DALLAS — Christopher Leather immediately knew he landed something special.
In early January, the 42-year-old professional poker player from Las Vegas opened an NBA Top Shot pack and saw a legendary-status Luka Doncic highlight included.
He was ready to capitalize on the Mavericks superstar's soaring value in the latest — and most digitally nuanced — sports collectibles craze.
Leather couldn't physically hold his new Doncic item because Top Shot "moments" are individual video highlights in the form of non-fungible tokens (more commonly called NFTs). He couldn't license or profit from the copyright to that video clip of a Doncic layup against the Lakers on Christmas, either.
But within a few days, Leather had turned the digital Doncic moment he acquired at random for $230 into a $21,500 sale on the marketplace.
Welcome to the world of NBA Top Shot and digital sports trading, the latest off-court venture Doncic is primed to dominate.
In recent weeks, Top Shot has skyrocketed in popularity, viewed as the tech-savvy alternative to physical trading cards.
The venture — a partnership between Canada-based Dapper Labs and the NBA — has attracted over 800,000 users, generated more than $500 million in sales and received support from scores of investors that, as of Tuesday's latest fundraising announcement, include Michael Jordan.
At the center of the surge are NBA players' on-court highlights that captivate users and vary in estimated worth and scarcity.
Experts predict Doncic's already lucrative Top Shot value is poised to increase — likely more than most other current stars' — as the product becomes more mainstream.
"There's a lot of possibilities. It's a lot to take in," said Leather, whose Top Shot collection value ranks in the top 150 of all users. "But I definitely believe that in the top five or six players, Luka's definitely up there with the potential for a massive career, and people in Top Shot are definitely betting on that."
What is an NFT?
To understand Top Shot's explosion of interest and investment, and Doncic's fit within the industry, start with the basics.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are unique, non-interchangeable digital files on a blockchain, the cryptocurrency technology that can track the ownership and transactions of each item.
NFTs can exist in several forms, including art, audio, or — in Top Shot's case — video. Top Shot opened for public beta testing last fall.
Each Top Shot moment comes in the form of a digital cube that includes the highlight and a unique serial number that cannot be replicated or destroyed.
There are common moments, in which Top Shot has minted more than a thousand NFTs showing the same play, and increasingly rare levels. Users can acquire the NFTs by buying at-random packs or specific moments in the marketplace on Top Shot's website.
Trends so far show the most coveted moments are those from a player's rookie season or with barcodes of No. 1 — the first NFT minted — and the showcased player's jersey number. The style of play and significance of the game can impact value, too.
Leather's $21,500 Doncic moment, for example, was extra lucrative as No. 77 (Doncic's number) out of 85 in a "Deck the Hoops" holiday promotion.
Some question Top Shot's draw.
Why buy a moment if you can play the same video highlight online, for free? The videos aren't tangible, like traditional sports memorabilia or baseball cards, so owners can't openly showcase their collections.
Top Shot users, however, believe the same can be said of trading cards.
Pictures of athletes and their biographical information are available online. Many valuable cards are kept private for safekeeping. Buying and selling moments, compared to cards, doesn't include shipping, appraisal or potential physical damage. NFTs can be stored in digital wallets.
Scarcity, authenticity and provable ownership remain in both realms. Collectibles have value — whether in digital or cardboard form — because enough people are willing to pay for the product.
Top Shot "was everything that I really loved about the idea of investing in trading cards without all the headaches," said Jonathan Bales, a daily fantasy sports and analytics expert. "It removed a lot of the pain points of trading cards."
Doncic's value potential
The Mavericks' Top Shot knowledge and interest varies.
Rookie Josh Green has promoted moments and giveaways on his social media channels, part of a growing group of Top Shot-involved players that includes Brooklyn's Kevin Durant and New Orleans' Josh Hart.
Coach Rick Calisle thinks Top Shot is "compelling," but said, "Count me out of knowing much of anything about those."
Owner Mark Cuban has bought Top Shot moments, written a blog about the ingenuity of NFTs as intangible stores of value, and urged a certain someone else to consider exploring the market, too.
"Mark keeps texting me that I've got to register," Doncic said, "so I'll do it soon."
If and when he does sign up to participate in the marketplace on Top Shot's website, Doncic will find exorbitant demand for his likeness.
A LeBron James dunk that sold for $208,000 in February is the most expensive moment to date, but a few of Doncic's are among the all-time leaders.
A legendary-status moment (1 of 49) that featured Doncic dribbling past four Nuggets defenders for a dunk during the infamous March 11 pandemic suspension game sold recently for $75,000.
Another NFT of the same moment is now on sale for $150,000. Other Doncic moments available in the marketplace as of Wednesday afternoon ranged from $344 to $94,500.
Top Shot has only released moments from this season and last, so opportunities abound.
Many expect moments from Doncic's 2018-19 rookie season to become most treasured, similar to the value of rookie trading cards. Future Doncic moments should also showcase games of higher consequence, such as the playoffs, and from seasons with more All-Star, All-NBA and MVP recognition.
Doncic's followers have already witnessed the commercial magnetism of his game.
A one-of-a-kind Doncic rookie trading card sold in February for a record $4.6 million. His NBA jersey sales through the first half of this season ranked No. 2 overall, behind James. His All-Star fan voting returns annually show his international reach as a Slovenian prodigy.
Doncic's Top Shot start has been no different.
About a month ago, 28-year-old Jimmy Clarke of Brooklyn made his first Top Shot purchase, a common $14 pack, that included a limited-edition Doncic moment.
He decided to experiment and sell the Doncic moment — a rather basic layup in the Mavericks' February win over the Pelicans — to see if the Top Shot hype was legitimate.
Clarke listed it for $740 in the marketplace — the lowest price a similar moment had commanded before — and the moment sold in an hour.
Thanks to Doncic's draw, Clarke used his earnings to replace his six-year-old iPhone with a newer model and invest some more in the sometimes-hard-to-grasp digital phenomenon that's transforming the sports collectible industry.
What is NBA Top Shot?
A digital forum for buying and selling individual video highlights in the form of non-fungible tokens that's become an increasingly popular alternative to physical trading cards.
— What are NFTs?
Unique, non-interchangeable digital files that cannot be reproduced, forged or deleted.
— What is blockchain?
A cryptocurrency technology that can track the ownership and transactions of NFTs.
— How can I buy a "moment"?
By purchasing at-random "packs" on the Top Shot website or paying for specific moments on the platform's marketplace.
— What are the five most valuable moments?
1. LeBron James posterizing dunk ($208,000)
2. LeBron James solo reverse dunk ($125,000)
T-3. LeBron James block vs. Spurs' Dejounte Murray ($100,000)
T3. Ja Morant Rookie of the Year dunk ($100,000)
T-3. Zion Williamson block with ball into crowd ($100,000)
Note: All highlights are from games in the 2019-20 season.
— What are some other notable NFTs?
A digital artist known as Beeple sold an NFT collection of his work for $69 million earlier this month. Rock band Kings of Leon is selling some music via NFT. The New York Times auctioned off an NFT of a column about NFTs. Mark Cuban has discussed using NFTs for Mavericks game tickets.