Brett and Chris Dooley woke up at 5:30 Saturday morning and drove 31/2 hours from Atlanta for the Cam Newton autograph signing at SouthPark Mall.
The brothers, both of whom are Auburn graduates, plunked down $175 apiece to get an Auburn jersey and helmet signed by Newton, the Panthers’ second-year quarterback who won a Heisman Trophy and national championship during the 2010-11 season, his only one at Auburn.
Besides being an Auburn grad, Chris Dooley’s hobby is sports collectibles. So the money he spent on gas, food, the Auburn helmet and Newton’s autograph did not faze him.
“I’m a big collector anyway. So we just made the trip,” Chris Dooley said. “We both went to Auburn.”
Newton’s appearance at a for-profit autograph session in his adopted town drew criticism from observers locally and nationally. Carlos Fleming, Newton’s marketing agent with IMG, said Newton was doing nothing different than most other top picks, whose first endorsement deals are generally with memorabilia companies.
Newton had appeared at five previous autograph sessions in New Jersey and Alabama as part of his obligations to Hawaii-based GT Sports Marketing. Terms of Newton’s memorabilia deal are undisclosed.
But according to sports business experts, multiyear deals for star athletes approach $1 million a year.
Newton’s signing session Saturday was sandwiched between former NFL running back Bo Jackson – another Heisman winner from Auburn – and former Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson.
A crowd of 300 or so cheered when Newton strode past the SouthPark mall stores and kiosks and made his way to the cordoned-off area where he signed and posed for pictures.
Newton was scheduled to sign for 21/2 hours, but he was through after an hour. He was escorted to a private area, where he autographed items for GT Sports Marketing and any stragglers who arrived late.
Newton declined comment following his public session.
Gary Takahashi, president GT Sports Marketing, said the crowd Saturday was not comparable to those at Newton’s autograph sessions in Alabama.
“I think the people that did come had a good time,” Takahashi said.
Charlotte resident Ritchie Blount and his family were first in line to meet Newton after getting to the mall 30 minutes before Newton. Blount paid $200 for a photo of his family – wife Melanie and daughters Grace (13) and Lilly (11) – with Newton, along with an inscription from Newton.
Ritchie Blount listened to a discussion on local sports-talk radio last week about Newton charging for autographs. He decided it was worth the money to give Grace, a big Newton fan, a personal experience rather than fight the crowds and risk getting shut out at training camp in Spartanburg, where Newton signed long after practices ended last year.
“There was a question of whether this was right to do in Charlotte or not. I think the guy was very gracious, took his time. It wasn’t a rushed procedure. He looked everybody in the eye,” said Blount, a Panthers’ personal seat license owner for nine years.
“I feel like we had an opportunity to get the girls in there. My daughter is the biggest Cam Newton fan. Her entire room is Cam Newton stuff,” Blount said. “Just a chance to have 1-on-1 time with him without fighting (crowds). If you’ve been down to Spartanburg, it’s a madhouse trying to get an (autograph).”
Seated at a long folding table, Newton looked up and spoke to fans after signing their posters, pictures, mini-helmets, Panthers’ No. 1 jerseys and Auburn No. 2 jerseys. He asked everyone who identified themselves as Auburn grads what year they graduated.
There were more than a few “War Eagle!” exchanges.
Brett Dooley had Newton sign his Auburn jersey, which Dooley bought on Taobao – the Chinese equivalent of eBay – when he was doing ministry work in China.
The Dooley brothers left Atlanta in the dark and were in Charlotte by 9:30 because they assumed there was a card show connected with the signings. They killed time walking around the mall “about a dozen times,” said Chris, a 1994 Auburn graduate.
“This is the only thing that is going to get a bunch of men in the mall,” Brett Dooley said.
But Takahashi seemed disappointed in the turnout. He called Charlotte a nice city, but one that does not have a history with paid autograph events.
Takahashi said he would come to Charlotte for as many as five Panthers’ games this season, but did not commit to any more autograph sessions.
“We don’t have any scheduled for the time being,” he said.