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A Token of Their Appreciation

The question of the day for sports memorabilia collectors: To funge or not to funge?

OK, that’s not even a word. Still, you know what we’re talking about: The explosion of interest in “non-fungible tokens,” or NFTs, has turned the sports world into a giant breeding ground for the selling and trading of digital creations: still photos, snippets of video, images of admission tickets. Basically anything you can store on a computer or mobile smartphone or somewhere in the cloud.

If you grew up as a baseball card devotee, swapping your prized Willie McCovey for your neighbor’s Brooks Robinson on the sidewalk outside your house, this whole NFT thing probably reads like an alien landscape. I mean, physical memorabilia we could get our heads around. It was … physical. With baseball cards, for example, an elaborate mechanism exists to “grade” the things according to numerous corporeal indicators: how well-centered the printed images are on the card surface, the condition of the card itself, whether the corners are scuffed or frayed.

These considerations vanish in the world of NFTs, which cannot degrade: They’re digital representations of color and light that can be replicated perfectly, computer to computer, mobile device to mobile device, even as possession changes hands. Instead, what supports the value here is the blockchain digital identification system. This shared database imposes an unimpeachable assurance about the provenance of digital content. Meaning: Although you and I may have the same digital image of a Nikola Jokic moment stored in our Apple Cloud account, yours is merely a copy, whereas I uniquely own the blockchain-verified original, never mind that THEY LOOK EXACTLY ALIKE.

The point is that the owner of the blockchain-verified NFT is assured they possess an original. It’s like having an expert validate that a baseball signed by Todd Helton was signed by the real Todd Helton, not your cousin Derek.

Knowing this, the only remaining question is: What the hell?

It’s … complicated. Because for all the NFT buzz, there remains this mystery: What do you actually DO with the things? Showcase them in digital photo frames in your man cave to wow your drinking buddies? Tuck them inside your iPhone in order to gaze at them to derive comfort when your spouse is being mean? Brag to your dinner date that you possess an original video of Antonio Brown disrobing on the sideline of MetLife Stadium in early January? (Not joking: A fan-originated video of the infamous moment was recently offered at auction by a Montana NFT company.)

Somehow NFTs seem to have resolved (or perhaps dodged) these existential questions, as evidenced by the truckloads of money being spent on them. Deloitte, the market research and consulting firm, projects collectors will spend $2 billion on sports NFTs in 2022. Much of this money will revolve not so much around the visual splendor of NFTs as much as the bragging rights: If I own the original, you don’t. Plus, there’s a modernist allure. Like cryptocurrencies, NFTs are a hipper version of your father’s bygone world. Or so some believe.

The expanding field of NFT play includes the Denver Broncos. Close to 16,000 season ticket holders took up the Broncos on the complimentary offer of a blockchain-verified NFT ticket image from the Dec. 19 Cincinnati Bengals game. Ted Santiago, senior director of marketing for the Broncos, acknowledges NFL teams haven’t entirely figured out the whole NFT riddle, but are interested in learning more. Santiago’s own hunch is that it’s an age thing: “I personally believe the younger generation will ultimately determine the success of this technology,” he said in an email to ColoradoBiz.

Meanwhile, the old-school sports collectibles marketplace seems to be surviving the NFT frenzy just fine. Last November, the Castle Rock-based memorabilia auctioneer Mile Hi Card Co. raked in a record $2.46 million for the sale of a well-preserved Babe Ruth rookie baseball card. And in February, CEO Brian Drent was prepping for an even more lucrative auction involving another Ruth rookie card and an early-era Honus Wagner card, projecting proceeds to the sellers of more than $13 million. Drent doesn’t see NFTs as a head-on competitor for his market, although he’s intrigued by NFTs in general. “It’s not that I don’t find it interesting,” Drent told us. “It’s: Does it have long-term hold?”

Therein lies the question: Are NFTs the CB Radio of the day, destined to fizzle out fast? Or will the next-gen sports collector regard them as an essential component of the hobby? For now, Drent thinks the two categories are worlds apart, with “that guy buying the NFT being a different guy from the one buying the Babe Ruth rookie card.”

Meantime, for those whose heads may be spinning, a traditionalist’s respite awaits within the shelves at Bill’s Sports Collectibles, the venerable (physical) memorabilia shop on South Broadway Street, run by proprietor Bill Vizas since 1981. There, you can still coo at early-era Colorado Rockies cards, or wonder if that Broncos helmet signed by John Elway might look sweet nestled atop the bar in the basement. As opposed to, you know, on the screen of your iPhone 12.


Stewart Schley JpegStewart Schley writes about sports, media, and technology from Denver. Read this, and Schley’s past columns at ColoradoBiz online. He can be reached by email at: [email protected]