Introducing crypto and blockchain into football isn’t easier than scoring a back-post tap-in: “We had to educate a lot, explain how it worked and why it was interesting for them.”
The Beautiful Game. Soccer, or football, as those living in the “old world” tend to call it. It’s a sport that has many names, a sport that commands a support base of some 4 billion people.
The power of football is undeniable. Its best players, the Ronaldos and the Messis, are some of the most recognizable people on the planet. Its biggest teams have millions of fans scattered across the world and broadcasters reach more than half of the people on the planet. The European football industry alone turned over 25 billion euros in revenue in 2020, according to Deloitte, an indicator of the value in the biggest theater for the sport.
The popularity of football is due in large part to its simplicity as a game, and this has inevitably led to the biggest leagues and competitions attracting massive audiences and generating plenty of revenue for all involved. Whether it’s through team sponsorships or marketing on broadcasts and advertising space, the sheer size of its viewership makes football a prime way for brands and businesses of all kinds to reach a lot of consumers.
While the cryptocurrency and blockchain space is still in its infancy, it’s a burgeoning industry that is quickly redefining finance and remittance, individual sovereignty of wealth, and a host of other use cases. A number of different firms and organizations have taken the world of crypto into the football arena in different ways, but they’ve quickly made moves to be associated with some of the biggest players, teams and competitions as a result.
Here’s exactly how cryptocurrencies have been introduced to global football audiences and blockchain technology applied to some of the industry’s most popular applications.
Tapping into a huge audience
Football is the most-watched sport in the world, captivating the minds of billions throughout its history. This audience is made up of fans of all types, from fanatics to casual viewers and impartials.
The love of the game has fostered an environment that goes far beyond what is happening on the television screens, from the physical world of merchandise and memorabilia to the digital world of predictions games, fantasy sports and betting. Both areas are prime candidates that can be improved by the different use cases blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies offer.
One such company that hopes to disrupt the game is Skrill, a global payments firm that has had a long relationship with European football. As Rupinder Singh, senior vice president of consumer and digital wallets divisions at Skrill, tells Magazine, the company’s history of football sponsorship goes as far back as 2013 in the United Kingdom’s Football Conference league, while its parent company Paysafe’s other digital wallet, Neteller, became a sponsor of Premier League outfit Crystal Palace at the same time.
Part of Skrill’s payments bouquet is a cryptocurrency wallet that allows users to store and manage a selection of tokens. The company’s footprint in European football has grown significantly since its humble beginnings sponsoring third-tier football eight years ago.
In March 2021, Skrill signed as an official partner of U.K. Premier League team Leeds United, its latest big-name sponsorship deal in recent years. It had already partnered with Italian Serie A giants A.C. Milan last year. It also has a foothold in the United States as a front-of-jersey sponsor of Los Angeles-based club LA 10 FC, which plays in the growing United Premier Soccer League.
From the outside looking in, one might wonder how cryptocurrency and blockchain firms can synergize with the football industry. History provides an answer, as marketing through advertising channels in the football industry has been tried and tested by various brands for decades.
Singh believes that “the football audience is one of the most digitally adept audiences in the way they consume content, interact with their clubs or each other within online communities and entertain themselves through sports gambling or fantasy sports.” According to him, the jump to cryptocurrencies is a natural extension for such a group of potential customers. Singh also thinks many more firms from the crypto space could benefit from becoming involved in the football ecosystem:
“Football will likely always be of interest to crypto companies as long as they continue to see the behaviors of their customers mirror those of football fans, plus the obvious reach and impact that the sport has in every market across the world.”
Crypto.com is another cryptocurrency firm that is popping up on advertising boards in arenas and stadiums across the world. A partnership with the Italian Serie A has seen Crypto.com’s branding feature on pitchside advertising. As Crypto.com chief marketing officer Steven Kalifowitz tells Cointelegraph, a decision to begin advertising in the football space was made at the end of 2020, and there’s been no delay in making this happen.
French football giant Paris Saint-Germain F.C. also welcomed the company as its “Official Cryptocurrency Platform Partner” in 2021. Part of the deal would see PSG release exclusive nonfungible tokens and pay a “significant” portion of the sponsorship fee in its native Crypto.com Coin.
Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s premier football clubs, has also partnered with a cryptocurrency firm. Growing crypto derivatives exchange Bybit secured a sponsorship deal that was unveiled late in 2020, which was touted to help grow Dortmund’s brand in Asia.
Cryptocurrency exchange BitMEX has its logo emblazoned on the left sleeve of A.C. Milan’s men’s, women’s and esports team jerseys after it signed a deal to become the Italian club’s official cryptocurrency trading partner.
Bringing digital scarcity to big brands
No other space has taken to the NFT craze like sports have. You need not look further than the NBA Top Shot ecosystem to see the perfect synergy among blockchain-based NFTs, tokens and sports fans.
Memorabilia, collectibles, prized signatures, and player and team cards have been popular for decades, with fanatics taking great joy out of showcasing their prized, rare possessions. The advent of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies has facilitated the digital evolution of nonfungibility, where sports stars, teams and brands can create one-of-a-kind digital collectibles that are verifiable. They’ve proved to be massively popular — and this has spilled into the football space in a big way.
In 2018, Nicolas Julia and his co-founder Adrien Montfort launched Sorare, an Ethereum-powered marketplace that facilitates the minting and trading of various NFTs and tokens, and aimed their sights at the football space. Julia tells Magazine that more can be done with blockchain than just collecting cards:
“As two huge football fans, we decided to create scarce digital cards mixed with one of the most coveted intellectual property in the world, football players. Now we had scarce and branded digital collectibles. But since these collectibles are digital, we can give them utility. We’ve made this new class of collectibles usable in a compelling fantasy game.”
