New Ravens autograph policy could send the wrong message

July 13, 2010 | Drew Forrester

In the grand scheme of things, a sports team’s policy on fans acquiring autographs isn’t really a big deal.

Baseball players rarely stand around before a game and sign for fans, even though the game is still two hours away in some cases and signing 25 autographs at the field’s edge wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Well, except maybe for Koji Uehara or Felix Pie in Baltimore.  Uehara would injure his elbow somehow and Pie would slip going into the dugout and strain his quad.

In football, though, it’s become customary for fans to flock to a team’s pre-season training camp and spend the better part of their down time trying to secure an autograph or two.

With the Ravens, the field becomes a madhouse after practice, as fans work their way to the front of the pack in an effort to get an item (or two, or three) signed by one of their purple heroes.

And now we find out the Ravens are going to significantly change their policy on autographs at this month’s training camp in Westminster.  Adults will no longer be allowed to secure an autograph at training camp…at least not in an organized manner.  Instead, only children ages 6-15 will be permitted on the field after the morning practice (only) to get autographs. 

Like I referenced above, a team’s autograph policy isn’t all that important.  Give us 12 regular season wins and a handful of post-season victories and a trip to the Super Bowl, and we’ll allow you to change any policy you want.

Hell, with the Orioles, just give us one winning season and we’ll never ask for an autograph again.

But this Ravens autograph policy is somewhat disappointing.

The press release distributed by the team includes several quotes from team President Dick Cass, where he discusses safety issues with adults being overly aggressive in pursuit of autographs and putting children in danger.  I get that, for sure.  There’s certainly a liability issue at stake, as no one attending the camp signs any kind of waiver release form and the club is putting itself in an awkward position by creating a semi-free-for-all at the end of practice.

I’ve been to Westminster to cover training camp and I have cringed at times with the amount of overzealous adults who – frankly – are the ones acting like little kids in an effort to get Ray Lewis or Ed Reed or Todd Heap to sign something.  It IS potentially a dangerous situation.

But the hidden message in the Ravens autograph policy change is this:  There will be less signing and less opportuntity for fan interaction at this year’s training camp.

That’s too bad.

Training camp is essentially the only time fans can REALLY rub elbows with the players.  During the season, you can watch Ray at the stadium or sit in front of your big screen TV and bring Joe Flacco into your living room, but it’s a rare occasion — provided for at training camp — where Ray Rice stands 5 feet in front of you.

Yes, I know, fawning over an athlete is silly.  Like we’ve all never done it, right?

What I don’t like about the policy is the Ravens outline of practice and how only 1/3 of the players will be available to sign because of OTHER obligations – legitimate ones, mind you – like weight training and such.

That’s the problem…limiting the number of players who can sign to 1/3 of the team.

There are essentially 10 hours in the team’s workday at training camp.  10 hours.  And they DO work there, make no mistake about it.

But if Dick Cass and John Harbaugh and anyone else associated with making the autograph policy decision can’t carve out 20 minutes for everyone to sign, then either they should start earlier or create some kind of “time-off incentive” for the guys who DO hang around and sign.

I don’t doubt one bit that it becomes a pain-in-the-rear to sign autographs on day 16 of training camp when it’s 98 degrees on the field.  But you – the Ravens – open camp to the fans and sell corporate sponsorships to people like Verizon based somewhat on this mega-mother event you’ve created in Westminster and reducing your interaction with the people who keep the franchise afloat isn’t a good move.

Ask the Orioles what it’s like to have a fan base decline to the point where more people in town don’t know the score from the night before than do.

A lot of the Birds’ woes can be traced to their poor record on the field over the last 13 years, but just as much disconnection from the fans has come about due to the stand-off’ish nature of the players and their unwillingness to give ticket buyers a wink and a smile and a fist bump.

The last thing the Ravens need is to initiate anything that diminishes the amount of interaction they have with their fan base in training camp, because that’s literally the only chance most people have to see the players up close and personal.

Here’s an idea…why not set up stations where fans can simply walk by and say “hey” and pose for a quick cell phone photo?  EVERYONE has a cell phone and 90% of them have a camera built into them.  It might not be as quick as a player chicken-scratching his name on a piece of paper, but it’s another method to show the fans you care.  And maybe THAT is where you limit it to children…and you limit it to ONE photo…and you allow for NO autographs at those stations.

I could sit here all night and dream up quick-hit ways for players to mingle with the fans in a short amount of time, but the overall theme is this: Don’t reduce the interaction with the fans.

I could completely understand the new policy if practices in-season were open to the public once a week and folks had the chance to watch it in person and satisfy their craving to meet a player in that way.

But once the team breaks camp from Westminster in late August, that’s it as far as organized meet-the-players events go.

Children are the future lifeline of the team, of course, but the last time I checked, a 9-year old doesn’t fork over $3,000 for a PSL and $2,000 a year for tickets.  Telling the adults they can’t meet the players is the wrong thing to do.  I admit, I’m skeptical when I see a 38-year old man with a pennant under his left arm, a football in his right hand and four mini-helmets in a backpack…all brought to training camp with hopes of getting the items signed by one or more players.  But the fact remains, SOME of those people simply like to have Kelly Gregg’s autograph on a football that they put up in their man-cave.

I don’t understand it…but it’s not for me to understand.  Some people like and cherish autographed items.

And when those people are the ones who pay the salaries of everyone in the organization, you can at least be gracious to them for 25 or so days every August.

The Ravens need look only to their stadium-neighbor to the north for a clear indication of what happens when you systematically remove yourself little by little from the common fan.

It’s not pretty.

And I know for certain that the Ravens – front office wise – are smarter than the Orioles.  I’m sure they thought this autograph policy through and feel confident they’re doing the right thing.  But frankly, this is a move the Orioles would make.

Let’s hope the policy change doesn’t backfire on the Ravens.

They’ve been too good for too long at dealing with their fan-base to have a bump in the road now.