Rhetoric, skepticism and endless questions. Those are the usual responses upon realizing the concept of a non-fungible token, or “NFT” for short. The popular yet mysterious cryptocurrency emerged as the newest investment fad with little to no explanation behind one’s value, appreciation, depreciation or what the hell it even is for that matter. Uniqueness was the market’s driving force, but still, that alone doesn’t justify dropping six figures on an animated monkey in sunglasses holding a banana (as cool as that is).
So, who would pay so much money on a still photograph that, while unique, offers no functionality or use other than the fact that it’s cool to have because someone else deemed it valuable, while having no control over its fluctuating worth at the same time?
Well, for those who spent their childhood allowance on Topps and Panini decks, the uncertain nature of being a collector is all too familiar. Thought to be a dying industry, the COVID-19 pandemic reinvigorated collectors everywhere to get back in the game. A rare Honus Wagner card sold for a record $6.6 million in August, while LeBron James and Mickey Mantle cards each went for over $5 million as well in 2021. As the value of certain cards skyrocketed over the last year, the business proved to be alive and well heading into the future.
And with the growing popularity of NFTs, its crossed over into the cryptocurrency world.
No longer bounded by physical borders, trading cards have taken new forms in the digital marketplace as living moments. Collectors can now shop for their favorite player’s highlights outside of traditional still images. Value is still determined by rarity, as well as the player’s on-the-court or field performance, to give a similar feel to the old-school style of collecting even if there’s no more plastic packs and laminated sleeves involved.
Professional athletes aren’t the only ones benefiting from the trend, either. Thanks to recent name, image and likeness legislation, college athletes are able to have their own NFT cards. Even former campus legends are profiting off their glory days, including Carmelo Anthony and Ja Morant among others.
“It’s one of those new-age digital sports cards,” former GU basketball standout Dan Dickau said.
Dickau, an avid collector himself back in the day, jumped at the opportunity to have his very own virtual card on the new-age market. The former All-American partnered with RECUR, a technology company that helps develop and sell NFTs, to help launch one of the largest collegiate athletes NFT marketplaces in the world. Dubbed “NFTU”, fans can purchase digital cards or moments of players from over 50 universities, including Gonzaga’s own Adam Morrison, Jalen Suggs and Drew Timme among others.
Currently, eight current and former Bulldogs have a card available to purchase, with Morrison’s ultra-rare edition being the most expensive at $230.
Since its launch in March, NFTU releases cases week-by-week and are broken down into four categories: common, premium, rare and ultra-rare. Each case contains either a player limelight, which is an NFT of the athlete’s image, or a flashback, an NFT of a highlight video.
And like any other form of online shopping, it’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole. From the level of rarity of a card all the way down to the final score of a particular game, NFTU’s filtration system allows users to pinpoint not only a specific player, but also their highlighted moments. With 15 options to filter, and many more subcategories, the website certainly strives to enhance fan experience, especially those who know their way around digital trading cards.
Admittingly, Dickau is not one of those people.
“I don’t know a crazy ton about NFTs or how they appreciate in value or how you can trade them,” Dickau said. “It’s so new that I don’t know much about it.”
Priority Sports, Dickau’s representation since his NBA days, first approached him about the opportunity in the winter. Despite not knowing much about the process, all the noise he heard surrounding NFTs was enough to entice the former card collector to agree to a partnership.
“I loved sports cards as a kid, and this is the new version, so I wanted to be involved,” Dickau said.
And while blockchains might be a foreign concept now, Dickau sees the potential of what they can become. During the pandemic, trading cards weren’t the only novelty that resurfaced, as the value of sports memorabilia everywhere skyrocketed. From May to June of 2020, more than 40 sports trading cards sold for at least $50,000 on eBay, while another 96 sold for $90,000 or more from mid-May to July.
Of course, physically holding a rare card is different than storing it away digitally, but replacing tradition is not the goal of NFTU or similar marketplaces on the web. There’s always a market out there for anything in today’s world, which is why Dickau sees the potential for more avenues of sports memorabilia to follow suit.
“When you look at technology and this type of platform, there is a lot of opportunity,” Dickau said. “But you have to be in on the ground floor and understand it really well, which takes some time.”
Like any niche market that hits the internet, only time will tell if it’s here to last. In the meantime, it’s provided student-athletes an opportunity to build their brand in a unique way that a year ago was thought to be impossible.