Sports memorabilia continues to boom. What the NFT happened?!

When Patrick Mahomes launched his NFT collection this spring, it sold for $3.4 million. (Courtesy The Impossible Brief and NFT Producers/Sean Treacy & William Savas)

In May, a 35-year-old Target shopper left the store and headed for the parking lot. Before he got to his car, four men jumped him. The 35-year-old, who had a valid concealed weapon permit, pulled his gun, and the four men scattered.

Target was locked down as police looked for the four men, who were eventually arrested. The reason for the parking lot dispute? Sports cards bought at the store.

Perhaps no single incident more captures the gold rush moment we're in when it comes to sports memorabilia. The incident wasn't the first example of chaos in the aisles at a Target store, and it led the retail giant to immediately halt all in-person sports card sales across the country. That ban remains in place.

It's been a wild two years of ups and downs (but mostly ups) in the sports card and memorabilia space. And this week, when card geeks and autograph hounds from around the world converge on Chicago for the 41st National Sports Collectors Convention for the first time since 2019, they're walking into an entirely different era from what the hobby was two years ago.

The memorabilia business has been on a rapid rise over the past 24 months or so, with record-breaking prices, historic scarcity and an NFT craze that has become an almost daily part of the always changing sports news cycle.

Let's take a look at the key questions that got us to this place -- and where the hobby goes from here.

How did we get here? And how can this bull market possibly continue?

Skepticism about sports memorabilia -- especially in the NFT (nonfungible token) space -- isn't just relegated to those looking in on the hobby from the outside. Insiders scratch their heads, too, especially since a slight cooling of the market over the past three months.

The pandemic played a giant role. Digital purchases overall in the U.S. surged by $200 billion in 2020, accelerating an already-growing trend of people buying things online. That's how eBay saw a 142% increase in sales from 2019 to 2020, and how Goldin Auctions, which has emerged as the largest auction house in memorabilia, pulled in $100 million in 2020 -- and has doubled that amount already in 2021.

In recent months, there's been a bit of slowdown in the market. Most experts think the record-breaking sales will occur less frequently and the middle-ground cards may be tough to offload. But in the same way that fine art has ups and downs but never dies out, the very top of the market will probably remain steady, producing plenty of headlines that keep mid-tier investors and common collectors paying attention, too.

"The people I've spoken to have said the upper echelon market, where you've got people paying millions of dollars for cards, that's still going to happen," says John List, a University of Chicago economics professor and longtime collector himself. "But the lower, mid-level market where people are paying $500, $400... people aren't going to be quite as interested coming out of this pandemic." -- Dan Hajducky

It seems like a new record sale has been happening every week. How true is that?

It's not your imagination: When a sports memorabilia piece sells for a record price, it often has felt like only a matter of time until it's broken again within weeks.

The most expensive piece of memorabilia, the original Olympic Games Manifesto written by a French aristocrat in 1888, sold at Sotheby's for $8.8 million in 2019. But cards remain the driving force behind most of the astronomical numbers. Since February of 2020, there have been at least a dozen $1 million card sales, including six cards that sold for north of $3.75 million.

According to Chris Ivy of Heritage Actions, sports collectibles is perhaps the strongest financial market that exists right now. "The global pandemic added rocket fuel to the collectibles market -- a combination of the restriction upon spending on other luxuries like travel and fine dining, and the growing acceptance of the legitimacy of collectibles around the globe as an investment vehicle," Ivy says. "We've seen more million-dollar sales in the past year than in the twenty years preceding it."

And don't forget that through all of the ebbs and flows of the hobby over the past 30 years, the most sought-after sports cards and memorabilia have never really bottomed out. In fact, back in 2010, well before the most recent uptick, the Wall Street Journal found that sports card investments largely outperformed the best Dow Jones stocks over the long haul. -- Kelly Cohen

Here are some other jaw-dropping sales from just the past two years:

Item: A Babe Ruth New York Yankees jersey from 1928 to 1930

Price: $5.64 million

When and where: Hunt Auctions, June 2019

Item: Mickey Mantle's 1952 mint condition Topps baseball card

Price: $5.2 million (most ever for a baseball card)

