Whole new game: NFTs are changing sports memorabilia industry, Princeton firm’s CEO says — from baseball to polo and beyond


As part of a series of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, being sold by Major League Baseball, Lou Gehrig’s historic “Luckiest man” speech was sold last month as an all-digital memento.

The oft-misunderstood digitized art, video and audio clips that are being bought and sold in the maybe even less-understood cryptocurrencies are regularly making headlines. And Victor Bakunoff is understandably excited about NFTs’ potential to draw attention — perhaps even to sports that don’t currently enjoy mainstream cachet and lesser-known athletes, as well.

Victor Bakunoff. (SportVEST)

Bakunoff is CEO of the Princeton-based SportVEST Holdings Inc., a venture firm that holds a portfolio of NFTs, including vintage National Football League and MLB firms, as well as artwork from boxing matches and other sports.

Bakunoff said the recent sale of the Yankee Stadium speech (which reportedly was bid up to $70,400, with proceeds going to research for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) was an exciting moment for NFTs.

“SportVEST wasn’t involved in that, but the fact is: Important pieces of our sports history are taking on new forms that fans are interested in,” he said, adding that it was, in his opinion, “still early game.”

SportVEST’s own first set of major NFTs is based around the memorialized NFL play, “the Immaculate Reception,” the game-winning touchdown that won a 1972 playoff game for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Oakland Raiders.

Complicated as NFTs, cryptocurrencies and digital technologies may seem, the basis of Bakunoff’s company is a simple one. As a former NFL player who later had a Corporate America career and then took on several digital ventures, he came full circle and wanted to find some alternative forms of income for athletes.

“There are a number of athletes doing quite well, achieving a lucrative status and creating a popular brand for themselves,” he said. “But that represents maybe 1% of the total universe of athletes. So, what we’re looking at doing is creating alternative forms of income for others.”

SportVEST acts as the venture arm of the NFL Alumni Association, a Mount Laurel-based group of retired players, coaches and staff. A gambling program called Legends of Football, as well as other gaming and media activities, has long been the organization’s main thrust.

But Bakunoff said the organization is now positioned to provide other sports leagues and organizations with new revenue streams — in support of their athletes.

The sport they’re now getting involved in? Polo. What else?

One of the world’s oldest known team sports is getting a refresh, Bakunoff said, under the leadership of Kimberly Casey Carr, Major League Polo‘s CEO and president. He added that she was the impetus for a partnership in which SportVEST acquired the NFT licensing rights for the horseback sport’s draft this year.

“She’s a visionary who wants to get their sport in front of more people,” he said. “We haven’t known each other for a long time, but we got to meet each other at a digital token and NFT conference. It evolved from there, and a partnership like this just seemed to make sense from the Major League Polo point of view.”

Bakunoff added that the sport already has millions of fans, but it’s looking to emulate some of the elements of a professional league such as the NFL in its live-streamed draft picks and associated gaming components.

His Princeton firm has created the league’s first NFT market to go with it, with digital collectibles involving the 64 players drafted for the league Aug. 31. A release announcing the licensing deal noted that these digital assets have the potential of selling for upwards of a million dollars or more.

“What will resonate, quite frankly, are the opportunities these NFTs come with to engage with athletes, engage with these teams and team owners … to learn to ride a horse, or swing a polo club,” Bakunoff said. “That’s going to create sort of a unique story with people who are interested in what it takes to get from point A to point B in becoming a professional polo player.”

So, why digital assets — and not a more traditional merchandise and fan interaction sale?

Besides the novelty of participating in this new marketplace, Bakunoff argues NFTs offer ways of validating the authenticity of collectibles that might actually be less involved than determining something like the legitimacy of an autograph in physical memorabilia.

And what’s in it for the sport of polo? In the league’s effort to diversify and broaden the scope of its sport, it’s doing what other professional leagues are doing, as Bakunoff characterized it. The Princeton firm is looking to diversify, too. He sees it as a win-win.

Bakunoff added that Major League Polo is also planning to feature esports at its 16 pro stadium venues. SportVEST has also gotten thoroughly involved with esports organizations in its search for more alternative income streams for athletes.

“These are all trends we want to be on the front end of,” Bakunoff said.

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