How Dodgers’ Justin Turner became sold on the future of NFTs

LOS ANGELES ― An unclaimed locker stall sits next to Justin Turner’s in the Dodgers’ home clubhouse. It is a corner cornucopia of random whatsits, a home to whatever Turner finds fit to keep closest to his pre- and post-game workstation.

Lately, it’s been filling up with clear plastic cubes containing VeeFriends – children’s collectible figurines that are based on non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. The idea of a physical collectible based on a digital collectible is enough to bend the mind, to say nothing of NFTs themselves.

Turner, unusually for a major leaguer, has managed to dive into NFT collecting and emerge with a degree of fluency typically reserved for a rich guy with too much time on his hands.

“I know a little bit about them,” Turner said, smiling.

Gary Vaynerchuk, the digital marketing entrepreneur who owns Turner’s agency, counts NFT sales among the core components of his business empire. (VeeFriends are another, more recent entry.) As a VaynerSports client, Turner was recently announced as the first athlete minted in collaboration with Splash! NFTs, which is part of an exclusive collection available to the VaynerSports Pass NFT community.

Turner isn’t the first baseball player to be turned into an NFT. Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association already have an “official NFT ecosystem” through Candy Digital. This is the NFT equivalent of baseball cards – officially licensed digital products that enable collectors to buy, sell and trade in an online marketplace. (Coincidentally, Vaynerchuk is one of Candy Digital’s founding investors.)

Turner said Vaynerchuk tried to involve him with extracurricular NFT projects beginning in spring 2020. Like others, he was skeptical at first.

“He had been trying to get me to do some stuff with baseball cards, trading cards, buying some certain things that he said were good investments. … Three, four months later they’re worth over a million dollars,” Turner recalled. “So when he came to me with the NFT stuff, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to jump on board.’ It’s been enlightening and fun and kind of cool at the same time.”

If the world of blockchain-based digital collectibles were a nine-inning game, its adherents will tell you that 2022 is the top of the first inning. More than digital trading cards and children’s toys, Turner said he was drawn in by the promise of future applications of NFT technology.

He recalled a recent road trip during which Scott Akasaki, the Dodgers’ traveling secretary, dropped a somewhat large pile of ticket stubs at Turner’s locker the day after he reached a significant career milestone. (Neither Turner nor Akasaki could remember the specific milestone, but Akasaki said this is a common practice.) The idea was that Turner could distribute the tickets to friends, family, fans – anyone with a vested interest in saying they were a part of a big day in Turner’s baseball career.

“That doesn’t mean they were at the game,” Turner said, “but they could say, ‘look I was at this game, I have a ticket stub’. Through the blockchain, NFTs – hopefully sports decides to go that way – now there’s a way to prove you were actually there. Come to the game on Friday night, Albert (Pujols) hits two homers, on the way out of the park you scan your ticket, it’s on the blockchain, and it’s validated. It can never be changed or tampered with.”

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As a safeguard against memorabilia fraud, Turner believes NFTs hold an important key to anyone in the sports collecting world. In 2001 MLB instituted its authentication program, designed to combat forgeries and fraudulent sales of other physical goods. Now, any authenticated piece of game-used merchandise will contain a holographic sticker, placed on the object by an MLB-contracted authenticator.

For the same reason, some have called for NFT-based tickets to become standard practice. Pilot programs have already been drafted to mint NFT tickets for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

That’s a far cry from what Turner calls his “cool little hobby” as an NFT collector. He still keeps in touch with former Dodgers infielder Micah Johnson, who has risen to fame as an artist since creating an NFT universe around his original character, Aku. Another recently retired player-turned-artist, Matt Szczur, has thrown his talent into creating NFTs, too.

“It’s more than online art dealing because of the utility that comes with NFTs,” Turner said. “I think there certainly were a lot of projects that were created and done for the wrong reasons as a quick money grab, a scam. But I think there are some really good projects out there that take pride in taking care of their community and creating value within the community, creating utility and experiences through owning NFTs that I think is going to get bigger and better as they refine the space and redefine it after this whole scam era passes.”