Collecting, a pasttime that has been closely associated with sports memorabilia for generations, has taken the leap into the digital realm. The link between one world and the other is a simple three-letter acronym: NFT, a digital asset backed by a physical or virtual object (a card, a replay of a particular action) that can move millions of dollars.
Professional leagues like the NBA and teams such as the Golden State Warriors, European soccer clubs like Real Madrid, Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Juventus, and players like Barcelona's Gerard Piqué and Antoine Griezmann have already joined this new trend as investors, promoters or clients of tech companies.
NFTs (which stands for non-fungible token) are digital assets that are authenticated with blockchain technology, the same technology that underpins cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin.
"Instead of securing its value, a bank authenticates on 'blockchain,' which is a global notary. The difference with a cryptocurrency is that it cannot be divided, and the comparison with a collectible makes sense, but you can 'tokenize' anything," Josep María Monti, president of the sports technology forum HUB23 and founder of Stredium, explains to Efe.
Through this technology, various companies or competitions link these digital assets to a physical or digital object, such as a replay of a memorable play or a card from a sports game, which can be bought and sold because the asset always maintains that digital stamp of authenticity.
The NBA, for example, agreed with one of the pioneering companies in this sector, Dapper Labs, to create 'NBA Top Shot Moments', fragments of replays that are sold and traded. The most expensive so far has been a replay of a Le Bron James dunk with the Lakers in 2020, which sold for $250,000, and in total they have generated $230 million.
Another option is to tie these digital assets to a physical object, as the Golden State Warriors have done just this week, when they decided to create NFTs linked to their six NBA rings and tickets to the 10 most important games in the franchise’s history. The auction will be held on May 1.
French company Sorare has linked this technology to its 'fantasy'-style soccer game, which awards points based on players' performances in national and European competitions.
"For centuries we've been collecting real things, and now (thanks to NFTs) we can do it on the web. We wanted to bring soccer fans into that, and not just have them collect, but play with them," the company's CEO, Nicolas Julia, told EFE.
135 top clubs such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Porto, Inter Milan, River Plate and Ajax Amsterdam have entered into agreements with the company, which offers them income from licensing their players' playing cards.
Not only can fans treat the cards like collectibles, they can trade them and obtain prizes, such as meeting with their idols, which triggers a secondary market for the cards that can fetch up to $290,000, the price a top-rated card of Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo was sold for just last month.
"When I was a kid, I used to collect trading cards, but this version is much better; you can look at it as a collectible, but you also play with the cards and get rewards. Plus, you can easily sell them to anyone in the world instantly. Personally, I would never buy a Picasso, but I was very happy to invest $300,000 in my idol," explained the buyer.
The game, which has more than 130,000 monthly users, has won over players such as Griezmann, Piqué, former English footballer Rio Ferdinand and Germany's Oliver Bierhoff, who have joined the company as investors.
For the clubs, the technology represents a new revenue stream. "It's a new asset for the clubs. We charge an amount from Panini for the license of the cards, but if instead of having hundreds of thousands there is only one, or a few, it is exclusively taken to digital", the director of Business Development of Levante, Javier Vich, tells Efe.
"For clubs it is a great opportunity. They have traceability of what happens with each card, they receive an amount on each transaction, and it's a new source of revenue," says Sorare CEO Nicolas Julia.
"A few years ago they were scared, now they want it to move forward. They see it's more revenue and that it allows them to take their brand to new markets," he adds.