CHICAGO - Basketball star Kobe Bryant shoots, scores, and all the while fans can bid online on the NBA Most Valuable Player's jersey in real-time.
Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant grins at his teammates during practice Wednesday, June 4, 2008, in Boston. Bryant leads the Lakers against the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA basketball finals Thursday night in Boston. [Agencies]
The National Basketball Association said on Wednesday it will auction online, starting with opening tip-offs, jerseys worn by players during two games of the league finals this week between Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
"It's something that our fans have been asking for," Lisa Goldberg, the NBA's senior director of trading cards and memorabilia, said in a telephone interview.
"It's been moving in the direction for not just basketball, but all sports," she added. "Game-worn merchandise has definitely become a greater part of the market and collectors are wanting it."
Game-worn jerseys have become increasingly popular with collectors looking for unique memorabilia, and the Internet will only drive that interest higher, said Pete Siegel, chief executive of New York City-based Gotta Have It! Collectible Inc, which sells high-end sports, entertainment and historical collectibles.
"Whenever one of the so-called leagues takes it into their own hands to auction off the items, it goes for more money because it comes directly from the source," he said.
The NBA's website, NBA.com, saw traffic surge this season, topping 1.2 billion visits including the playoffs.
Siegel pointed to rising values, including $175,000 paid at a charity auction this year for a jersey of Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz that he never even wore.
A construction worker who loves the Boston team buried the Ortiz jersey at the new Yankee Stadium under construction as a way to curse the New York team, but the Yankees dug it up after receiving tips from other co-workers.
Siegel said he sold the jersey from the rookie season of Jackie Robinson, the Hall-of-Famer who broke baseball's color barrier, for $500,000. However, even minor players' jerseys in the NBA finals may sell for thousands, he said.
Siegel said pro sports leagues are moving to sell game-worn apparel more and more, and that will bring in more revenue.
The NBA, which may expand the program, began selling pre-worn game jerseys last year, but this year will be first time the auctions begin during a live game, Goldberg said. Game-worn jerseys make up less than 1 percent of the NBA's overall merchandise sales, but that business is growing fast.
Game-worn jerseys can sell for thousands of dollars, including $25,500 for the jersey of Cleveland all-star LeBron James from last year's finals with San Antonio. New jerseys not worn by players retail for up to $170.
A game-worn Kobe Bryant jersey, with proper tagging proving authenticity, would probably sell for about $2,500, Siegel said. With NBA backing and the added allure of the playoffs, that value easily could hit five figures.
The auctions for the Lakers' and Celtics' jerseys from the first and third games allow fans to bid on the home and away jerseys for both teams, the NBA said. The auction from the first game will run June 5-24, while the game-three auction will run June 10-26.
MeiGray, the official game-worn source of the NBA, will oversee the auctions on NBA.com. Private held MeiGray, which does similar work for other leagues, also will authenticate the jerseys with a system that includes a special code, tag and security number placed on the jerseys before the players wear them on the court.
Of course, in life there are no guarantees. The fine print says the NBA is not responsible for certain acts - like a player throwing his jersey into the crowd - so bidders shouldn't get their heart set on a particular jersey.