Darren Prince has been surrounded by some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. From Magic Johnson and Joe Frazier to Hulk Hogan, Dennis Rodman, Mickey Rourke, the late Evel Knievel and Pamela Anderson.
And also John Littlefield. Seriously.
A right-handed pitcher, Littlefield appeared in 94 major league games, all as a reliever – with the 1980 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1981 San Diego Padres. He had a 7-8 career record, 3.39 ERA and struck out 43.
But Littlefield is a legend in the card world.
Specifically, his 1982 Fleer reverse negative error card.
“I used to specialize in error cards for a few years and that card was impossible to find,” Prince said. “When I sold the only one I had for $2,000 in the early 1990s, I cried. But my dad, Martin, taught me a lesson, that you can only sell it one time.”
Prince has been wheeling and dealing in the collectibles industry ever since. He’s a card collector turned card dealer turned sports agent, managing the collectibles front (and much more) for Johnson, Frazier, Hogan, Rodman and others.
Prince is nearly as big a star in the hobby as those he represents.
“My personal life is amazing and business could not be better. All I need is to get my wife pregnant and we will be set,” said a smiling Prince, the president of New Jersey-based Prince Marketing Group, which is a leader in the sports and entertainment marketing industry.
“It was amazing to see that cards and collectibles took on a life of their own in the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s, probably up to the past three years. They were considered 100 percent solid blue-chip investments and, in some cases, depending on the product or cards, they still are. It gave our industry a lot of credit. But, forgeries and greed by card companies printing too many cards took the fun out of it.
“The hobby has done a 180 since I have gotten out of it. I think most of the trading card companies got greedy by over-printing and the athletes also signed quite a bit of product and once the recession hit, the supply far outweighed the demand, leaving a lot of dealers and companies inventory-rich.”
Prince, 40, certainly has a deep history in the cardboard industry, dating back to when he was 14 – when he studied the back of baseball cards and their value. He was a statistical and mathematical genius who actually held several part-time jobs to buy all of his friends’ collections and also whatever was for sale at local garage sales.
At 14, he even asked his dad for insurance for his collection, then valued at more than $10,000.
“He was blown away, but took such incredible interest that he sat down with me for hours so I can show him the values,” Prince said of his dad, Marty, who then told his son that he then needed to be able to sell them.
So the young Prince started setting up at area shows on the weekend.
And he’d rake in $500 on an average day.
“The light bulb went on in both our heads, and we have never looked back,” Prince said. “I pretty much found my calling and, after Baseball Card City, the name came to my dad one day (and he suggested) Prince of Cards. It was game-over at that point. No one ever called me Darren again; it was always, ‘Hey, Prince of Cards is here,’ ” Prince said.
“My mom, Andrea, and dad have supported me since day one, so has my sister, Stacey; they are my biggest fans and I would never be here without them in my corner during this incredible journey. My dad, who is a brilliant businessman who owned a very successful direct-mail coupon advertising company that he sold, molded me for many years. But the funny thing is now, and you can even ask him this … in some cases, the teacher has become the student.”
Prince sold his card company at age 20 for $1 million – before he could even legally toast the deal with champagne.
“It was an incredible time … Mark Murphy, David Greenhill, Brian Wallos and myself were like the young big shots of the industry. We were all authorities in our own specialty,” Prince said.
Just look at USA TODAY for proof, as was the case back in 1989.
That’s when Prince bought 500 Baltimore Orioles team sets at the classic Atlantic City Trump Plaza 500 Home Run Club Show.
Then-USA TODAY sports reporter Mel Antonen came to Prince’s table at the show and saw Reggie Jackson buy his rookie card from Prince.
The Monday after that show, Antonen wrote about the show – and Prince.
“That Monday, while back at the University of Bridgeport, my roommates were screaming. I ran into my dorm room to see that I was on the front page of USA TODAY.”
Antonen wrote about Prince and Greenhill as big-time players in the business.
“But that’s not the best part,” Prince added. “The best was, he had a picture of the Bill Ripken error card and it said, “Marred by an obscenity.” I had 500 of those Ripken cards and hit the jackpot. I think I made over $200,000 selling them all during a two-week period. Stockbrokers were driving up to my college to buy them in bulk and a guy named Lenny at Just Rite Rare Coins purchased my last 75 or 100.”
