The National Sports Collectors Convention—so esteemed that regulars know it simply as “The National”—is an event built on nostalgia.
Attendees at this week’s National in Atlantic City, N.J., will encounter 40,000 square feet stuffed with memorabilia both famous and obscure. They’ll line up to meet autograph-signing icons of yore. They’ll crowd together to hover over history encased in glass.
But this year’s gathering also looks forward. Social commerce platforms dot the floor. Exhibitors will discuss alternate investment strategies and fractional ownership. Blockchain technology is at the show too, if you know where to look.
Even if card prices are generally down from their 2021 peaks, collectors expressed enthusiasm about the 42nd National—which expects to host over 75,000 visitors this week after nearly setting an attendance record last year—and curiosity about where the hobby might head next. Companies, meanwhile, are more than ready to present what they’ve been working on.
Trading card company Panini launched its NFT program in 2020, a full year before the category took off on the back of NBA Top Shot. And while non-sports NFTs may be struggling, Panini NFTs have had some of their busiest months recently, with total transactions in July already 40% higher than they were last July.
“The things that we’re doing with our platform and with NFTs are being validated in the most trying of times,” Panini America VP of marketing Jason Howarth said, specifically pointing to the company’s decision to use physical brand IP like Prizm and Optic for its NFTs rather than creating entirely new designs. “There’s a recognition and an understanding of the value of our IP, so it’s not—for lack of a better definition—something that’s made up out of thin air.”
Panini has become well known for the VIP Party it throws on the Saturday of every National convention. But this year it’s adding another shindig to the schedule on Friday—the Panini Prizm NFT Party. The newcomer will share plenty of features with its older sibling, such as musical performances, athlete cameos and product giveaways. The biggest difference will be the price point—general admission tickets on Friday start at $100, compared to the five-figure get-ins typical for Saturday’s event. Then there’s the actual ticket, which on Friday is an NFT itself. Naturally.
Beckett Collectibles, launched first as a price guide book in 1979, has also embraced blockchain. At its booth, the company will be introducing collectors to Beckett Collect, a new platform created following the acquisition of startup NoXX. The site will allow users to track, expand and showcase their collections with the possibility of one day displaying Top Shot moments next to images of vintage Topps slabs. Beckett has also created a vault to store cards and is exploring how NFTs could serve as titles for those assets to allow for easier trading.
“On the collector side, there’s plenty of rivalry,” Beckett chief visionary officer (and former NoXX founder) Scott Roskind said. “Some people are adamant that, ‘Oh no, you can only have the physical’ and others are more tech-forward.”
For the company, though—well, the fact they have a chief visionary officer probably answers that question. “We love both,” Roskind said.
Candy Digital will be on hand, offering packs of MLB NFTs and previewing an upcoming set tied to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “We are thrilled to attend this year for the first time ever as we look to introduce thousands of attendees to our products that use new technology to bring to life and expand the ways they can build their collections,” Candy CEO Scott Lawin said via email.
Rather than have their own booth, though, the brand will share space with its fellow Fanatics Collectibles brand Topps. One stall over, Fanatics will return with its own memorabilia focused activation as well. This will be the first National since Fanatics acquired Topps, as well as future baseball, basketball and football trading card licenses.
“I’m very interested to see how they’re positioning themselves,” Dibbs CEO Evan Vandenberg said. “It feels like they’ve become the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” More like four gorillas. Besides Fanatics, Topps and Candy, the company’s culture collectibles brand zerocool has set up its own booth to highlight recent licensing deals with entertainment properties including Stranger Things and Dune.
Going solely off floor space, the biggest presence at the show might be Whatnot, a leading live streaming shopping platform focused on collectibles that has sponsored a whole wing. The startup announced a $260 million Series D funding round at a $3.7 billion valuation last week.
Other social shopping entrants, including Loupe and NTWRK, which offer platforms to open and sell cards online, will have booths as well. In between those contenders, startups targeting an emerging collectible investor class—ALT and Collectable—have set up shop. On Wednesday, an ALT banner greeted collectors outside the convention hall with a clear display of its ambition: “Evolving Collecting.”
Then there are the notable absences from the show floor. Dapper Labs isn’t among the list of exhibitors, nor are newcomers such as Autograph, DraftKings Marketplace, Recur or Sorare. Many have instead opted to market around NFT-specific conferences like NFT.NYC and/or orient themselves around the sports calendar.
Blokpax CEO Jeff French doesn’t blame them.
“If you’re [a digital collectibles company], you can spend that money online and fairly well target people that are going to be somewhat receptive to your message, versus walking into a room where 95% of the people think you’re basically a scam,” French said, before interrupting himself. “Which is really silly, right? Let’s unpack that for a second. You’re going to tell me that a piece of cardboard… has value. However a digital collectible that is equally licensed is of zero value?”
French said his company, which sells online packs of digital collectibles, likely wouldn’t have set up at the convention either, except for the fact that those packs also come with entries to win sought-after physical cards. He figured that tie to the real world has earned the product more acceptance among potential skeptics.
Heritage Auctions, a National staple, sold a Zion Williamson Top Shot at auction last spring, but hasn’t brought digital collectibles to the National. Its biggest attraction will likely be a 1952 Mickey Mantle card currently on auction, which could draw a record-setting $10 million bid.
Heritage director of sports auctions Chris Ivy won’t rule out selling NFTs again, but for now, he said, “none of our traditional client base is really beating down our doors to handle NFTs.” Instead, he’s hopeful that today’s young, digital collector could become tomorrow’s sports memorabilia hoarder. “The first collectible I ever bought was Garbage Pail Kids in 1985,” he said. “They were silly cards targeted towards kids, but it was the first thing I participated in that obviously led to my passion for sports cards to this day. So I kind of look at NFTs the same way.”
Dibbs, a collectible storage and fractional trading platform, is another startup without an official show presence. But Vandenberg said representatives from the company would be on the floor, meeting with collectors and keeping tabs on all of the changes in the industry.
“It’s not just going there to buy and sell cards anymore, or to meet up with old friends and trade cards with them,” said Joel Belfer, an associate at Clearview Capital who tracks the industry in his Mint Condition newsletter. “It’s becoming more of an ideas event.”