Cryptocurrencies and the exchanges they trade on have been a runaway gravy train in sports in the past year, with athletes hawking them in ads, teams entering partnerships, arenas inking naming rights deals and even umpires wearing logos.
But as evidenced by last week’s crypto crash, there’s a risk when investing in unregulated assets. So should famous athletes, teams and leagues be encouraging fans to buy in?
Arthur Solomon, a former executive at global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, termed crypto endorsements by teams, leagues and athletes a “disservice” because it’s unregulated investment advice. “There are professional investment advisers who are regulated by the government to give financial advice, and I believe that the FTC and other government agencies should not permit someone, just because he can hit a home run or throw a touchdown pass, to give financial advice on public airwaves,” he said.
As for leagues and teams, Solomon is even more critical, calling them “shameless” and lumping crypto into the same category as beer and liquor and gambling commercials viewed by kids and vulnerable adults during games.
The concern critics have is not that teams and leagues will see sponsorships collapse but that the sports entities are encouraging fans to invest in a risky, unregulated market. Sports cultural commentator Bomani Jones dedicated a whole section of his HBO show to the space, which he described as a “con.”
“People call it currency, but that is just a word they use to keep the fans off the scent,” Jones said.
But not everyone sees an issue with the promotion of crypto in sports. Many athletes and teams got into crypto because it’s advertised as the future of money. It is viewed as the cool thing, with Tom Brady backing crypto exchange FTX in funny commercials and Steph Curry and Trevor Lawrence also backers, while Joe Burrow hypes Bitcoin.
“It’s new and exciting,” said Doug Shabelman, CEO of Burns Sports & Entertainment, an agency that specializes in celebrity endorsement. “So why shouldn’t these guys want to go out and do it? You know, it’s something different than the usual, and there’s money.”
Crypto enthusiast Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, doesn’t see an issue.
“Look at the stock market,” Cuban wrote in an email. “Facebook, Amazon and Apple have lost more in market cap than the entire crypto market. A ton of tech companies have lost 80 percent or more of their value. I don’t see anyone questioning sponsorships by those companies.”
The difference is those companies advertise to get consumers to buy or use their products, the same way potato chip brands or restaurant chains might. If their stock falls and the sponsorship goes away, it does not affect the fan who bought the underlying product.
Crypto sponsorships and endorsements are different in that they are seeking fans to put their money at risk. Still, Cuban writes, “Their values go up and down depending on how they perform and how much risk investors want to take. In fact, the Nasdaq and crypto markets are pretty highly correlated. They tend to go up and down together.”
While that may or may not be true, there is a risk to sports entities by closely aligning with volatile assets. Last week, the Washington Nationals, who have a $38 million sponsorship with cryptocurrency Terra, tweeted a hype video for the investment as the coin crashed. The team and Major League Baseball declined to comment.
The crypto crash, which at one point wiped out roughly $1 trillion of value, brought tales of investors losing their life savings. The crypto markets have stabilized somewhat this week, but the threat of wild volatility remains.
“Will they be a reputational black eye?” connected sports consultant Marc Ganis asked of crypto. “This is where the teams need to balance money with risk — reputational risk. The reality is that when a team signs a major sponsor or when a league signs a major sponsorship deal, there is an expectation that that is a first-tier company. And so it gets some of the credibility, some of the aura of the credibility that the league or the team has. And that gets conveyed on to the sponsor.”
Clearly, there have not been such worries, evidenced by numerous sponsorships, including Crypto.com’s 20-year, $700 million naming rights for the former Staples Center and FTX’s $135 million deal to name the Miami Heat arena. FTX even has a patch deal for MLB umpire uniforms. There were so many crypto ads during the Super Bowl, which sold on average for over $6 million per 30-second spot, that some dubbed the game the Cryptobowl.
But while crypto is billed as the future of money, the category is more akin to an investment than a currency, though it is used in some transactions and a handful of athletes have famously converted their salaries into crypto. But even FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried said recently that Bitcoin, the most popular crypto payment, has no future as a currency because the technological system could not handle it.