The platform is hugely popular among football fans in Europe and around the globe. It has facilitated over $170 million of trade volume since January 2021, and Julia expects to see this nearly double by the end of the year. It sounds ambitious, but it’s understandable when looking at the caliber of clubs and players associated with the platform.
Barcelona and Spain stalwart Gerard Piqué is a prime example of a player who has taken to cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. The footballer founded media and entertainment firm Kosmos, which is exploring blockchain solutions to leverage teams’ and brands’ commercial potential. He’s also been pivotal in Sorare’s growth according to Julia, “Gerard Piqué was one of the first to realize the huge potential of our new game, thanks to NFT. Becoming an investor, he helped us to improve the gameplay and open doors in the football ecosystem.”
While the platform’s aspirations are evident, Sorare’s current state requires serious groundwork considering the novelty of blockchain technology and NFTs. With foundations laid with some initial clubs, the growth snowballed, as Julia explains:
“As Sorare is a new game, leveraging a new technology such as the ERC-721, we had to educate a lot, explain how it worked, and why it was interesting for them. But now, with more than 180+ partnering clubs, we’ve built trust and credibility amongst different sports organizations.”
The Sorare CEO agreed that partnerships with the biggest clubs have been crucial in reaching more fans and boosting the credibility of the platform.
Skrill’s Singh chimed in on the NFT topic, highlighting the “inevitable” digitization of football collectibles in light of the success of NBA Top Shot. To him, the technology allows fans to verify scarcity of the assets they own and engage on a secondary market in order to trade with other fans, all across the globe: “Fintech startups have made interacting directly with the club even easier for fans by introducing ‘fan tokens’ issued on the blockchain.”
Socios is the other major player in the world of European football NFTs, digital trading cards and collectibles. Singh highlights a concrete use case of fan tokens by top European clubs, such as Barcelona, Juventus and A.C. Milan, using the Socios blockchain to issue respective fan tokens. The tokens allow fans to vote on club decisions such as kit changes, access exclusive content and involvement in other community activities.
Don’t like the newly proposed yellow away jersey for next season? Vote for the light blue option with your Barcelona tokens. It’s all recorded on a blockchain, creating a transparent, immutable ecosystem for fan participation and input. Want to pick your favorite song to play after Paulo Dybala scores a screamer on a derby day? Load up the app, get some coins, and have at it.
Socios CEO Alexandre Dreyfus weighed in on his firm’s journey in correspondence with Magazine, highlighting his desire to create an ecosystem that gives fans around the world unique experiences and influence on their favorite teams while helping drive a digital economy: “Around 99% of the fans of the biggest teams in the world have never set foot inside the stadium of the teams they love.”
Ultimately, for Dreyfus, it’s about “bringing these fans closer to their teams while also allowing the football clubs to create a new revenue stream through global fan engagement.” Blockchain technology powers both Sorare and Socios, and Dreyfus hammers home the importance and utility of the technology in allowing the ecosystem to function like it does:
“Blockchain technology also protects the integrity of fan voting on the app, as the results are transparent and immutable. Also, the ability to create a finite amount of these assets, which can be owned and held by fans, is important. It gives fans a sense of ownership over their teams they’ve never had before.”
Football is driving crypto adoption
Football has begun to drive the adoption and use of cryptocurrencies and digital assets through the influence of direct marketing and the exposure of users to blockchain-powered platforms.
There’s divided opinion over what drives more value and understanding between the two scenarios. All those who shared their views with Magazine offered tangible reasons as to why their partnerships with football teams, brands and organizations have proven to be fruitful.
For Sorare’s Julia, that comes down to marrying the technology with an easy-to-use, working solution: “The key is to give concrete usage of the new technologies. Sorare brings benefits for the football fans without complexities. We remove all the friction so people can engage with it.”
Skrill’s Singh advocates for the mutual benefits the football industry could share with cryptocurrency exchanges and service providers. Once again, providing a solution that is of interest and value to a growing portion of the global football viewership has been part of the fractious relationship between the two sectors:
“As the most popular sport in the world, football will continue to be the first option for new industries who are trying to grow in influence, but there have been plenty that have not been successful because they don’t have the correct synergy with the sport or the audience.”
Socios’ Dreyfus believes that the world of blockchain-based NFTs, collectibles and fantasy games has found a natural home in the football space. He suggests this symbiotic environment could be more impactful than advertising and sponsorships being used by cryptocurrency exchanges, service providers and businesses:
“It was always inevitable that as the blockchain/crypto space grew more and more, companies would seek partnerships with football teams in order to build awareness. The difference is that we have a product that has been specifically created for football and sports fans in general. We belong in that space much more than exchanges or other blockchain-related projects.”
These companies are deriving and providing value to and from the football industry in different ways, but the combined efforts have made the most out of the possibilities afforded relationships. Whichever way you look at it, more people around the world are being exposed to the cryptocurrency space when watching football.
The breakaway moment
While the cryptocurrency ecosystem has leveraged the massive reach of the football industry in different ways, there is still a long road ahead for the integration of the two sectors. Despite the fact that various cryptocurrency platforms are advertising on the biggest stage, the cryptocurrency space is still in a nascent state.
Many users are still learning the basics of cryptocurrencies and NFTs, and this will continue to be a barrier to entry until more people are educated on the ins and outs of the space. Liquidity in NFT markets and volatility in the value of various fan tokens are other teething problems that are slowly improving as the space grows.
The involvement of the cryptocurrency industry in the football space will inevitably be responsible for introducing new users to the utility of cryptocurrencies and blockchain-powered platforms. Over time, the synergy between the sectors will address these issues as more users enter the space through an introduction from watching football.