Prince then also paid his roommate not to go to class for a week, to help answer the phone calls and fulfill orders. “I think he got in bring trouble with his parents,” Prince said, laughing.
Today, Prince’s personal collection is limited, mostly just personal items from his clients. But those are, of course, some high-profile mega-stars.
Who wouldn’t want worn and signed souvenirs from Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, Hulk Hogan, Roy Jones Jr., Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Mickey Rourke, Pamela Anderson and the late Evel Knievel?
His collection also includes an autograph from his childhood hero: Mookie Wilson, who he met about eight years ago at a signing.
Prince had Wilson autograph a game-worn jersey that Prince had purchased at an auction, and Wilson wrote: ‘To Darren, Truly my No. 1 fan.’
“It took long enough to meet the guy and he was my hero growing up,” Prince said of Wilson. “Who can forget Game 6 of the 1986 World Series? Diving out of the way of the pitch to score the tying run. And what most sophisticated baseball fans have not seen over the years is that it didn’t matter if an injured Bill Buckner got the grounder because Mookie was so fast and Bill was so far behind the bag that he would have beat him to it and been safe anyway.”
Prince’s personal collection also includes a 1994 San Diego Chargers team-signed AFC Champions helmet. “It’s the only year they made it to the Super Bowl, only to get blown out 49-26 by the San Francisco 49ers. Buy it was still a thrill being at that game,” said Prince.
Prince’s collection also includes a Grateful Dead signed group photo. “I was a big Dead Head. I still love their music and have over 500 Grateful Dead songs on my iPod,” he said.
He doesn’t have many cards from his collection, and even sold the two T206 Honus Wagner cards that he’s owned.
Prince said his favorite card show memory was at the 1991 National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, Calif.
“After having a late night with Mark Murphy and a bunch of friends, we had the limo driver ride by the convention center at 3 a.m., and there must have been 5,000 people outside sleeping on the curb just so they could be the first into the show,” Prince said. “Murphy and I found an old collector from Kansas and we later purchased 50 boxes of 1975 Topps Baseball wax boxes and 1972 Topps. Murphy almost got killed in Kansas buying the collection; he was taken on a two-hour long ride on a dirt field only to realize the collector had everything stored in a shed on a farm. It was a memorable experience, to say the least.”
But normally, Prince is surrounded by the superstars. Always has been, though he’s never let the stardom affect his outgoing, friendly personality.
“In the beginning, it was incredible and it started giving me a big head because Robert DeNiro, Steven Speilberg, Al Pacino, Slyvester Stallone, Michael Jordan, Angelina Jolie, Denzel Washington, Donald Trump, Dustin Hoffman and others were real cool with me,” Prince said. “But then I realized it’s only because they all love and respect and admire my clients I was out with; it really had nothing to do with me because if I wasn’t with my client, they certainly would not be running by saying, ‘Oh wow, Darren Prince is here.’ So that put my ego in check and I realized it’s just a job and I am there to network on behalf of my clients and look for future opportunities.”
And boy has he done it well.
Prince Marketing Group is a boutique firm with only six agents – and 90 percent of PMG’s business is endorsement, licensing, intellectual property and book deals, and corporate events. PMG also has produced several reality TV shows and booked clients for cameos in movies. PMG does “well into the eight-figures in deals a year,” he said.
“The autograph market is much stronger for sports stars. Most celebrities look down upon getting paid to sign autographs and do it for free at premiers and promotional events.”
Prince was in Chicago in mid-July for the second FansEdge Sports Spectacular, held in Rosemont. Hogan and Rodman were among the most sought-after signers that weekend. Hogan is the latest star to join PMG.
“Hulk is one of our most recognizable clients,” Prince said. “He is still one of the Top 20 most recognized celebrities in the world. Anywhere he goes it’s mayhem. We signed a pre-paid debit card licensing endorsement deal with a company called Hype Univercity, where a large percentage of the service fees goes to give kids college scholarships and it also teaches them to budget their spending. It also allows individuals with credit issues to still have a credit card with Hulk and the Hulkamania logo on it as well as great memorabilia redemption programs, and even the chance to meet Hulk.
“We just got him a national commercial with 800-loan-mart and he has one for Rent-A-Center as well. We signed a deal for an Apple application and a T-shirt licensing deal with industry giant American Classics.
