This week on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, I hosted a crypto panel with Christine Moy, the new head of digital assets at Apollo (she left JPMorgan in February), Dapper Labs CEO Roham Gharegozlou, Sorare CEO Nicolas Julia, and the red-hot NFT artist Emily Yang aka pplpleasr. I host panels at conferences all the time, but this event was a little different: the attendees included the biggest power brokers in sports and finance. It was the inaugural year of a new leadership summit hosted by Bruin Capital and Sportico; they’re aiming for the event to become the Sun Valley or Davos of sports business. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and more than a dozen team owners were there.
What a week to talk crypto to non-crypto folks. Coin prices had tanked catastrophically just a few days earlier, and were continuing to slide. So you might think the reception would be rather chilly.
It wasn’t. The most powerful people in the sports industry are crypto-curious, and recognize that crypto and NFTs matter to their business, even after a brutal market crash that prompted sneering headlines from all manner of mainstream web sites. (“The Crypto Crash Feels Amazing,” The Atlanticlaughed; “The Great Crypto Grift May Be Unwinding,” The New Yorkerdeclared.) I’d describe the general reception this audience had to 50 minutes of crypto talk as: eager to learn more, and learn it quickly. I even saw a couple NFL team owners taking notes. The founder of racing series Formula E asked an incisive question about Ethereum gas fees.
Dapper’s NBA Top Shot platform ignited the current NFT boom last year, and now Dapper has built one for the NFL. Sorare, the Ethereum-based NFT fantasy sports game that made its name in soccer, just partnered with MLB. The NBA Playoffs are underway, and you can’t watch the games without noticing Coinbase’s name on all the hoops or FTX’s name on the Miami Heat’s home floor. Pro athletes and college athletes alike have embraced NFTs, to the point where, Gharegozlou remarked on our panel, players in the locker room “used to talk about their chains and cars, now they talk about their NFTs.”
All of this is clearly going to continue, despite the obvious fact that the crash of the past two weeks has deepened the mainstream backlash to crypto sponsorships and celebrity endorsements. Both the Washington Nationals and the WNBA discovered that this week, as their announcements of crypto sponsorships were roasted by many fans who understandably can’t get very excited right now about an asset class that is spiraling in value. (Not that tech stocks have fared much better recently.) And the heat is returning on celebrities and athletes who have done crypto ads, from Matt Damon’s infamous “fortune favors the brave” Super Bowl spot to Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen (FTX), Steph Curry (FTX), Joel Embiid (Crypto.com), Spike Lee (Coin Cloud), and Larry David (FTX).
But the backlash will only last until Web3 proves its value on a mainstream stage, something it’s on the cusp of doing thanks to the myriad applications being built using tokenization. NFTs with utility are on the rise, and a Crypto Winter will shake out short-term speculators and overvalued playthings. Sports is one of the industries embracing Web3 the fastest; don’t expect that trend to grind to a halt.