And former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told CNBC this week: “Bitcoin and other currencies, cryptocurrencies whose value changes minute to minute, they’ve been successful as a speculative asset. And people are seeing the downside of that right now. But they were intended to be a substitute for fiat money. And I think, in that respect, they have not succeeded. Because if bitcoin were a substitute for fiat money, you could use bitcoin to go buy your groceries. Nobody buys groceries with bitcoin because it’s too expensive and too inconvenient to do that.
“So I don’t think that bitcoin is going to take over as an alternative form of money. It’ll be around as long as people are believers and they want to speculate.”
So if it’s a speculative asset, should sports teams, leagues and players be pumping it up? Other corners of finance, from derivatives to mortgage-backed securities, which sparked the 2008 financial crisis, don’t have their own sports cheering section.
The NFL, which only in March allowed team sponsorship of crypto exchanges but not currencies, says it views crypto in the larger perspective of blockchain, the decentralized digital technology that underpins crypto. On blockchain, non-fungible tokens, which are digital pictures and highlights, have traded for millions of dollars, though the market has cooled.
“It is a space we want to be thoughtful and careful,” said Joe Ruggiero, the NFL’s senior vice president of consumer products. But the league has “interest in getting into the space because it is a way to engage with fans in an interesting way,” he added, citing digital commemorative ticket stubs.
The NBA allows for deals in the cryptocurrency space, including crypto exchanges, but does not allow for the promotion of specific cryptocurrencies. The league advises its teams to vet potential partners before entering into any promotional or other arrangements. These basic rules are for the WNBA as well.
Major League Soccer, which has a younger demographic and is less financially robust than its four legacy peer leagues, has been wading into the crypto space, which also includes blockchain, NFTs and exchanges. In a bid to appeal to its younger, tech-savvy fan base, the league and its teams have struck several deals, including D.C. United’s three-year, $18 million jersey sponsorship signed in February with blockchain tech firm XDC Network.
In March, Nashville FC announced its sponsorship deal with digital assets management firm Valkyrie Investments would be paid in bitcoin, the first MLS team to take crypto instead of U.S. dollars for a partnership. Inter Miami and the New England Revolution also have struck crypto-related partnerships.
MLS declined to comment
Defenders of sports engagement with crypto point to a difference between backing a specific coin versus the exchanges like FTX and crypto.com that have spent vast sums thus far. Coinbase signed a deal in October to become the official cryptocurrency exchange of the NBA, WNBA and G League.
And Cuban wrote in an email, “Unless a team has Terra as a sponsor, it’s a non-event.” Terra is the crypto the Nats promote and which crashed dramatically last week.
Comparisons are also made with the dot-com bubble burst of the early 2000s. In the lead-up to it, internet companies like CMGI and PSINet and retailers such as pets.com spent heavily on sports, only to disappear and in some cases default on sponsorship payments. Many of the crypto exchanges are well financed, so their deals for naming rights to arenas and other deals for the time being look safe.
The concern critics have, however, is not that teams and leagues will see sponsorships collapse but that the sports entities are encouraging fans to invest in a risky, unregulated market.
David Carter, a sports marketing consultant and associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, said younger sports fans might view crypto simply as part of their lives now and don’t treat it with the same risk-aversion and uncertainty as older people.
“A lot of it has to do with the consumer they’re trying to reach,” Carter said. “A team, league or sports property, you understand that and you’re taking a measured risk. One person’s sin category is another person’s compelling revenue stream.”
Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing expert and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said crypto won’t be the last risky category to use sports to promote itself.
“After fledgling tech firms, subprime mortgage companies and cryptocurrency, I’m certain there will be another emerging, new industry that will utilize sports sponsorship to prop itself up,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of built to do that. Sometimes it works, and oftentimes it doesn’t.”
(Top photo of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones presenting Blockchain.com CEO Peter Smith with a jersey after announcing a partnership: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)