“And, if you go to www.hulkandfriends.com, you will see an incredible event that was several years in the making, involving Hulk (and such fellow wrestlers as) Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake, Brian Knobs, Jerry Sags, Greg Valentine, Honky Tonk Man, Koko B. Ware and Jimmy ‘Mouth of the South’ Hart. Basically it’s a Question & Answer format, with the audience asking all sorts of personal and career-related questions to the guys, and the wrestlers adding never-before-told stories. There also is a small meet-and-greet with the VIPs. The first one was a huge success at a Vancouver casino in July. The media has been eating it up, too. The event has been so well received that I expect to book not less than 25 or 30 of these tours this year all over the world, based on the inquiries we are getting already.”
Hogan has done four public show signings, Prince said.
Prince’s show run – through the stars he represents – also has featured the countless times when Frazier is the first to arrive to sign and the last to leave. And the many people hysterically crying when they meet Johnson. Or Johnson’s high-5s for kids. Or Rodman signing autographs for women in, ugh, unique spots on their body.
“The craziest experience was when Steiner Sports booked Hulk Hogan at the Roosevelt Fields Mall in New York about four years ago for his first public signing ever,” Prince said. “Over 3,000 people showed up. It was unreal. Hulk was only scheduled to sign for three hours, but he signed for six. Seeing the cult-like following of thousands of fans with Hulkamania shirts and bandanas, I know he would become one of our top clients.”
So when did he first think he made it, and why?
In 1997, he said, when PMG first hired a publicist.
Prince then signed Magic to handle all his marketing, and the New York Post gossip column tagged him as “Super Agent” Darren Prince.
“I again realized it had nothing to do with me; it was because Magic was so universally loved and respected,” Prince said. “My family and true friends have kept my ego in check, but when it really hit home that I arrived, and that Darren Prince the kid who had a problem learning in school and only finished one year of college, was just as I was walking down the aisle at my wedding in 2007. Looking out at 300 guests, with my mom and dad on each side of me, I saw four of my closest friends in my wedding party, several were from grade school who always tell me like it is. They could care less what red carpet I walk on, what award show I am at, what talk show I am on, what Super Bowl field I am on, or NBA Finals court I am on.
“I have a very, very deep love and respect for them. And the four people in the wedding party that have done sooooo much for me professionally and have become family were Dennis Rodman, Magic Johnson, Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Harlan Werner.
“Then walking down seeing that, and looking at my gorgeous wife, Symone, who moved from Australia to Los Angeles then to New Jersey to marry me, my eyes teared up. It really hit home that these VIPs don’t show up if you haven’t made a big impact in their lives, and they came on their own dime. Magic flew in on his own private jet with his wife, Cookie, which had to cost him $60,000 in fuel. Dennis, Magic and Joe got up on stage at the reception and put on a singing display with the band Boogie Nights which we flew in from Los Angles that everyone still today talks about. It was a night I will never ever forget.”
Prince, though, also has had moments in the industry that, well, he definitely would like to forget.
In 1998, Prince sold his memorabilia company, Prince of Cards, for an undisclosed amount of money after forgeries started to hurt his business and Prince found himself in trouble as he was questioned by the FBI for unknowingly selling forged signatures. Prince offered refunds to all his customers.
“It turned out to be the most amazing life-changing experiences for me,” Prince said. “At first, it was a huge hit to my reputation and destroyed me financially.
“Prince of Cards in 1995 was an industry leader in private autograph signings and Michael Jordan was exclusive with Upper Deck and was the most well-known athlete in the world. It was the only second-hand product I was purchasing. Not only did it look perfectly signed by him, but it came with authentication from a third party named Lloyd Brock.
“I was given pictures of Michael signing the product and the signatures were just like UDA. Anyway, one year and a half went by selling quite a bit of this product, and then I got call from the FBI one day wanting to fly me to Chicago as an autograph expert. At the time I was writing a column for Tuff Stuff magazine and they said they would pay me. So I was excited and looking forward to it until they called back a few days later and said bring an attorney with me as well.
“The long and short of it was I was being investigated for one year for mail fraud as these items were forgeries. I purchased the product from a guy who I developed a great relationship with and I trusted him 100 percent. He told me the FBI was trying to get him on tax evasion and he didn’t want me to give them anything, such as cancelled checks or receipts. Anyway, I danced around several issues at the FBI interview which came across as me covering up for Jim because they had his phone lines tapped. They never charged me with mail fraud, but I did get charged with making a false statement to the FBI and received three years probation.
