The collectors market is red-hot.
August 11, 2020 by Charlie Eisenhood in Profile with comments
Six years ago, Nate Sexton decided to go for it.
He quit his part-time job and emailed his sponsor, Innova, and said he was going to play 30 tournaments in the 2014 season and commit to full-time disc golf. “I want to make the Star Team,” he told them.
To that point, he’d dominated the local Oregon scene and thoroughly established himself as one of the best players in the world, but he’d dialed back his participation in recent years, dropping from playing 19 tournaments in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and then 11 in 2013. With his wife entering medical school and a move to North Carolina in the works, he decided to ramp things up.
Little did he know that it would be the start of a massive career shift.
He played well in 2014, finishing 15th at Worlds and 5th at USDGC, and accomplished his goal of getting bumped up to Innova’s Star Team, the company’s highest support tier for their sponsored athletes.
That promotion meant that Sexton got to choose a signature Tour Series disc. Since 2005, he’d been bagging KC 11x glow Firebirds, but the new run of 12x Firebirds were very overstable, too much so even for a powerful forehand thrower like Sexton.
“I’m looking for an every day fairway driver with reliable fade but that’s not going to break your arm off,” he told Innova, and asked for his signature disc to be a Firebird in their new color glow plastic with “a little bit of dome, a little bit of flex,” more in the style of the 11x.
Thus was born the Sexton Firebird, a disc that has taken on a life of its own and transformed Nate’s career.
Sexton loved the disc right away – “It’s without a doubt my favorite disc I’ve ever thrown,” he says – but nobody, even Nate, could have foreseen its explosion in popularity, to the point where particular rare and prized versions of the disc have sold at auction for over $1000. An over 2000 person Facebook group for Nate Sexton collectors is thriving – as are the prices for Sexton Firebirds.
Keith Steinmeyer is an avid Sexton Firebird collector: he’s got nearly 100 of them. He says that the discs are made to be collectable. “I geek out about it just like I did with basketball cards when I was a kid,” he said.
But what exactly has made them such a phenomenon? It’s not a putter. It’s not a distance driver. It’s a very specific mold that was truly designed to be maximally useful for Nate Sexton and his forehand. It’s not a beginner’s disc.
“If you had to pick a super popular mold, would you just off the cuff pick the Firebird?” asked Innova Marketing Director Jeff Panis. “No, you wouldn’t!”
“I can’t point to one specific thing that makes the magic of the Firebird, and specifically the Sexton Firebird, so big,” he said.
The Rise of Nate Sexton
Following his 2014 season and promotion to the Star Team, Sexton got a message. It was from world #1 and three-time defending world champion Paul McBeth, telling him about the brand new RV he had just bought and did he want to come on tour with him?
“We were friends but I didn’t have his phone number or anything,” said Sexton. Innova suggested that the two go on tour together, though, so they gave it a shot.
Sexton started getting more press, including an Ultiworld Disc Golf profile of him that April. That fall, an even bigger break: his first appearance as a commentator on the Jomez Pro YouTube channel, covering the second round of the Hall of Fame Classic.
The goofy intro didn’t hide his natural broadcasting talent for long: he got more and more commentary duties before joining up with Jeremy “Big Jerm” Koling to form the “Big Sexy” duo in April 2017, which catapulted him into stardom as a personality, not just a disc golfer.
“The fact that people feel like they get to know me through my commentary is immensely helpful,” said Sexton, who has also been a frequent presence on Central Coast Disc Golf’s channel as a commentator and player, doing things like the Starter Pack Challenge and Champs v. Chumps.
“I think that stuff is vital to building your brand, especially if you’re not McBething it, winning every tournament around the world,” he said.
And perhaps that’s where we start to see why the Sexton Firebird has blown up. Nate is both an elite disc golfer (a prerequisite) and an approachable, friendly guy. His sharp wit crackles in the commentary booth, and it makes him feel like a friend.
“He’s both an enigma and not so much of an enigma,” said Panis. “He’s a professional that brings talent, humility, and engagement: he is obviously a fan favorite. He also came up together with Paul McBeth and was able to understand, through the lens of coming up with Paul, some of the things that it took to carry influence in disc golf. He knows how to do it his own way. And I think that the Firebird and Nate succeed in tandem.”
