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Will NBA Top Shot and Non-Fungible Tokens Fundamentally Change the Sports Highlight?

Kyle Koster
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
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Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards threw down a thunderous dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, as he's wont to do. Fox Sports North's Dave Benz went a bit nuts for it, as he's supposed to do in his role as hometown broadcaster. Along the way he mentioned Top Shot — probably a throwaway line aimed at nodding to the current zeitgeist.

Or a peek into the future.

NBA Top Shot has been at the center of all basketball-related conversations over the last month. Those who have bothered to learn about the wild world of non-fungible tokens have, on paper, made a tremendous amount of money. Those who haven't remain skeptical bystanders choosing to get their NBA highlights for free on any number of platforms that give them away free to the masses. It remains unclear if the market will follow the path of BitCoin, which may revolutionize how the world views currency, or will it be closer to shades of Tulip Mania from the Dutch Golden Age?

It does seem reasonable to reach an early conclusion, though. If NBA Top Shot fails, it won't be for a lack of trying. The NBA and NBAPA share the 5 percent seller's fee baked into every transaction. Everyone involved gets a taste and the league and players don't have to do a damn thing to get some of that sweet action. So what incentive do they have to turn down free money. What incentive does anyone associated with the venture have to not maximize their own profitability?

What's to stop the entire Highlight Industrial Complex to be forever altered by the proliferation of third-party companies? And what would that mean for curation?

This isn't such an ethical question but a presentation question. Does the immediate future hold a world where broadcasters immediately and routinely tease the NFT release of the standout play that just occurred? Is it just another promo we get used to, a further intrusion of advertorial into coverage?

If so, it will certainly not be the end of the world. There's no reason to clutch pearls as any idea of sports as a bastion of pure athletic majesty and love of competition has long gone out the window. The word professional is a pretty good indicator of what's going on, especially when it comes before the word "basketball", "football" or "baseball". But sitting by as a specific market is artificially manipulated by those with the most power may still feel unseemly to some viewers.

Let me explain some of the fears/opportunities based on one's mindset. The most immediate thing Top Shot and its partners could do to inflate value is to pick away at the massive library of existing highlights on the internet and make them less accessible. This would be a massive undertaking but it is not entirely incongruent with a long-term project the NBA needs to do anyway: find a way to monetize its online content to a generation content to follow along via TikTok without watching any of the live games.

Top Shot's ceiling stateside is high but nowhere near as lofty as it is in China, which is arguably the most important market to the NBA's future. Let's say that the trend really takes hold there and therefore the tokens become far more valuable to the league than providing comprehensive, free highlights to the masses? Are we entirely sure the open-source doors are going to remain open.

The ultimate fear fans of a certain age have is that the faucet is slowly turned off. That current and — more importantly — past memories and video are slowly but surely placed behind paywalls to the point that both nostalgia and fandom aren't free anymore.

Thankfully, such a nightmare scenario feels unlikely. What seems more realistic though is concerted efforts by the NBA's rights partners to become more deeply invested in the Top Shot idea and the subsequent ones that come on its heels. Sooner or later they are going to realize they hold a tremendous amount of power in the edit bays by either restricting or amplifying which moments become widely disseminated. And look, no one is naive. This already happens in all areas of news — there's a bottom line to monitor.

This feels new, though. Like we're on the precipice of something big. A market has been created out of thin air. It's only a matter of time until the most powerful players in the food chain figure out how to make it work for them more than it works for the everyday fan who has thrown $900 on a Mookie Blaylock jumper.

And once they do, who trusts them not to expedite the process in new and frustrating ways for the average consumer? At a certain point we should consider what happens when highlights become a far greater commodity than they are now, and what unintended consequences that could present. Otherwise we'll wake up one day in a world where the commercial never stops and the gatekeepers are only more plentiful?

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