“I guess I would have been good in the Jewish Mob because I am not a rat.”
Prince added: “We sent out tons of refund letters and maybe three-quarters of the customers took refunds and we gave them a huge discount on the next order they placed where we made zero profit; we were just trying to keep them as clients. Some people actually kept the product because they loved that it looked so great.
“After the whole FBI situation, and sending out refund letters, there were a couple clients who just would not talk to me or even ask for a refund. It still bothers me every once in a while when I think about it because I tried to do right and make amends but life goes on and I know I did the best I could. Hopefully some day our paths will cross and all I can do is try again.”
That’s when Prince realized his true calling was as an agent.
“Magic and his longtime player agent at the time, Lon Rosen, along with Dennis Rodman, and Harlan Werner with client Muhammad Ali, and designer Jeff Hamilton all wrote letters to the judge about my reputation and how they loved working with me. I knew I would never win back the respect in the collectibles industry from all the haters. Prince Of Cards was then still profitable, so I sold it and started Prince Marketing Group.
“Magic and I were in the limo right before a signing in Atlantic City and he said, ‘Darren, God tests great men. He did it to me when I tested positive for HIV and lost all my sponsors; now he’s testing you. You will become smarter, wiser and better from all of this and from now on, any of these memorabilia shows that we do, I want you walking side by side with me in the middle of the floor so all the haters/dealers can be like, Holy Crap all he just went through and he’s now working for Magic Johnson?’
“Magic loved every minute of the people who would stare with their jaws hitting the floor saying, ‘I don’t believe it; how did Prince pull this off?
“This was a defining moment in my career and as my attorney said at the time, I made lemonade out of lemons. I have talked about it quite often on TV and press-related interviews. I actually called then Upper Deck CEO Richard McWilliams and apologized for my mistake in 1998, and we have been working with them ever since on Magic and Dennis.”
Want to know more about
Darren Prince? Here Goes:
HIGH SCHOOL: Graduated from Livingston High School in 1988. He was invited back to the school three years ago to speak to the senior class. “It was great to see 400 17-year-olds so interested to hear about my clients. Smokin’ Joe came with me and took pictures and signed autographs for everyone.”
COLLEGE: University of Bridgeport. “I made it one year with a .86 GPA and that was it for me. The dean thought I was a bookie with all the clients coming in and out to pick up cards, and with UPS there all the time, so he wanted me out.” Ironically, two years later, the same dean called Prince to come speak at the school on how to become successful in the sports industry, though Prince was unavailable on that day.
FAVORITE SPORT: Played baseball for one year in college, but love watching football and boxing. “There’s nothing like being at a Championship fight. I’ve been blessed to sit ringside with Smokin’ Joe, Dennis Rodman and Pamela Anderson at some big time fights,” Prince said.
FAVORITE TEAM: San Diego Chargers
FAVORITE PRO ATHLETE: Antonio Gates
DREAM SPORTS JOB: “I already have it. I can’t tell you how many resumes or calls we get from college kids, grown men and women who want to work for free and be around all the excitement. It’s the ultimate job. I love what I do, and who we work with and for. Oh yeah, we make a couple bucks at it, too.”
WIFE SYMONE: “She is amazing and understands everything, even if Dennis Rodman calls at 4 a.m. to arrange a private jet, or to bail him out of jail. That’s my job as his agent – the good, the bad and the ugly. She keeps me balanced and knows when it’s time to pull me away for some ‘us time’ and shut it down. We vacation three or four times a year to get away from all of it. She just started studying at the top celebrity make-up and prosthetics school in the country, MUDD in New York, and is pursuing a lifelong dream of being a celebrity make-up designer; I am very proud of her for that. I am sure my clients will work with her when they have photo-shoots.”
HIS DAD, MARTIN: Started a memorabilia company about 10 years ago, www.superstargreetings.com
IT’S A FACT: Prince is certified as an NBA player agent. “Dennis and I spoke to David Stern back in 2003, when Rodman was trying to come back; I met all the requirements and got certified. We will probably be looking to sign some college standouts entering the Draft soon. I mean, what college star wouldn’t want to be with the same firm that represents Magic Johnson and Dennis Rodman, and my guys would be more than happy to meet them, too.”