When and where: PWCC Marketplace, January 2021

Item: A 2003-04 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection RPA (rookie patch autograph) parallel LeBron James card

Price: $5.2 million (most ever for a basketball card)

When and where: PWCC Marketplace, April 2021

Item: Mike Trout 2009 Bowman Chrome Draft Prospects Superfractor rookie card

Price: $3.93 million

When and where: Goldin Auctions, August 2020

Item: Luka Doncic one-of-one Logoman RPA

Price: $4.6 million

When and where: Private sale, February 2021

Item: Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee PSA 10 rookie card

Price: $3.75 million (most ever for a hockey card)

When and where: Heritage Auctions, June 2021

Item: Mia Hamm PSA 10 1992 Sports Illustrated for Kids rookie card

Price: $34,400 (most ever for a women's card)

When and where: Goldin Auctions, June 2021

A big boom, a bigger bust... Haven't we seen this movie before?

It's true, the industry bottomed out in the early 1990s after a similar rapid spike in big sales. But there are some key differences between then and now, and that's a major reason why most experts think that even if the business continues to slow down for the rest of 2021, it won't collapse like it did a quarter-century ago.

Jesse Craig, director of business development at the popular PWCC Marketplace, thinks there's a better chance that some of the massive buys, often from anonymous purchasers, may not be seen again for awhile -- and perhaps ever. The constant buzz about giant sales helped fuel the gold rush, but the stability of big buyers hanging onto memorabilia is better for the long term health of the top-tier of the industry. "You might never see this card again or it might be 20, 30 years," Craig said. "You're going to keep seeing record numbers for these rare assets [and these guys] will die with them or pass them on to their kids."

One variable to keep an eye on: With the men's 2022 FIFA World Cup a little more than a year away, soccer cards could be a short-term injection into a market that has been dropping back to earth over the past six months. An Erling Haaland Superfractor rookie card sold in late June for over $442,000, the record for a modern soccer card, in the same auction as the record-breaking Mia Hamm card.

But most other sports have taken a dip, and prices in that upper echelon of cards are all over the place. The good news for collectors is, the pitfalls of the industry's collapse in the early 1990s are less likely to repeat. Overproduction, the single biggest reason the market crashed decades ago, has been quelled by serial numbering and (relative) transparency from card manufacturers. Most experts predict that the highs are unlikely to be as consistently stratospheric and the bottom is unlikely to fall out in the coming years. -- Dan Hajducky

How worried should collectors be about fraud right now?

Short answer: It's hard to say. But industry experts point out that there has always been fraud when the card business is booming, and there likely always will be.

Longer answer: A 2019 Washington Post story laid out details of an FBI investigation into collectors cracking open graded cards, altering them and getting them regraded and resold. The investigation appears to be ongoing, and centers around accused card doctor Gary Moser. Moser denies that he alters cards, saying he believes that grading services -- primarily industry leader PSA -- hold too much power in determining the condition and value of cards. He admits to breaking open graded cards and resubmitting.

But trimming and sprucing up cards has been happening for decades, and is virtually guaranteed to continue. A positive of the modern age: Digital photographs of high-profile cards can be shared widely, and close examinations by online sleuths have outed alterations on a regular basis. Class-action lawsuits still pop up every so often, and purveyors and auction houses are dragged online, though there have really only been two large-scale FBI memorabilia busts since the October 1999 takedown in Operation Bullpen (which ultimately resulted in 63 charges and convictions, 18 forgery rings dismantled and more than $15 million in economic loss prevented).

One was the raid on Donald "D.B." Henkel's 4,000-square foot north Michigan warehouse in July of 2020. Henkel had allegedly produced counterfeit older memorabilia of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays.

The other was the arrest of Arkansas' John Rogers, who was sentenced to 12 years in 2017 for masterminding a $23 million fraudulent memorabilia gambit. Rogers had 529 bats seized in an FBI raid and pled guilty to one count of wire fraud relating to a multimillion-dollar sports memorabilia scheme.

Said FBI agent Brian Brisokas in that Washington Post story: "I tell anybody I deal with within the hobby that it's built on trust: Trust with the buyers, dealers, sellers, graders, auction houses. In order to grain trust, you have to deal above board. If you're not, other people may make it known you shouldn't be dealt with." -- Dan Hajducky

You've barely mentioned NFTs! Are they just a fad or what?

No. NFTs, in some form, are here for the foreseeable future.

There has been some creativity with NFTs in terms of what they are, what they do and how they're presented. But the market is still in its infancy, so we probably haven't seen the NFT ceiling just yet. Both Rob Gronkowski and Patrick Mahomes had eye-opening initial offerings. Gronk's collection pulled in $1.8 million back in March, while Mahomes' 1-of-1 art piece netted $247,000 later that month.

Alex Atallah, co-founder and CTO of OpenSea, the largest NFT marketplace, believes we will soon start to see an evolution of what NFTs are and what they do for the fan. "The next wave of NFTs, they're going to be much more useful," Atallah said. "It will be more important, as time goes on, for there to be things that get unlocked -- digital experiences that you can access only if you own a type of NFT or games."

Perhaps no NFT producer has had as much recent success as NBA TopShot, a community and marketplace of specific players and specific plays from NBA games. TopShot figured out how to take commonly-viewed plays, easily accessible on SportsCenter, TNT and YouTube, and turn them into lucrative must-have digital memorabilia. TopShot users can collect or sell moments after purchasing packs from the website, and Dapper Labs, which has the brand under its umbrella of digital properties, is already moving forward in the next steps of the user experience.

"You can see how excited people get when an athlete retweets them on Twitter," says Caty Tedman, head of partnerships at Dapper Labs. "But imagine if you had the best Trae Young collection and then Trae Young gave you a call and brought you to a game. The whole concept of true authenticity means you can verify the biggest fans and you can reward them." -- Tom VanHaaren

Who's buying NFTs, anyway?

Pretty much everybody, but it's predominately young men. OpenSea has led the way with the highest volume NFT marketplace for the majority of its time in existence since 2017, and around 70% of sales have come from men. About one-third of buyers are in the 25-34 age range, with 27% of users in the 18-24-year-old bracket.

Atallah also notes that the sports in highest demand thus far mimics that of physical trading cards. Basketball is currently leading the way in volume, followed by baseball, football and soccer. What's interesting, however, is Atallah notes volume in digital soccer cards and NFTs is higher than the physical soccer cards as of now.

Most of the headlines around NFTs hinge on large sales, but the market place is actually propelled by items that are under $100. And with teams and leagues figuring out NFTs can be a great way to sell to fans while also pulling in their digital information, it's a virtual guarantee that the other 99% out there can still participate. -- Tom VanHaaren

Collectors used to be able to hold jerseys and autographs and put them on a mantle. What are people doing with their NFTs?

Yes, a digital asset cannot be hung on your wall. But it's not that hard to show off NFTs -- remember, 97% of American adults (and 5.27 billion people worldwide) have smart phones these days. "I don't think that young people have the same outlook on [having a physical object], that something has to be on the wall of your house to have value," Tedman said. "It's much simpler for the things you love to be online and go everywhere you go."

And let's also not forget the ultimate way humans show off these days: Social media. Buyers can flood Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok with videos and images of their NFTs in a way nobody can shuttle people into their living room to look at a game-used jersey or autographed ball.

"The biggest way [to show it off] is within social media," Atallah said. "If they're looking at my OpenSea account, they want to go to my Twitter account, they can just click that link in my bio and see what I write in addition to what I own. The two things are just a part of social media now."

There are also smart industry people thinking about broader digital showcase opportunities, too. TopShot has online places where users can browse other collections on the website, and some collectors have set up their own virtual reality galleries of sorts. -- Tom Van Haaren

Now that Name-Image-Likeness restrictions are virtually gone, will there be an NFT boom specific to college athletes?

Florida State quarterback McKenzie Milton leapt at the chance to marry the two most buzzworthy acronyms in sports collectibles this year: NFT and NIL.

Milton announced plans to sell a set of digital trading cards on July 1, just hours after state laws and NCAA rule changes provided college athletes with their first chance to sell the rights to their names, images and likenesses. The first five of Milton's NFTs -- which features an embedded video along with a gif-like image of him wearing a garnet and gold football uniform -- sold for a total of $3,100 earlier this month.

Like so much else in the brand new era of college athletes making money, the long-term marketplace for NFTs in the NCAA remains murky for the time being. Experts agree, though, that some kind of authenticated digital assets will provide a time-efficient way for busy student-athletes to connect with fans and cash in on their popularity in the future.

Milton's cards were produced by a Florida-based start-up called Dreamfield (Milton is a part owner along with Miami QB D'Eriq King), which is aiming to help college athletes navigate several new opportunities based on the NIL rule changes. Dreamfield founder Luis Pardillo said his group takes a percentage of profits in exchange for handling the design and sale of NFTs for college athletes. For the athletes themselves, the process takes less than an hour of their time. Dreamfield is planning to roll out a few new player cards each month as they continue to work out the kinks of operating in the budding industry. Other high-profiles, including Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei, North Carolina's Sam Howell and Georgia's JT Daniels have also announced plans to release NFTS soon through a company called Candy Digital.

One of the biggest challenges for college athlete NFTs remains getting fans of those teams and players comfortable with the crypto world. Milton originally planned to auction two dozen of his new digital cards, but decided to limit the sale to only a handful after discovering that there weren't yet many Seminoles fans who had the digital currency or wallets necessary to own an NFT.

College athletes in the future might be best served by including some kind of unique experience or tangible item for fans who purchase their NFTs, says Solo Ceesay, the co-founder of the digital creator marketplace Calaxy. Ceesay, who played football at Penn, said fans can use Calaxy to purchase athlete-specific tokens that give them access to exclusive content, one-on-one interactions or other tangible items authenticated via blockchain. Ceesay says they're hoping to create a platform that helps fans get more comfortable with digital currency.

"We're trying to lower all those barriers to entry and make it look and feel familiar," he says.

More traditional industry names, such as Panini, might also help collectors feel good about buying NFTs. The card company has been exploring the NFT space since January 2020, but has been taking their time assessing what to do with college athletes, according to VP of Marketing Jason Howarth.

Howarth said superstars and brand-name schools will create the most demand, but it's too early to tell how broad the market for college athletes in the NFT space might be. He doesn't believe that a player's college card -- either physical or digital -- will be as coveted as rookie cards are now. Panini recently announced plans to start producing physical trading cards for college athletes this fall.

Howarth cautions that college athletes should be careful not to flood the marketplace with their NFTs too quickly. As is the case with any collectible, scarcity remains the main driver of value in the digital world. -- Dan Murphy

Can somebody who doesn't have $5,000 to play with still participate in memorabilia and NFTs these days?

The white-collar influx into the hobby over the last decade-plus has definitely priced out clientele, notably wounding the parent-kid dynamic that originally defined the hobby. When boxes of 2020-21 Panini Noir Basketball and 2021 Topps Diamond Icons Baseball retail at $1,799 and $2,699, respectively, the demographic of who can be competitive in the hobby quickly shrinks.

That's why the Target shutdown hurts so much. The big retailers used to be a salve -- people could participate for $50 or less and be buying blaster boxes and other affordable releases that still had potential to make big pulls. Consumers can still get those economical releases online, but they're competing with bots and an ever-expanding trove of breakers and flippers, who buy troves of lower-priced products to turn them around immediately for steep profit.

The real money in modern cards lies in graded cards and...well, we all know what happened there. PSA still hasn't reopened their Value, Economy, or Regular-priced services for sending in cards, with the cheapest option currently being $200 per card. PSA's biggest competitor, Beckett Grading Services, has also suspended submissions for most collectors, with a Premium service that starts at $125 a card.

If we're talking about collecting for the sake of collecting, sure, there's always something to accrue. But whether it's cards, or the lucrative landscape of NFTs, there just isn't a lot of room for the non-wealthy (median household income in the U.S. was still below $70,000 in 2019) to genuinely compete in the hobby right now. As the feeding frenzy of cards settles, that may change.

But for now, landing those $500,000-type cards requires either impressive wealth -- or impressive luck. -- Dan Hajducky and Tom VanHaaren