The pandemic has diminished part of athletes’ jobs: Signing autographs

By Gerald Narciso

Tennis player Eugenie Bouchard grew accustomed to drawing a crowd of autograph seekers. At tournaments, she routinely scribbled her signature for almost anybody who asked around stadium concourses or outside her hotel.

Bouchard, a 2014 Wimbledon finalist who ranked fifth in the world at her peak, is one of Canada’s most popular athletes. But lately, she has received significantly less attention. She has competed in just four tournaments on the tour since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — sometimes without fans in the stands. Bouchard, 26, said she could count on one hand how many times she had been approached in public for an autograph on any given day in Las Vegas, where she has been training for nearly a year.

“Very, very few,” she said in an email. “It’s like a special occasion now, and I get super excited to sign.”

The pandemic has disrupted almost every aspect of sports culture, including fan attendance at games. Even where there are reduced-capacity crowds, buffers between spectators and players have largely prevented interactions, including one of professional athletes’ traditional responsibilities: giving autographs.

“Signing and taking pictures is one of the perks of the job,” Bouchard said. “I remember being that kid dying for an autograph from a player.”

In many stadiums and arenas worldwide, massive tarps now cover areas above the tunnels where athletes pass in and out of playing areas and where zealous fans with pens and sports memorabilia typically jostle for position around the railings.

In the NHL, players cannot socialize with teammates on the road, much less interact with fans. Claude Giroux, the Philadelphia Flyers’ captain, said he couldn’t remember the last time he had autographed an item.

“Hopefully, I don’t get put in that situation, but I would have to respectfully decline just ’cause it’s dangerous,” Giroux, 33, said in a telephone interview, estimating that before the pandemic he would give about 20 autographs after games. “You don’t know the person. You want to be safe. I’d love to sign a few, but I don’t think that’s the right play for now.”

In England, the Premier League has set similarly stringent policies in its soccer stadiums. Fans began being allowed back into the stands in December, but contact between them and players is not permitted.

“You could already feel the impact on and off the pitch,” Sadio Mané, a winger for Liverpool, said in an email.

But the break in his previous game-day signing routine, Mané said, has not yielded benefits like improved concentration before matches. Mané, 28, said he missed interacting with fans.

“It’s a beautiful thing to help young fans, being able to connect their passion and education,” he said. “Being around fans is something that will hopefully be possible again this year. I will always be there and ready to sign autographs for our fans after the pandemic.”

This week, Major League Baseball ramps up its spring training, which includes about a month of tuneup games at small ballparks in Florida and Arizona. It’s a fun time, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder David Peralta said, because of closeness with fans.

Last year, only games in the later playoff rounds had fans in the stands. Spring training games will have limited attendance, but plans for the regular season haven’t been finalized.

“I was feeling a little down last season, because you play to put on a good show for the fans,” Peralta, 33, said in a telephone interview. “And then when you look around, you have nothing. No one to throw a ball to between innings. No kids you can make smile with an autograph.”

Max Wheeler is one of those kids. Wheeler, a 13-year-old baseball fan from Madison, Wisconsin, has collected more than 500 signatures in the past seven years, Hank Aaron’s being his most prized. Wheeler was a fixture at the Milwaukee Brewers’ home stadium before the pandemic, strategically acquiring autographs.

“I make neon signs two nights before the game, and we arrive three hours before first pitch to make sure we’re first in line,” Wheeler, who runs a YouTube channel that presents his best signed memorabilia and provides tips for autograph seekers, said in a telephone interview. “I like meeting the guys I see on TV, so it’s pretty cool.”

The Professional Bull Riders league was one of the first sports organizations not only to restart competition last year, but also to bring back fans. Yet the association never allowed crowds to exceed 50% of capacity, a spokesman said.

At events before the pandemic, ticket holders could take tours backstage, viewing the bulls up close and interacting with riders. Matt Triplett, 29, a rider known as a fan favorite, would sign autographs even after intense rides, with his cowboy hat scuffed up and his arm wrapped in a bag of ice. Autographs are currently not permitted on the bull riders’ circuit, but that has not always stopped Triplett from accommodating fan requests.

“You see them walking down the hall, you sign a quick one and still make it work,” Triplett, who is currently out of competition with a hip injury, said by telephone. “You still want them to come, but you want to practice social distancing.”

Normalcy in sporting events is slowly returning. Some NBA teams, including the Atlanta Hawks, have even brought back courtside seats. At the end of a game in Atlanta last month, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets removed their jerseys and autographed them before handing them to the rapper 2 Chainz.

Wheeler hopes he, too, will soon be able to see his sports heroes in person again. Since the start of the pandemic, he has continued to receive autographs through the mail.

But being a true autograph connoisseur, Wheeler said nothing beats seeing a baseball player up close and witnessing the signing in real time.

“I miss them a lot,” he said. “Even though attending baseball games is not going on right now, I know that they’ll resume someday.”

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