WHAT’S AHEAD: Prince will be heading to Tokyo with Rodman to watch him play his final two exhibition games, and to England with Hogan. Rodman will be at Frank & Sons on Saturday, Sept. 4. Johnson has a Southern California exclusive with Hall of Fame Sports, and his next signing is September 26th. Frazier no doubt will be busy signing this fall to commemorate the 35th anniversary of The Thrilla in Manila on Oct 1. Plus, Frazier also has the 40th anniversary of his first fight with Ali dubbed, “The Fight of the Century,” on March 8, 2011. PMG in July signed a deal with Fat Head for Knievel and Frazier. And Rodman just shot a print ad campaign for a shoe company in China and has his own Apple Application coming out teaching the art of rebounding. Johnson is being honored at the YMCA in Hartford, Conn., on Oct 15, for all his work in the inner city where his companies employee hundreds of thousands of people.
DID YOU KNOW: Prince has been a featured guest on sports and entertainment TV shows, often discussing marketing and more. He has been interviewed by Donny Deutch on “The Big” Idea, The “Closing Bell” With Maria Bartalomo, Anderson Cooper 360, Howard Stern radio show, “Your World” Neil Cavuto, ESPN Sports Center and On the Record with Great Van Sustren, to name a few.
ON MAGIC JOHNSON: “It’s been incredible to see Magic become the wealthiest athlete in the world and build a $1 billion empire; I couldn’t be happier. (Johnson owns 125 Starbucks, 24-hour Fitness Centers, Burger Kings, movie theatres, TGI Fridays and 5 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers.) Even my Dad pulled him aside before he left the wedding and said, ‘Earvin, father to father, I can’t thank you enough for what you have done for my son. You needed a young kid in New Jersey representing you like you needed a hole in the head.’
“The only frustrating thing about Magic is he is our biggest, most marketable client, but he is so busy that he probably turns down seven or eight of every 10 deals that come in. And believe me, he has turned down major seven-figure endorsement deals because it has to fit into his overall brand. It’s not always about the money; it needs to be a perfect fit. But Earvin has a way with that smile when we’re together and his charm on the phone when he tells me, ‘Yes, go ahead and get it done, Darren,’ and that makes me forget real quickly about all of the deals that he passed on.
“I will never forget when I launched PMG and he was my first client. He said, ‘If you don’t use me and my name to knock down every door and bring in a lot of other athletes and celebrities to represent, then I am going to fire you real quick.’ That’s exactly what I did. I mean, think about that. Who says that to a 25-year-old kid? It was truly Magical words from a Magical guy that has changed my life forever and I can never repay him for what he has done for me, my wife and my family!”
MORE RODMAN: Prince confirmed they have a documentary in the works about Rodman, to be released in 2011, with an Oscar-winning director directing it. Rodman also is eligible to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. “Dennis is very misunderstood. He has done so much for me and taught me quite a bit about the industry,” Prince said.
SMOKIN’ JOE: “Joe Frazier is like my grandfather. He never ever misses a birthday party, family gathering and even came to my grandmother’s funeral. I mean he’s one of a kind and will do anything for anyone at anytime. He never says no to anything and knows, like all my clients, that I have his back at all times.” Frazier and Prince also have been together to numerous funerals, such as longtime trainer Eddie Futch, Evel Knievel and Michael Jackson.
GIVING PRAISE: “None of our success over the years at PMG would have been possible without Steven Simon and Nick Cordasco; I certainly don’t deserve all the credit. They are my left- and right-hand, and know my every move. They also happen to be close friends out of the office. They are my bulletproof vest as well, and see things coming a mile away. A successful business is a team, and they are like the GM and head coach; no one can do it alone. Just as important are the business managers, publicists, executive assistants and bodyguards who are involved in all of the day-to-day activities with my clients. Without them, I would have had a nervous breakdown years ago, so God Bless them. This includes Les Wolff (Frazier’s business manager), Aston ‘AJ’ Bright (Rodman’s road manager), Peggy King (Rodman’s business manager), Jimmy Hart (Hogan’s longtime manager) and Natalie Wilson (Magic’s executive assistant). Prince also saluted Frank Basile, “who has been working with me since I was 15 years-old in the beginning days of the Baseball Card City days,” Prince said.
FINAL THOUGHT: “I think collectors should still believe in high-end pre-1970 cards and sports legends signed memorabilia. Eventually things will turn around with the economy in that industry, so now is the perfect time to buy.”
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