subsequent trips, the fan has to pay a higher and higher fee — first trip is free, second trip costs $10, third tip costs $20, etc. The Storm could use the money for the Team Foundation and count it as a charity event. The bottom line is that you can get as many autographs as you want if you're willing to pay for it. This would remove the pressure of getting autographs during the game, allow all fans to get the autographs they want, help out the Storm's in-house charity, and get the more pushy fans and EBay jerks out of the players' faces during the games.

Suggestion 3 — Have more structured autograph sessions at fan events
The season ticket holder party at the end of the season has also become an autograph feeding frenzy that has gotten seriously out of hand. The players couldn't move or do anything but sign autographs, fans were getting frustrated trying to find the players to sign things, and instead of a fun event where the fans and players could hang out and play games it looked like one of those Discovery Channel Shark Week shows when they through chum into a school of sharks. With a little structure and pre-event information, this can be changed for the better. Split the event into 2 parts: A/ an autograph session like the Suggestion 2 autograph event with only one trip through the line for each fan; and B/ time for hanging out with absolutely no autographs for anyone. As long as you tell everyone before the event so that all the fans know what to expect, they will be prepared and you won't have to play bad cop (well, too much anyway).

Suggestion 4 — Open a post-game space for autographs
Another option would be to have a designated post-game space for autographs — perhaps outside the arena, the Nasdaq club, or some other space where fans could access the Storm and the visiting team. I know that there have been many times that I would like to get an autograph from one of the visiting players but haven't been able to find a good, non-intrusive or jerk-like way of getting it.

The Bottom Line
Fans want autographs. Some, like Angie and myself, get one or two items signed by the whole team each year as a memento of that season. Others just want one or two players. As the fan base for the Storm grows, there will be more and more pressure on the players for autographs. Already, this issue has started to sour the players' attitude toward the fans. The players see us as wanting a piece of them for exploitation and as a bother. It is only going to get worse if things are left as they are.

Now is the time to institute some basic structures that relieve the pressure but still meet everyone's needs. In the long run, everyone will be happier.