Sports as an industry has realised the potential that cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies can bring to further monetise fan engagement, attract sponsors and engage a global market in ways that were unimaginable decades ago. Passionate fans, each a citizen of digital technology, consume sports and related content beyond the actual duration of a match. Teams, clubs and sporting bodies are innovating to survive in the new digital age and meet fan expectations.
With the limitations brought upon the industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sports industry has responded and devised new strategies to ensure clubs and fans remain connected in a socially distanced world. The industry has recognised that blockchain is capable of revolutionising revenue streams and the fan experience through increased crypto-sponsorships, fan tokens, non-fungible tokens (“NFTs”) or even by entrance of blockchain providers into the market.
Partnerships and Sponsorships
Sponsorships have led to an increased awareness of cryptocurrencies amongst viewers and investors, at a time when crypto’s prevalence in the media and in everyday life is
also on the rise. The list below provides some notable examples of sports teams expanding their advertising budgets to partner with new and upcoming crypto-currency exchange platforms, in order to gain further brand recognition:
- The sponsorship deal signed in December 2014 between US-bitcoin payment processor BitPay and ESPN Events was one of the first recorded cryptocurrency marketing initiatives. BitPay also sponsored the St. Petersburg Bowl, an annual post-season football game for colleges in the US, in order to promote Bitcoin.
- By 2018, crypto-sponsorships took off with CashBet Coin’s engagement with Arsenal Football Club as the club’s exclusive and official blockchain partner. The deal was designed to promote the launch of the CashBet coin, a cryptocurrency specifically designed for use on CashBet’s online gambling platforms.
- Litecoin became the official cryptocurrency partner of UFC 232 in 2018, sponsoring the Light Heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. The event led to a spike in interest for the coin with Litecoin UFC receiving more than 40 million Twitter impressions to an audience of over 16 million users worldwide.
- With the aim of promoting its crypto-trading service, eToro partnered with several Premier League teams – paid for entirely with Bitcoin. By September 2020, the platform became one of Europe’s biggest football sponsors of clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur FC, Brighton & Hove Albion FC, Cardiff City FC, Crystal Palace FC, Leicester City FC, Newcastle United FC and Southampton FC. eToro suggests that cryptocurrency can be used to authenticate merchandise, reduce ticket touting and for player transfers.
- More recently, in March 2021, Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One became the first Formula One team to partner with a cryptocurrency firm. Crypto.com is a platform with over ten million active users and will no doubt gain greater brand exposure on Aston Martin F1 cars in competitions worldwide.
Use of Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Technology in sport
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are also being incorporated and accepted as methods of payment. Cryptocurrencies have been used to allow fans to purchase tickets and merchandise and for clubs to pay players’ salaries and transfer fees. Sports clubs and organisations have also benefitted from blockchain technologies by implementing more secure and transparent ticket exchange markets. For example:
- In early 2018, Harunustaspor, a Turkish football club, became the world’s first football team to purchase a player using Bitcoin. The player, Omar Faruk Kiroglu (22 years old), received 0.0524 in Bitcoin (£385) and ₺2,500 (£470) as part of the deal with Harunustaspor.
- International payment services companies, such as Wirex and Epayments, offered fans the ability to purchase tickets for the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Bitcoin, Litecoin and Ethereum. In addition, Kaliningrad hotel chain Apartments Malina announced that customers were able to book and pay for accommodation using Bitcoin.
- In July 2018, Gibraltar United Football Club partially paid its players’ salaries in cryptocurrency after closing a partnership deal with cryptocurrency platform Quantocoin. Quantocoin also owns 25% of the Italian Serie C football club Rimini FC 1912, which became the first football club to be purchased by a cryptocurrency firm. The initiative followed new regulations established at the time by the government of Gibraltar, allowing businesses to engage in Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs).
- Last year, TIXnGO partnered with Lancashire Cricket to provide a new blockchain mobile tickets platform. Working with SecuTix (a ticketing system provider), the deal activated secure mobile tickets for all domestic and international fixtures at Emirates Old Trafford in 2020. The aim was to create a unique encrypted ticket for smartphones that is traceable and removed the risk of counterfeit tickets, simplifying the process of transferring or reselling tickets for the end-customer.
