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Trade you (Online) a Mantle for a Clemens

Digital baseball cards hit the World Wide Web

For years, baseball cards have helped fans express their devotion to their sports heroes. Now, an inventor with a love of baseball promises to update the age-old pastime in a highly computerized fashion.

It all began when Marty Marion, an advertising executive named after a St. Louis Cardinals shortstop of the 1940s and 50s, was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. Sitting next to him was a 7-year-old kid who spent the entire flight playing with his space alien trading card. Marion watched the boy repeatedly animate and flip the card in the air. Eventually, he realized that for the kid, the card was a true-to-life friend. “That’s when I thought it would be a great idea if I could make trading cards come to life electronically. I quickly started to work on the idea of taking video and audio and embedding it on a trading card on a computer,” Marion says.

With $300,000 of his own money, Marion started a company called CyberAction Inc. (www.cyberaction.com), based in New York’s Silicon Alley. Three years later, visitors to the Web site can purchase baseball, soccer and celebrity cards that exist only in digital format.

A pack of four digital baseball cards costs $3.95. The cards feature audio and video clips of players-for example, a 1920s film of Babe Ruth, or a 1990s video of Roger Clemens. By flipping the card electronically, you can play sports trivia games, see a player’s entire lifetime statistics, hear the crowd cheer or boo, and drag and drop images to create an electronic poster of your favorite player.

Collectors can order and download cards online. Next year, the site expects to initiate online trading. Serious collectors will appreciate the fact that the first-ever digital baseball cards have an official license from Major League Baseball and are distributed in limited editions.

The technology behind all the fun and games is a system developed by CyberAction. Collectors of the digital baseball cards download software that allows the encrypted and video-enhanced cards to be fully activated, organized, viewed and ultimately traded.

The company has also signed licenses with Major League Soccer for digital soccer cards and with Universal Studios for Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules cards. The developers have high hopes to expand the menu of CyberAction. Targets for agreements include the National Football League, National Basketball Association, and TV shows Baywatch and Star Trek.

While some may applaud the introduction of a new and improved baseball card, for others perhaps the most interesting part of Marty Marion’s invention is his claim to have created a business model that expects to turn a profit on a 100 percent digital product that has no traditional manufacturing costs, no real-world retail outlet and virtually no incremental production costs. “Once we have sold enough cards to pay for the initial development and creation cost for the first set, duplicating the electronic file to fulfill customer orders is simple and done at no cost other than the royalties we pay the licensor,” Marion claims. If he succeeds, it will be a triple play!

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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