When Calvin Austin found out last Sunday what the Senior Bowl was giving players as gifts, he was shocked: Each player would be able to make his own unique NFT -- of which there would be only one copy -- to keep or sell. He had only just started to research NFTs, their value and how athletes have started to use them to build their brand, so knowing he would have one of his own left him speechless.
As a wide receiver at Memphis, Austin earned an invite to the Reese's Senior Bowl to play in front of NFL scouts and coaches, hoping to help his draft stock. At the moment, ESPN's NFL scouts have him ranked as the No. 12 receiver in the draft and the No. 95 prospect overall. He never thought his Senior Bowl experience would include card company Panini producing a limited-edition NFT trading card, with a short video, for every player in the game.
"I've been seeing guys like Dez Bryant and other people on Twitter start to post their NFT, so I was like, 'How do I get one,'" Austin said. "I started researching everything, and then to come down here and they told us we were getting one, I was like, wow, it's crazy. I was just thinking about it and they surprise us with that, it's just a big-time opportunity."
Panini, a partner with the Reese's Senior Bowl, produces sports cards and has moved into the NFT space as the digital collectibles have gained in popularity.
In 2020, the first year of the partnership, Panini gave each player a physical card of himself to keep, but Panini's vice president of marketing, Jason Howarth, and his staff thought there was a bigger opportunity than simply making a printed card.
It started as a brainstorm and spawned into the idea of producing the one-of-one digital six-second videos for each player to own. They tested the plan and surveyed past players on how they felt about the idea, only to get positive feedback.
Some of the former players asked why they didn't have it available to them as the NFT (non-fungible token) market has boomed and athletes have monetized their own brand in the digital space. The players at the Senior Bowl were only scratching the surface of their potential popularity and potential worth.
"Imagine if we did this last year and imagine if Mac Jones decided that he was going to hold on to that NFT and not sell it until this year," Howarth said. "What would that look like compared to where the conversation was last year at this time? And a number of these players are going to be those guys."
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett could find himself in a similar situation as Jones, who was the fifth quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL draft but helped lead the New England Patriots to the playoffs. Jones has seen his card value rise as his rookie year has gone on, with some of the more rare Jones cards selling for thousands of dollars.
Pickett isn't a collector and hasn't gotten into NFTs, but he is intrigued by the idea that he could keep the NFT, bet on himself and potentially sell it if his career takes off the way Jones' has.
"It's all new to me, so I'm trying to get familiar with it," Pickett said. "I think all the guys were excited to see how it turns out. I think it's really cool, so I'm just going to hold on to it and just take a shot and see what happens."
It's new to a lot of the athletes, but Panini is handling the production from start to finish while educating the athletes on how to utilize their NFT as a potential investment in themselves and a marketing tool for the future.
The production time for an NFT is shorter than it would be for a physical card: The players were surprised with the idea on Sunday and will walk away with the NFT by the time they're finished with the game on Saturday. But, there's a lot that goes into creating, minting and hosting an NFT that wouldn't be easy to put together without the help of a team of people with experience.
The NFT team at Panini had created a template for each NFT and was prepared to quickly put the digital videos together to air-drop them to the players. First, the videos needed to be shot and created.
Multiple camera crews were on hand with lights, music and everything the team would need to put the videos together. The players were given full creative control of what they wanted to do for their six seconds.
"I saw a backflip, funny dances," Pickett said. "I think I threw the ball up, then dropped back, threw the ball and by that time, my six seconds were up. That's all I needed, it was easy."
Austin decided to get a little more creative with his. He broke out some dance moves, did his touchdown celebration, threw on a chain and championship belt and immersed himself in the experience. If this was going to be his first NFT, he was going to make the most of it.
Once the dancing and filming was over, Panini's team went to work editing each video and formatting it to the template for the NFT. Rather than a vertical video, the team decided on horizontal videos to give the players more room to put their personality in the card.
The NFTs were then minted, which entails taking a digital asset and putting it onto the blockchain, which is essentially a secure way to store data and record transactions across a network of systems. The minting process helps reduce the risk of fraud so the NFT can be bought or sold more efficiently.
This allows the company to create an ownership ledger that shows each individual athlete owns the NFT and also tracks who owns the asset if it is eventually sold and every time it is sold.
That aspect is important as it could add significant value if that player becomes a popular, collected athlete. Imagine for a second that you could right now buy the first NFT ever made of a past Senior Bowl participant such as Josh Allen, Justin Herbert or Deebo Samuel that was designed by and owned by them, and there was only one in existence.
"It's interesting, because there's not a lot of that in the space right now," Howarth said. "There's value in that player actually owning it, and then if you're a fan of that player, being the one that buys it from the player, you've got the blockchain ledger history of ownership from the player to you. It's almost like a premium value there, because you can show ownership between the player and you."
Panini will house each player's NFT on its blockchain, but give ownership to the player. If the player decides to sell it, he will be able to use Panini's auction or sales function on his own website and fans would be able to purchase the NFT securely.
The NFT space is still in its infancy, so this process streamlines it for the athletes and takes all the legwork out of their hands. It also ensures a smooth process for any future sale for both the athlete and the buyer, taking out any potential risk.
For someone like Austin, it's a piece of memorabilia that helped him realize he has a shot at capturing his dream of making it to the NFL. He reminisced about collecting cards of Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and other players when he was growing up.
Remembering the feeling he got collecting those cards and knowing that he too would be on the new generation of digital cards was something he still can't fathom. For now, he plans on betting on himself, holding the NFT in hopes that his career takes off similar to Jones' and his digital card eventually takes off in value.
"I'm going to do all my research, see what other people do with NFTs, continue to gather new ideas and what I want to do with it," Austin said. "It still hasn't hit me, it's surreal because that's something when I was a kid, I saw those guys on cards. I never would have thought I would be on the cards and to have all this happening, I'm just amazed."