When I was a kid — and I’m going to date myself here — I could wander down to the neighborhood pharmacy and drop a quarter on the counter for five nickel packs of Topps baseball cards.
I’d get 25 cards and five pieces of brittle and generally awful bubble gum. If McCovey or Clemente or Koufax was in the pack, I was happy for the rest of the week.
Baseball card collecting became a grown-up endeavor at some point, with cards being graded and sold to the after-market crowd for crazy sums of money.
A 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card sold at auction in January for $5.2 million. The famous T206 Honus Wagner 1909 tobacco card went for $3.12 million in 2016.
The latest generation of “sports card” collecting is a millennial-targeted craze called NBA Top Shot Moments, a crypto-collectible whose website claims more than $400 million in sales by 250,000 members since its debut in October.
Top Shot Moments aren’t cardboard cards, but a digital representative of a specific real-life moment or highlight. LeBron James dunking. Stephen Curry delivering a behind-the-back pass.
You can purchase $9 packs of three moments from nbatopshot.com, which you open before finding out what bought. Just like a pack of bubblegum cards from decades ago. Except that they currently seem to be constantly sold out.
Or you can purchase moments by your favorite player. Top Shot makes available moments by rookies or established stars. The lesser-known players’ moments are inexpensive, just as “common” baseball cards were. The stars and rookies are pricier.
According to a story published this week on highsnobiety.com, the most expensive Top Shot sold so far went for $208,000 and shows James delivering a posterizing dunk over former Sacramento Kings player Nemanja Bjelica.
Here’s how highsnobiety.com explained the rising popularity of Top Shots:
It might seem ridiculous to pay money to own a version of a highlight that you can watch on YoutTube for free. But NBA top shots are basically just a digital version of the pieces of paper that people trade in the real world as trading cards. Something is only worth what somebody is willing to pay for it.
Also dictating the price is scarcity — just like with the old Mickey Mantle or Honus Wagner cards. Canadian-based Dapper Labs, which has partnered with the NBA to create Top Shot Moments, uses a blockchain technology to prevent the digital assets from being copied.
Some moments are produced in mass, others are unique, single-issue moments, and those are the more expensive Top Shot products. In other words, the company creates the scarcity — or exclusivity — by design.
Here’s how CNBC explained the way it works:
Each collectible is tied to a blockchain -- a digital ledger similar to the blockchains used for digital currencies like bitcoin. This effectively gives each NFT a unique and non-hackable certificate of authenticity. So even if somebody makes a perfect copy of the highlight video, it will instantly be recognizable as a fake.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says the appeal is the old-school collecting model with the added benefit of no risk of damage or theft. “And the value is still set by the same laws of supply and demand,” he wrote.
Just like card collectors, enthusiasts of Top Shot Moments will make speculative purchases, hoping their moment becomes more valuable as the player’s popularity grows.
It’s easy to find Top Shot Moments on the secondary market. A search of ebay shows a Luka Doncic dunk from the 2021 All-Star Game available for $30,000 or best offer. My guess is the “best offer” will be somewhat lower.
For Cal fans, there are dozens of Jaylen Brown moments for sale on ebay, ranging in price from $29 to $1,599.
NBA Top Shot doesn’t appear to currently offer former star players such as Michael Jordan or Bill Russell, and no doubt there would be ownership rights issues involved. Top Shot Moments has a contract with the NBA Players Association that allows all current players to be utilized.
But the potential for retired players would seem to be huge, given that a 1969 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) Topps rookie card on ebay is asking $8,599. How about a Top Shot Moment of Kareem releasing his sky hook over Wilt?
Imagine Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson making no-look pass. How much would a moment showing Darryl Dawkins wrecking a backboard sell for? Or Kevin Johnson’s dunk over Hakeem Olajuwon?
Will the demand for Top Shot Moments continue to climb, driving prices higher? Can they possibly have the staying power of the cardboard cards we collected as kids? Or will popularity fade, going quickly the way of the Pet Rock?
Cover photo of Jaylen Brown by NBA Top Shot Moments
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo