American adults of a certain age no doubt remember collectible trading cards from their younger years. How they featured pictures and statistics of professional athletes (especially baseball players). How those cards could be hoarded, traded, even used as a noisemaker in the spokes of one’s bicycle.

The roots of these cards can be traced all the way back to the 1800s, when they featured only advertising and were used to reinforce packaging around cigarettes. They evolved when baseball was first played professionally in the 1860s, and continued to grow in popularity after that. 

They have long since become the domain of not only sports but also fictional creatures and characters. (Looking at you, Pokemon.) They have also become big business. The worldwide market for sports cards alone was valued at $13.82 billion in 2019, and is projected to grow to $98.75 billion by 2027. A single rare card of Honus Wagner, a Hall of Fame baseball player from 1897-1917, was sold in 2021 for a record $6.6 million.

But now sports cards have taken on an entirely new form. Now they are being marketed as non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are, in essence, digital certificates of ownership of scarce assets on a blockchain. NFTs are, in fact, not just limited to cards but also include tokenized tickets, media rights and sponsorship of metaverse events.

In short, NFTs have also become big business. Deloitte projects that between four million and five million fans will in 2022 either purchase them or receive them as gifts, totalling some $2 billion. That’s about twice the amount that was spent in that fashion in 2021.

Typical of how the market has evolved is the development of crypto trading card games like NBA Top Shot, which was developed by the National Basketball Association in concert with Dapper Labs. It involves acquiring packs of video clips of notable moments in league history, which can be traded on the secondary market – not unlike the cards of the past – and according to CryptoSlam it is the No. 7 all-time game, with nearly $1 billion in sales through May 2022.

The NBA also introduced 125 NFTs of each of the 240 players involved in the 2022 playoffs, a total of some 30,000 NFTs. And the Golden State Warriors, who in 2021 became the first professional team to develop NFTs, also came out with a new version for the ‘22 postseason.

According to the website Dapper Labs has launched trading card games with the NFL, LaLiga Soccer League and Ultimate Fighting Championship similar to the one that organization began with the NBA, involving NFTs of highlight video clips or audio clips. Sorare has done the same with the European football league, establishing ties with 215 clubs. According to CrytpoSlam, Sorare, which claims to have 1.5 million users in 180 countries, boasted over $312 million in all-time sales through May 2022, making it No. 18 among all games.

The conclusion, then, is simple: NFTs have super-charged sports in a whole new way. They have given athletes and leagues the world over new exposure, and a new revenue stream. It’s something that could never have been envisioned back in the days baseball cards were reduced to noisemakers in the spokes of bicycle wheels. Now, athletes’ likenesses are making a far greater impact, with the likelihood of even more innovation and saturation in the years to come.