Fan Tokens and Crypto-assets
One of the most exciting innovations evolved at the intersection between sports and technology with the emergence of fan engagement tokens. A fan engagement token is a “fully fungible digital” utility token that gives fans access and influence over certain decisions made by their favourite sports team. The tokens provide its owner the right to vote on club matters such as kit designs, training ground names or picking charity initiatives. It is similar to a membership card providing fans with exclusive rewards, including special VIP access and treatment to a variety of events. Socios, one such platform, describes the concept as follows:
“And this is the point. Through Socios.com, we are tokenizing this emotional connection and a fan’s influence over their club. Ownership of Fan Tokens does not represent equity or shares in football clubs, and equally should not necessarily be viewed as an investment plan, but ownership does offer an entirely new way for fans to engage with their club or clubs. Moreover, ownership offers a place for a fan’s voice to be heard, and a place where their passion will be rewarded. Ultimately, owning Fan Tokens gives fans far more interaction, a greater voice, as well as more power and influence over the clubs they love, than being just being a shareholder.”
This can be distinguished from other arrangements, such as “United Managers”, which attempted to give fans the opportunity to vote on a team’s tactics in games and was shut down by the French Football Federation (“FFF”) in 2019. Any arrangement that gives fans or other third parties direct influence over clubs’ operations, policies or performances would be contrary to FIFA’s (and other domestic associations’) third party ownership (“TPO”) regulations.
Chiliz ($CHZ), the cryptocurrency and Socios platform, offers fan engagement tokens focused on sports and e-sports. Socios gives fans the ability to vote on decisions such as whom the football club plays during “friendlies”. The voting power on the Socios platform does not extend to institutional or corporate governance decisions which, again, could have TPO implications.
Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus became the first two major football clubs to partner with Socios.com. The fan tokens $PSG and $JUV are listed on the world’s leading exchanges Binance, Paribu and Upbit. Many more leading sporting organisations have partnered with Chiliz to date, including FC Barcelona, Atlético de Madrid, AS Roma and Istanbul Başakşehir, as well as e-sports organisations such as Heretics, NAVI, Alliance and OG. Chiliz has also entered into agreements with the UFC and MMA.
Fan tokens are created and distributed amongst fans through a Fan Token Offering (FTO) (similar to the concept of an ICO). Unlike an Initial Public Offering (IPO), fan tokens do not represent ownership in the equity of shares in any sporting club – but the venture is still extremely profitable. For example, FC Barcelona ($BAR) generated US$1.3 million in less than two hours after going on sale on the Chiliz Exchange. $BAR fan tokens were sold in 106 different countries.
Sports and Crypto-collectibles
Another “crypto” spin-off gaining momentum in sports is the NFT. NFTs represent a wide range of unique tangible and intangible items stored in digital wallets, from collectible sports cards to virtual real estate and even digital sneakers. An NFT is not interchangeable. Each NFT represents a unique digital item. The market for trading cards and collectibles is a multi-million dollar industry; enabling fans to immortalise sporting moments in pictures and in other various mediums. NFTs also contain distinguishing information that is unique and easily verifiable on the blockchain network – each accruing value as each specific NFT cannot be replicated. Examples include:
- NBA’s Top Shot, which provides a collection NBA-licensed digital items. It is a blockchain-based trading card system that has generated more than US$230 million in gross sales. The service lets users buy and sell short clips showing match highlights from top basketball players. Each user is the owner of a unique highlight reel, which is unique because of its specific serial number (i.e. there are 20,000 copies of a highlight reel and Joe Bloggs owns number 14,210 of that highlight reel).
- FC Bayern Munich reported partnership with Ethereum blockchain-based fantasy football game Sorare. Sorare was previously covered by Sport Shorts when it partnered with the Belgian First Division in 2019. The platform allows gamers to buy and sell digital limited-edition football cards and collectors can trade player cards, build teams and earn rewards based on real performances.
Despite the explosion of interest in digital currency, sporting clubs should remain conscious of the risks that this new technology brings. The value of crypto-assets continues to be volatile and despite the phenomenal growth, the legal and regulatory landscape is still uncertain. The lack of stability in this area will require sports businesses to adopt arrangements that hedge a contingency to save money in the event that valuations fluctuate. However, the rise of crypto-assets grants opportunity and excitement for the sporting world.