DALLAS -- Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith has signed hundreds of helmets, jerseys and scraps of paper. But with each autograph he knows is his, the former Cowboy running back worries about the fakes that may one day be passed on to unsuspecting fans.
The Dallas Morning News reports the 48-year-old has created a company that makes those fakes easier to spot. Now when Smith signs his name, he uses a smartphone to scan a chip on the item or embedded into it. Through a mobile app, he can register the item so anyone who later buys it can prove it's authentic.
He would like to see the tech-enabled system become a new standard for authenticating and tracking sports memorabilia, luxury goods, art and other collectibles.
Smith is founder and chairman of the Prova Group, which sells the system. It is one of a handful of businesses he owns or is affiliated with, but he says this one is a personal passion.
"People pay significant dollars for these things; they pay their hard-earned cash because they believe in the athlete or the person that they're collecting items from," he said. "When you get taken advantage of, it's disappointing and it hurts the market."
The company's name comes from the Italian and Latin word for "proof." It uses a near-field communication chip that's about the size of a postage stamp and resembles the chip inside of a credit card. It can be sewn inside a football or onto a jersey. It can be added later at trade shows or auctions with a sticker that looks similar to a hologram but has a chip inside. A certificate of authentication can be scanned and matched with the sticker.
The Cowboys use the authentication system in players' jerseys.
Sports collectibles caught on as an industry in the 1980s, said Chris Ivy, director for sports collectibles for Heritage Auctions. It's one of the fastest-growing categories for the auction house, growing from $42 million in sales in 2015 to $57.4 million in 2016.
Ivy said collectors and auction houses rely on a variety of methods to confirm an item's authenticity, from dating the fabric of a jersey to comparing its appearance to historical images. Holograms and certificates of authenticity are also used to prove an item's provenance.
But as the industry has grown, so has the market for counterfeits, Smith said.
Smith said fake autographs have gotten under his skin for years. In the late 1990s, he discovered a fraudulently signed Cowboys helmet in a Los Angeles shopping mall. He took out his driver's license and insisted that the store manager take the item off the shelf.
"There's no telling how many more pieces that he had already sold," he said. "For people who are avid collectors, who trust people who are actually supposed to be selling them something, how can you trust a person who's authenticating it and selling you the same thing at the same time? Any time there's dollars involved, somebody's going to do something crooked, some kind of way."
Smith started the Prova Group in 2005 but put it on the back burner when the economy crashed and the market for collectibles dropped. In 2013, Smith brought the technology back with a mobile focus. The company has a suite of enterprise mobile apps that can be used to register an item before it's signed or digitally notarize an autograph when it is witnessed. Each scan is linked to the user's account.
This spring, the company launched its first consumer-facing app. Legit, a free mobile app, allows collectors and potential buyers to confirm an item's authenticity and look up details about its history, such as where and when the item was worn or signed. The app is available for free in the Google Play store and is expected soon in the Apple store.
Smith tested the technology along the way. He started testing similar smart tags in his jerseys and helmets in 2002, the year he broke the NFL career rushing record. He tagged the costume from his performance in the Dancing with the Stars finale in 2006 with an early version of the Prova Group's chip.
The Prova Group has worked with two primary customers to pilot the system: the Cowboys and Hari Mari, a Dallas-Fort Worth flip-flop company, said Haroon Alvi, CEO of the Prova Group.
For the Cowboys, a patch tag with a chip inside is sewn into each jersey at the factory. When it arrives to the locker room, the equipment manager scans the jersey and assigns it to a player. By scanning the chip, a collector can later track whether a player broke a record or played a historic game in the jersey.
Hari Mari's line of high-end leather flip-flops is equipped with near-field communication chips that allow customers to engage with the brand through a mobile app.
Smith said he would like to expand in the art industry, such as tracking props and clothing used in movies. He said he'd like to add app-based features for sports collectibles, such as pulling up video clips of a game in which a jersey was worn.