How important is the autograph? Well, I believe it is what sold me on this wonderful game of soccer.
When I was growing up in Vancouver, our family had season tickets to the Whitecaps of the old North American Soccer League. Back in the late '70s and early '80s the Whitecaps would average around 25,000 fans per game. They played at Empire Stadium, which was built for the Empire Games in 1954 (now known as the Commonwealth Games), where the security was pretty tight. However after each game I remember jumping over a short barrier, dodging security guards (they didn't move much) and running onto the field to attempt to get an autograph of any player. Often it would be of the visiting team and I would have no idea who it was until I got into our car and matched the number off the signature to the number in the game program. But it was these moments of interaction with the players that I never forgot.
I remember Arnie Mausser, a famous American goalie, asking me if I played soccer and what position. Of course I told him I was a goalkeeper and he wished me luck. He instantly became a favorite of mine. Bob Bolitho, a Vancouver Whitecap, went out of his way to sign my program as a security guard was grabbing my jacket (maybe the only security guard in the stadium that actually did his job). Again, he became one of my favorites. Although short, the interaction with these players left a lifelong impact (I still remember these meetings even more than 20 years later).
I would spend hours after the game studying the autograph and then go outside and kick a ball around pretending to be that player. It didn't matter if the player was good or bad; it just mattered that he had taken the time to acknowledge me. These players instantly became heroes in my eyes. It was an experience that made me love soccer. Bruce Wilson, Jan Van Beveren, Greg Weber, Kevin Hector, Willie Johnston and Alan Hinton - to name a few - all signed my programs at some stage. I have a box full of autographs sitting somewhere in my parents' basement (the storage company of choice for most professional athletes). One day I'll have to pull them out and show my son the autographs and the wild hairstyles.
I guess that is why I enjoy signing autographs. The look on some of the kids' faces reminds me of those days dodging security guards at old Empire Stadium. Now if I could only get the adults to stop reminding me of my mistakes during the game. We are fortunate in our sport where we have a lot of interaction with our fans and I believe it is important for us to sell soccer to the public. Our accessibility allows us to develop relationships with our fans and hopefully turn them into lifelong enthusiasts of the game.
So how important is the autograph? Well, it really is not valuable in a monetary sense, but from an emotional one, it may be the connection that this fan needed to pursue a professional soccer career.