The world of sports collectibles is undergoing an undeniable change. For many years, the most expensive sports trading card was a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card, which was most recently sold in 2016 for $3,120,000. However, this record was broken in August of 2020 when a 1/1 Mike Trout card attracted $3,936,000 at an auction. Less than a year later, in January of 20201, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card was sold for $5,200,000, the current record. These recent sales demonstrate a larger movement relating to sports collection in America. In fact, 22 of the 23 most expensive card sales have been in either 2020 or 2021. Part of this could have been caused by the pandemic and people turning to collecting as a hobby, or possibly our society’s growing ability to spend extreme amounts of money on seemingly meaningless things as seen with the recent craze around brands like Supreme. Regardless, it appears that a new Golden Age of collecting is underway.
Not only is the collection of sports cards becoming more popular and lucrative, but it is also evolving. Nowhere is this more clear than with the rise of NBA Top Shot. NBA Top Shot combines the growing NFT and blockchain trend with the recent enthusiasm around sports collecting. Let’s break that down a bit. NFT stands for non-fungible token and uses blockchain software, similar to how bitcoin works, to represent unique ownership of items. So far, NFTs have been used to monetize digital art, music, and video clips. Basically, NFTs make a limited supply of digital assets possible. Obviously, someone can make a copy, but much like a version of the Mona Lisa that you or I could print from our homes, duplicates are not recognized as having any value.
NBA Top Shot uses this software to sell digital basketball highlights as collectibles. Users can purchase packs of collectibles for as low as $9 all the way up to $999 for the most exclusive packs. Then, users are able to either keep their highlights as collectibles or sell them on a market directly through the Top Shot website. The value of a highlight is typically determined by a few factors. First is the player and highlight shown. Obviously, a highlight from LeBron James will be worth more than one of someone like Tristan Thompson. The rarity of a card is also a significant factor. With the collectibles being NFTs, Top Shot can monitor how many of a specific highlight are released and assign labels like common, rare, and legendary as a way to represent the value of a card. NBA Top Shot also makes it extremely easy to see how many of your highlights are in existence, with the most common collectibles having 15,000 in packs or circulation.
The final factor that impacts value is the serial number of a card. With the collection of cards in the real world, a grading system evaluates the condition of the card to determine which version of a card is the most valuable. Online collectibles make this impossible, but that aspect is replaced by serial numbers. Every highlight has a unique serial number from among the number of that highlight that exists. For example, if you have a common Marcus Smart highlight with 15,000 in existence, the serial number of your highlight will be between 1 and 15,000. The general trend is that the lowest serial numbers are worth the most with the two most valuable as number 1 and also whatever the player’s jersey number is. As a result, players like Zion Williamson, who wears the number 1, can have their serial number 1 highlights sell for ridiculous prices.
Unfortunately for the casual fan, collecting these highlights is not so easy at the moment. Packs are already sold out and are bought up as soon as new ones are released. Additionally, common highlights that were previously sold for less than $5 are now worth well over $50. Currently, the most a Top Shot collectable has sold for is $208,000 which was spent on a LeBron James “Cosmic” Dunk highlight, numbered to 49 in existence. Additionally, there have been 19 collectibles sold for over $75,000. At the end of February, over $230,000,000 had been spent in total during the exchange of cards on the Top Shot website. That figure is astounding. It seems like only a matter of time before NFTs make their way to other sports with similar popularity. If nothing else, the sudden rise of NBA Top Shot has shown the changing landscape when it comes to sports collecting and could be a sign of things to come.