Buying and selling used urinals, worn seats and strips of sweaty jerseys may sound like a losing business venture, but toss in the Yankees, Red Sox or Fighting Irish and you have more than a billion dollars in annual sales.
As the final game in Yankee Stadium this weekend approaches, collectors are salivating at the prospect of buying signs, bases and even trash cans in what experts predict will be a $50 million-plus fire sale.
"There is little doubt in my mind that everything that pertains to Yankee Stadium that can be sold will be sold," said Robert Vazquez, director of talent procurement at Steiner Sports, which has an exclusive contract to sell "game-used" Yankees merchandise and is working a deal to sell all stadium memorabilia. "It's a piece of Americana."
The memorabilia industry has shifted tremendously in the last decade as collectors have swayed from simple autographed items carrying the risk of forgery, like baseball cards and balls, and settled on items sold directly by sports teams via various collecting agencies, like seats; foul poles; scorecards; signed, used clothing; and even signs from the stadium.
"You see people getting more and more leery and asking for certificates of authentication," said George Tahan, owner of Ballparkseats.com, which buys and sells sports memorabilia. "You definitely have a lot of consumers worried about getting what they pay for. Now a team's market drives demand and price."
And there is no bigger market than New York. All eyes in the memorabilia world are on Yankee Stadium. Vazquez says because the city owns the permanent fixtures -- like seats and scoreboards -- at the stadium, negotiating a deal to auction the items is more complicated. Steiner Sports is expected to sell the items, though no deal has been finalized.
"New York sports teams have 200 years of history, which make this a sweet spot for us," Vazquez said. The problem is not selling the items but predicting what will be sellable after demolition, though everyone in the industry predicts everything will be sold.
Tahan, a baseball fan who bought his first seat from Comiskey Park in 1990 for $100, turned his passion into a successful business and now buys and sells merchandise from 16 ballparks. An avid collector, he has more than 200 chairs, a door to the scoreboard at Fenway Park and even a hot dog vending cart in his home.
"This type of memorabilia has a tremendous history attached to it," he said. "You can buy a seat that someone sat in and watched Babe Ruth play baseball. A baseball card is made to be a piece of memorabilia. Stadium elements are memorabilia."
Phil Castinetti, owner of Sportsworld, a memorabilia store in Saugus, Mass., said ballpark items and game-used items are very hot as collectors seek anything "they know is real." He recently sold used jockstraps from several Red Sox players for $200-$300 each. "I did it as a joke, but they all sold because buyers knew the Red Sox were involved."
A urinal from Cardinal Stadium recently sold for $2,220. Yankee urinals could fetch more than $3,000. Certified MLB bases are selling these days for $1,500 to $2,500. Even turnstiles sell for $2,000 or more.
Tahan says antique sites like eBay changed everything for sports dealers. When Tahan was able to buy 100 old Yankee chairs, he knew he could sell them via the Web. He ultimately started his own business as his inventory and contacts grew.
Experts say the interest in items continues to grow -- despite the sagging economy.
"The collecting industry has become a lot more savvy and educated in the past few years," Vazquez said. "There is a very strong market for both high- and low-priced items."
But sports memorabilia in 2008 is dominated by the higher-priced items with collectors willing to pay unthinkable sums for niche items. Actor Billy Crystal recently paid $239,000 for a Mickey Mantle glove and bases from big teams regularly sell for more than $1,000.
Castinetti, who has been in the business since 1986, paid $5,000 for a base used during the recent All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium.
"But I'm a big Yankee collector," he explained. "People are just willing to pay more with authentication. You can't really get anything for $50 anymore. It's all big money."
Vazquez said the higher prices have paved the way for creative marketing ideas like cutting a shirt Derek Jeter wore during a game into pieces and selling the strips, which fetch $300 or more on the Web. Castinetti said the same pieces of Boston Garden parquet floor that sold for $50 in 1995 sell for more than $150 today.
"There is a very high comfort level when people know they are buying a Jeter jersey that is coming from the Yankees," Vazquez said. "There are waiting lists for Yankees items."
As the demand for game-used and authentic items increases, more and more sports teams are trying to get a piece of the financial windfall. Before dealers like Steiner Sports signed exclusive deals with teams like the Yankees, collectors bought old items from auctions or second-hand at minor league parks.
Now teams that used to trash signs and urinals can turn those items in cash. "Ball clubs have become very aware of the potential revenue stream," Tahan said. "The hobby has changed a lot since the 1990s as teams get involved in the sales."
Steiner Sports is one agency helping teams find their way into the memorabilia market. Steiner has had an exclusive deal with the Yankees since 2004 and also sells items for the Dodgers, Syracuse University, the Dallas Cowboys and Notre Dame, among others.
Vazquez said a lot of teams are waking up to the potential revenue, but most are not prepared to sell items like scorecards and bases. "Everyone thinks it's easy," he said. "But selling game-used merchandise is a lot different than managing a team. You have to be creative today when selling game items."
For collectors, getting a piece of Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park is a bigger coup than getting a Roger Clemens baseball card. "I just thought it was neat to have a piece of the park in my house," Tahan said. "As a fan, there is nothing cooler."