How tech is changing the world of sports memorabilia

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“Someone stole my game jersey,” Brady whispered to Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the team’s locker room celebrations. “Are you serious? You better look online,” Kraft replied with a nervous smile on his face. It turns out the thief, Martin Mauricio Ortega, was a member of the media who used his credentials to sneak into the Patriots’ locker room and snatched the garment right from the quarterback’s bag. According to experts, that stained and sweaty item would have been worth over $500,000. The problem for Ortega, though, would’ve been finding a way to authenticate his embezzled prize — especially after the FBI got involved.

Tom Brady looks for his jersey after Super Bowl 51.

For the past 15 years, the NFL has worked with PSA/DNA, an authentication service that uses invisible ink to certify items such as helmets, footballs, baseballs, cards and autographs. While the company’s own technology doesn’t cover jerseys yet, there are others looking to fill that void. PROVA, a startup founded by Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith (himself a three-time Super Bowl champion), has created stamp-sized NFC chips that can track when an item is worn or used in-game. PROVA’s smart tags can identify stolen goods too, making it harder for any NFL-owned property to be illegally sold at auction or online. They can also embed valuable information in tagged items, like how many touchdowns a player scored while wearing a particular jersey.

Right now, they’re only being used by the Dallas Cowboys, but Smith hopes that Brady’s case will spark interest from other NFL teams. Given the media frenzy surrounding Brady’s stolen jersey, there’s no way Ortega could’ve gotten away with posting it on eBay or anywhere on the web… at least not without being caught. His options would have been to keep it in his personal collection (also comprised of stolen goods) or sell it on the black market, where he could use a process known as “photo-matching” to authenticate the jersey.

Before PSA/DNA and PROVA’s technologies existed, sports collectors relied heavily on pictures from games to ensure the legitimacy of items. With jerseys or bats, for example, they’d have to look for grass stains, cracks and other unique markings caused by playing football or baseball. Of course, with the high-resolution quality of the latest photography and video cameras, it’s easier than ever to know whether an item is the real deal. Photo-matching certainly serves its main purpose well, but it’s not consistent, since collectors may not always find the right image to authenticate every item.

Haroon Alvi, PROVA’s president and CEO, says his company’s NFC-powered tags are better than invisible ink because they won’t wear out during the season, which is apparently a common problem with the method used by firms like PSA/DNA. Down the road, Alvi says he hopes to bring these NFC chips to more sports and other industries. One day, he says, PROVA could offer its tech to luxury goods manufacturers, which may help them add another line of protection against counterfeits.

That said, as great as it would be to authenticate a Gucci purse on your smartphone, PROVA does face some challenges. Given that Apple doesn’t provide third-party developers full access to the iPhone’s NFC capabilities, PROVA can only go as far as offering an Android app right now.

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