I still remember fondly the daily elementary school hallway negotiations of my youth – the wheelings and dealings of cardboard-rich kids, each armed with overstuffed binders of treasure. I’d sit on the floor outside of Mrs. Incollingo’s fourth grade class with my best friends, all little baseball diehards like myself, and swing a few deals before the bell rang. During those mornings, I parted with many coveted Ben McDonald (if you know, you know) and Frank Thomas rookie cards with the singular focus on filling out the edges of my collection. What was I collecting? Mr. Five-for-One himself… every Von Hayes card I could get my hands on.

My collection of Von Hayes baseball cards was a source of pride. It didn’t matter that he would never ascend to the heights of some of the players I traded away (I’m looking at you, Hall of Famer Frank Thomas). I was a super fan, and he was my favorite player. Fast-forward 30 years and I still have all those cards, though they’re likely not worth the paper they’re printed on these days (the downside of mismanaged supply and demand). Baseball cards, at one time, were the currency of fandom. While that may not be the case any longer, a new contender has emerged to take up the mantel those cardboard treasures held for so many years: Sports-themed NFTs. While digital collectibles aren’t a new phenomenon, the prevalence of NFTs in sports certainly is. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital assets that represent objects in the real world like art, sports memorabilia, and so on. The value of NFTs begins and ends with the quantity produced – not unlike trading cards. In many cases, these are one-of-a-kind productions. In these instances, when sold, they can fetch top dollar, such as the $69.3 million digital artwork produced by crypto artist Beeple. More commonly, they are produced in batches – one of 99, one of 15,000, and so on.

One company, Dapper Labs, has taken sports themed NFTs to a new level with their breakout product NBA Top Shot. They’re placing a big bet that their version of digital collectibles (short video highlights from NBA games) produced in varying degrees of rareness and with ownership authenticated via blockchain – “moments” in Top Shot vernacular – will grow to become something more than a niche collectible for tech-savvy hoops fans. As physical trading cards were to my generation, those in the NFT space believe this new obsession may become the currency of the next generation of fans. I tend to think they’re on to something.

It’s one thing to collect moments or other digital collectibles. It’s another thing entirely to view these moments as a form of currency. Top Shot features a thriving marketplace where its community can buy and sell moments listed by other users. Those two experiences alone – buying and holding or buying with the intention of selling for profit – might be enough to sustain a growing community of basketball fans. However, things get interesting when the concept of “utility” enters the equation and extends to other sports or even to brands. What if your collection of sports NFTs served as a passport of sorts? Or a key that can unlock experiences rather than live exclusively as a static collection of digital images or videos? With utility, you can start to dream of the possibilities and there truly is no end. Imagine, for a moment:

  • If holding a collection of Golden State Warriors NFTs could grant you access to VIP live game experiences or meet-and-greets with your favorite stars.
  • If holding brand-sponsored NFTs of Olympians (for example, if ASICS were to release NFTs of their sponsored athletes) could deliver fans exclusive gear and training experiences with Olympians.
  • If holding NFTs produced by MLB teams could lead to exclusive playoff tickets and, again, experiences.
  • If holding NFTs produced by sports-centric brands could unlock access to VIP events, concept tech beta tests (smart running shoes, this runner humbly suggests…).

If I know anything about sports fans, and I’d like to think I do, it’s that personal experience builds fandom. And while the simple act of going to games and soaking in the atmosphere of live sports may have been enough for many fans of past generations, today’s fan craves something more – something exclusive, something special. Utility created by NFTs could unlock those very experiences and stoke the fires of fandom in tomorrow’s diehards.

What do you think? Will we see more brands, teams, leagues, and athletes enter the NFT game? Leave your thoughts in the comments.