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The Phillies paid Karl Wallenda $3,000 to walk a tightrope across Veterans Stadium 50 years ago. Two years later, Cleveland sold beer for 10 cents. The White Sox started the Bat Day craze in the early 60s and the Giants brought back bobbleheads in 1999.
Almost since the sport began, baseball teams have found ways each summer to fill their ballpark, from giving out free tickets to women in the 1920s to Vanilla Ice performing after a game in August at Citizens Bank Park.
And soon there could be a new giveaway that Major League Baseball thinks will be just as popular as a free bobblehead. Except you won’t actually be able to get your hands on this one.
MLB is diving this season into the nonfungible tokens market — think baseball cards that are purely digital — and has plans to expand past using them as solely collectibles that are bought and sold.
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NFTs could soon fill the voids left by the decreasing use of paper tickets. They could be used in place of game programs — which many teams, including the Phillies, have stopped producing — and they could even become the new bobbleheads.
“I think we’re already at the point where these things would be a draw for people to go to an event in order to get one,” said Kenny Gersh, MLB’s executive vice president for business development.
For now, MLB’s NFTs will continue to resemble baseball cards after the league partnered last summer with Candy Digital — a company owned by Fanatics that calls itself “the next generation of sports collectors” — to produce the only NFTs licensed by the league and the players’ union.
Like baseball cards, Candy has produced NFTs that feature every team and all of the league’s stars and prospects. They can be bought in “packs” that consumers can digitally rip open or can be purchased from a marketplace where consumers sell NFTs from their collection.
An NFT might be foreign to baseball fans but the experience of opening a pack, collecting a set, and chasing a limited-edition collectible is as traditional to baseball as three outs in an inning. The NFTs are strictly digital — the items live on your phone or computer — but they certainly share similarities to baseball cards.
“We think about the traditional baseball card, the cardboard, we think of that as Trading Card 1.0,” Candy Digital CEO Scott Lawin said. “If there’s a digital picture of that cardboard that lives on your phone or your computer, that’s Trading Card 2.0. Now if we take all the different media assets that are generated around a game or a player — video, static imagery, motion graphics, sound, digital autographs — and we put all those things together and add things like player statistics, that’s Trading Card 3.0. We view that as what the future collectible is.
“Not just something that represents that particular player in an enhanced way but actually gives the collector and fan connectivity to that player in real time. If I’m a big Bryce Harper fan, his digital trading card has his updated stats. Now I feel more connected to him.”
MLB first tried NFTs in 2019 but Gersh said they entered the market too soon. Their system required consumers to set up a digital wallet and pay with cryptocurrency. It was too complicated and targeted a niche market. This time, they wanted to make it simple. Consumers simply register on Candy’s website with an email and use U.S. dollars to buy their NFTs.
A new lineup of players is released every few weeks with this season’s fourth lineup — which includes 90 players — set to drop on Tuesday. They created special NFTs last summer for the All-Star Game, launched a series centered around prospects, commemorated Atlanta’s World Series title, created an NFT for Jackie Robinson Day and create a daily NFT highlighting the majors’ best play from the day before that is available for just 12 hours. Some of the NFTs are then resold on Candy’s marketplace for thousands of dollars.
“What we really want to make sure is that the NFT in and of itself brings the fan value and joy,” Gersh said. “A lot of what NFTs have been tied to in consumer’s minds has been buying and selling and making investments. I don’t want that to be the case with the baseball ones. I really want them to be impactful for their own merit and they bring you joy to have it because it’s a collectible, it’s a memory, it shows your fandom.”
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Candy has worked already with some teams to provide special commemorative ticket NFTs to season-ticket holders as teams try to find ways to replace the feeling of having 81 tickets delivered to your door. As printed tickets fade, the league envisions the NFT becoming the new ticket stub that proves you were in the ballpark for a memorable game. The NFT would include a box score, a video highlight, and a story about the game.
“When I grew up, I used to take my ticket, bring it home, and put it up on my bulletin board,” Lawin said. “I would collect those over the course of the summer and that was a piece of my history, my experience. That opportunity has kind of gone away. Things live on your phone or on a QR code on a piece of paper. Creating this dynamic digital ticket that starts to play that same role, we’re really excited about that same storytelling element that the paper ticket and program might have done in the past.”
The Phillies won just 59 games in 1972 but they sold 30,000 tickets that August when Wallenda walked across the Vet between games of a doubleheader. It was another promotion by Bill Giles, who knew how to sell tickets even in lean years. Fifty years later, an NFT could do the trick.
“You could have like a Bryce Harper Night,” Gersh said. “In the past, we would give out a bobblehead or some other item. Now every fan in attendance can get access to a NFT. It makes it sort of rare and special in that you actually had to be at the park that night to be eligible to get that NFT. You can keep it with you forever and it makes you feel good like it did when you received that free bobblehead.”