When I was much, much younger. Like hang out after school on the playground younger, I used to collect football trading cards. I didn’t do it because I thought they would be worth anything, or because I was an aspiring collector. But really because I was pretty obsessed with the NFL, and there was this one other kid in my class who also collected them, and we could trade cards during recess. This was back when you’d contemplate a Terry Bradshaw for Roger Staubach trade, to give some context. Also, it came with gum, so even if the pack wasn’t any good, you had that going for you.
I have absolutely no idea what happened to that giant stack of cards, which were organized by teams – some of which have changed cities and names multiple times by now. I do know that if I tried to start that habit once again, I wouldn’t need a carrying case, but instead a hard drive. That’s because the sports collectible craze of today has little to do with card stock and ink and a whole lot to do with 1s and 0s. I’m talking about NFTs, or Nifties, as the cool kids like to say. That’s short for non-fungible token. In other words, these are distinct and completely unique digital images, videos, and sounds, that you can collect just like you’d collect an actual tangible card. Or painting. Or whatever thing you like to invest in with the hopes it might grow in value and lets you brag to your friends.
What does this mean in the sports world? Well, in the most basic terms, it means digital trading cards, which will be impossible to steal or replicate and can be traded like, well, digital currency. It could also mean digital video highlights, like some spectacular slam dunk or home run. There can be a limited amount created, and you can trace who has owned any NFT and its change in value. In other words, it’s a combination between a trading card and cryptocurrency, another thing I barely understand. But know that for a certain price, you could be the sole owner of a single release digital LeBron James slam dunk – although I’m imagining I’d be priced far down the bench if I want in on the action.
As ridiculous as this sounds to people like myself who collected cards because, well, we liked the sport, it’s not crazy at all to people who seems to know a whole lot about the sports industry. Dapper Labs, and no, you should not know who that is, has formed partnerships with everything from La Liga soccer to the NFL, raising billions to fund this enterprise. Already, hundreds of millions of dollars can exchange hands every day – digital hands, at least – as sports bytes move from dropbox to dropbox. And with the open doors of name, image, and likeness for college athletes, coupled with the exorbitant wealth of current professional athletes looking for investment opportunities, expect the market to be flooded with photos and videos of players and plays you may or may not have ever heard of. And can only watch on a screen, although I suppose you could print out a copy, like with a boarding pass.
So I know this all sounds weird, especially if you’re now trying to figure out how to put an NFT between the spokes of a bicycle wheel. And as someone who struggles with how the stock market actually works, I’m quite reticent to place large sums of money in something that looks like a highlight clip from sports center. And while I couldn’t actually explain what’s meant by an investment bubble, this seems like a prime target for such an occurrence. So I’ll likely simply dabble in the NFT world for the time being.
But I will say this about NFTs. There is perhaps no better sign of what sport and the athletes who play them have long become. Not a game or an activity, but a sellable commodity that can be compartmentalized and economized in countless ways. The athlete as an economic product is a fairly old construct at this point. Just look at the NFL draft. But now, we’ve figured out a more efficient way to package, buy and sell the humanity of sport, one GIF at a time.
Of course, it’s still a bit confusing to me. And unless they’ve got a digital Roger Staubach on the market, I’m not that interested anyway.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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