Playing to Win: Sports Artists Are Producing Higher-Quality Works Than Ever before, Scoring Big Points with Collectors

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Amidst the star athletes and die-hard fans ubiquitous in any sport lies an unsuspecting player--the fine artist, ready to capture the unforgettable moments of sports for a broadening collector base.

Today's sports-art market goes beyond open editions as artists and publishers push the envelope of the genre with everything from limited editions and celebrity-signed pieces to commemorative paintings and high-profile events. Such efforts are attracting high-end collectors who are increasing their purchases as more notable artists enter the niche.

Fine Art Ltd. is one gallery that has made this niche one of its primary areas of focus, establishing itself as a leading publisher of commemorative fine art for world-class international events, namely all of the Olympic Games since 1988.

As the individual in charge of all official artwork for the U.S. Olympic Team, owner Jack Scharr draws on his connections with renowned artists and the U.S. Olympic Committee to produce iconic imagery of the world's premier sporting event. In honor of the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, now in full swing, Scharr has published open- and limited-edition prints by 13 noted artists, including Jane Seymour, Alexander Chen, David Schluss and Wyland, among others.

But Scharr is not only a believer in the appeal of Olympic-themed art; he thinks sports art as a whole has the potential for exponential growth.

"Sports art is combining the excitement of sports and the excitement of art and putting two of the most popular, passionate things for people together into one," Scharr says.

Collectors are drawn to a myriad of themes and subjects in sports art, namely popular athletes, past and present; stadiums, arenas and golf courses; team championships; and other special fan moments.

"One of the great things about sports and art is that there's always something great going on; that's what is cool about it," says James Fiorentino, the New York-based sports artist known for his photo-realistic watercolor paintings of iconic athletes. "Whether it's an athlete or an event, there's always something new to paint. Sports art today has more of a fine-art theme. You see more of it in high-end galleries and museums."

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Crowd-Pleasing Appeal

The rise of sports art goes hand-in-hand with the continued popularity of sports in the United States. The Sports Business Journal reported that the sports business industry is one of the largest and fastest growing in the United States. The publication's latest survey revealed that the size of the industry is estimated at $213 billion, which is more than twice the size of the U.S. auto industry and seven times the size of the movie industry.

Need further proof of sport's cultural influence on U.S. society? Major League Baseball and the NFL continue to break attendance figures every year. Attendance and interest remains strong for the NBA, NHL and college basketball and football. Even niche sports such as the X Games and Ultimate Fighting Championship continue to grow every year.

What does America's obsession with sports mean for sports art? Although sports art occupies a small percentage of the fine-art marketplace, it is certainly a niche that is rising in prominence. Some of the foremost sports artists are well-known names in the art industry, including: Andrew Bernstein, Stephen Holland, Robert Hurst, Bill Lopa, LeRoy Neiman, Opie Otterstad, Dick Perez and Mark Trubisky.

Charles Fazzino, another prominent sports artist known for his use of bright colors and highly detailed 3-D images, credits LeRoy Neiman, in part, for opening the door to the intersection of sports and fine art. "There are a lot of sports-art collectors out there; the key is to do something different for them," he says.

The popularity of sports art is noted by the two museums that house prominent works, The American Sport Art Museum and Archives at the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala. …