And you hear a lot about wanting to support Nate from big Firebird collectors. “Nate’s an awesome dude,” said Steinmeyer. “He’s stayed with the same company. He’s consistent. He’s got a great personality.”
Ryan Griffin is one of the administrators of the Sexton Collectors Facebook group and is widely known to have one of the most valuable collections of Sexton Firebirds on the planet. Among his collection of hundreds are over 50 of the 2015 models, the first run of the disc (and the most valuable).
A friend gave him a pair of 2015 rainbow stamped Sexton Firebirds five years ago. “I love the way it threw, I loved the way it felt,” said Griffin. “The small give to it. It handles torque very well. It handles power very well. I didn’t even know who Nate Sexton was before I got his disc.”
“Since then, I have become a Sexton fan due to the way Nate Sexton conducts himself,” he added. “His professionalism. The way he gives time to his fans. His commentary. How down to earth he is.”
The Rise of the Sexton Firebird
It’s not that there’s just a robust collectors market for the Sexton Firebird, a devoted group of intense fans. The disc is incredibly popular, one of the great success stories of the Tour Series model, where sales directly support sponsored players.
“Nate helped bring more awareness to Tour Series in general,” said Panis. “Tour Series really started to evolve as Nate’s Firebird came on the market.”
Sales of the Sexton Firebird now make up over 50% of Sexton’s disc golf related income. “I was cashing the checks, and as the royalty checks were coming in, it was like, ‘Wow,’” he said.
“It doesn’t make sense that a beginner would have a Firebird in their bag,” said Panis. “But I’ve sort of thought about it a bit deeper. And the Firebird might just be one of the best all-around utility discs that exists in disc golf.”
For beginners, it can serve as a reliably overstable disc for a tight corner. For intermediate players, it’s a disc that can help them learn to develop a forehand. And for pros, it’s a go-to for forehands and headwinds.
It’s also extremely durable. “I have still yet to see anyone report a broken or cracked Sexton Firebird,” said Griffin.1
Sexton estimates that there could be over 100,000 Sexton Firebirds flying around courses. “He stretches into audiences and places that even Innova hasn’t even tapped into,” said Panis. “People probably discover Innova through the Sexton Firebird.”
That success – and of course his 2017 USDGC victory – has translated into Sexton getting a substantial contract with Innova through 2021 that he signed after the 2018 season. Neither Sexton nor Innova would reveal the details of the arrangement, but it’s said to be one of the largest guaranteed deals in the sport.
“It’s so cool to see on Instagram getting aces and getting excited about throwing the Firebird,” said Sexton. “I can’t thank all the fans and people supporting me enough. It’s been a life-changing thing.”
The Future of the Sexton Firebird
There’s no sign of the market slowing down for the Sexton Firebird. At the Las Vegas Challenge, Innova released a very limited run of 2020 LVC Sexton Firebirds.
Ola Kolle, a collector from Norway, was the first in line at 7:30 AM waiting for the shop to open at 9. He came to the US to play in both LVC and the Memorial, and he was thrilled to get the chance to get his hands on some rare Sexton Firebirds during the trip.
“I have been collecting for a couple of years, and my goal has been to get one of every foil,” he said.
He bought a batch of the 2020 LVC Sexton Firebirds for $20 a pop. Now, they sell on the secondary market for over $800.
“I have in my period as a collector only sold one Sexton,” said Kolle. “It was one of the LVCs, and that disc alone funded my whole trip (plane and rental car) from Norway to California.” (There’s a joke inside the collector community about the LVCs that Steinmeyer described: “Does anyone actually know how they fly?” Nobody is throwing them for fear of reducing their value!)
Could we be seeing the peak of a bubble? For now, demand continues to outstrip supply, even as far more discs have been produced in the last two years. Even 2020 Sexton Firebirds are selling above retail price on eBay. And the strong collector community has made the market for rare versions ever stronger.
“We have spent a lot of money selecting these Firebirds, aggressively,” said Griffin. “From the very, very beginning. You’ll see the six or seven of us [Facebook page administrators], typically, at the forefront of a lot of the auctions. The administrators have done a great service to Nate Sexton in increasing the value of his Tour Series discs.”
And don’t underestimate how much of the disc’s success is due to buyers looking to support Nate in his career.
“If I was gonna be a pro disc golfer, I’d be Nate Sexton,” said Steinmeyer. “He’s married; I recently got married. He’s a great advocate for the game. He’s an easy guy to root for.”