Memorabilia signed by singer Willie Nelson for autograph collector Chris Tyson is ready for auction by the Knights of Columbus.
photo: Kin Man Hui
by: Richard A. Marini
The silent auction table is a sports fan’s dream come true. Framed and signed Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili jerseys rub shoulders with a Masters flag autographed by Fred Couples. For old-school fans, there’s a signed photo of former Cowboy Daryl “Moose” Johnston and a basketball inscribed by Spurs great David Robinson, complete with a Scripture addendum.
The auction offers enticements for the nonsports fan, too, including a guitar signed by Willie Nelson and autographed photos of comedian George Lopez, actress Eva Longoria, musician Merle Haggard and other celebs.
The table is set up for a Knights of Columbus Last Man Standing event, a fundraiser for the group’s Habitat for Humanity build. As attendees arrive, many make a beeline to the table to scan the offerings and, in a few cases, enter opening bid.
The jerseys, programs, balls and other autographed collectibles were not donated by the players or celebrities themselves. Nor were they collected by KoC members. Instead, they were supplied by Chris Tyson owner of Austin-based Tyson Sports Fundraising.
A peripatetic sports fan, Tyson has ingeniously parlayed what he describes as a “hobby on steroids” – collecting autographed memorabilia – into a thriving business supplying signed swag to boost the fundraising efforts of needy nonprofits.
The arrangement works like this: Tyson collects signed memorabilia from current and former athletes during public appearances, before games, at events such as celebrity golf tournaments or wherever else he can get close enough to press a Sharpie into a willing hand.
He then offers a carefully curated selection of his collection to nonprofit organizations for them to sell, usually as part of a live or silent auction during a fundraising event. In most cases, Tyson splits the proceeds 50/50 with the organization. So if that signed Tim-Duncan-in-a-frame sells for the opening bid of $700, the nonprofit makes $350.
Not everything Tyson offers is so pricey. Unframed jerseys start at $300 to $400, and the opening bid for a game-day program signed by second-tier Spurs such as Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner is as low as $50.
“We love working with Chris,” says Jim Wade of the Knights of Columbus. “We don’t have to knock on doors to collect stuff for the silent auction. He brings plenty of items of interest, and we share in the profits.”
Wade said the Knights netted about $2,000 from silent auction sales during last year’s event.
The 50/50 split is “more than fair,” said Mary Carriker, head of First Tee of San Antonio, which teaches young people confidence through golf. “We wouldn’t be able to get the kind of memorabilia Chris brings on our own.”
The most expensive item Tyson has ever sold, a Nolan Ryan framed jersey, went for $3,000 at a Rodeo Austin fundraiser.
When items don’t sell – every piece carries a minimum bid – the organization isn’t out any money. Tyson simply returns it to his collection to be offered at a later date.
“We hear from companies all the time that want to sell us stuff on consignment, sculptures, tickets to events like the Masters,” says J.D. Damian of the American Wounded Heroes, which supports wounded military veterans. “I’d much rather deal with someone locally like Chris.”
Five years ago, Tyson was a manager with Austin Energy when he attended a sports networking event. The executive director of a charity overheard him talking about his collection of sports memorabilia and asked if he’d bring some items to auction off at a golf tournament planned for the next week. He did, and they were such a big hit he launched Tyson Sports Fundraising.
Tyson did five events that first year and 53 in 2011. This year he expects to do 70. He says he’s on pace to match the salary he made during his final year at Austin Energy.