The NFL & the future of NFTs.

On the field in the National Football League (NFL), Tom Brady’s influence still shows no sign of waning.

He continues to set new standards at the age of 44. On 4th October he became the most prolific passer in league history, breaking Drew Brees’ 80,358-yard record as he led his Tampa Bay Buccaneers – the current Super Bowl champions – to a 19-17 victory over his former team, the New England Patriots, and his former coach, Bill Belichick. That the achievement came at Gillette Stadium, which he graced for so many years to such acclaim, only served to reinforce his status within the sport.

Brady remains by far the biggest star in the NFL. Whether that means he is bigger than the NFL is another question but one ongoing project does reflect the teetering balance of commercial power between athletes and leagues.

Ushering in a new form of fan engagement

Earlier this year, Brady backed Autograph, a platform giving elite athletes the chance to create and market non-fungible tokens, or NFTs – unique, blockchain-enabled digital products whose ownership can be retained and traded using the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Stars like Naomi Osaka, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles have joined an exclusive club selling collectible images and video clips that digitise the experience of owning sought-after memorabilia.

“We created Autograph as a way for fans and collectors to own a piece of iconic moments in sports and entertainment through authenticated and official digital collectibles, and we are just getting started,” Brady said when the service launched in August.

Autograph’s advisory team includes executives from daily fantasy and betting company DraftKings, music streaming service Spotify and movie studio Lionsgate. The scheme gives those athletes a foothold in a rapidly emerging, still unshaped sector. In other words, it gives them a chance to take control of the untapped value that their profile and memories create.

A worldwide phenomenon

The NFL itself, meanwhile, has sought to manage and streamline its sport’s relationship with NFTs. Earlier this year it issued an edict to its member clubs – albeit not its players – asking that they refrain from signing any partnerships with NFT or cryptocurrency-related brands. That cleared the way for an agreement at the end of September alongside the NFL Players’ Association with Dapper Labs, which will launch an official NFL NFT exchange later this season.

The details of that are unclear but Dapper Labs already operates a similar product, based on its Flow blockchain solution, with the NBA and its NBPA players’ union. NBA Top Shot had recorded over $780 million in trading among the 1.1 million users on its platform as of late September, when Dapper Labs completed a $250 million funding round that valued the Canadian company at $7.6 billion.

That only underlines the wider investor interest in the sector, even with so much of it still to settle. Dapper Labs also has a partnership in place with Spanish football’s La Liga, with a marketplace due to arrive in the summer of 2022. La Liga, meanwhile, has joined Germany’s Bundesliga in signing a separate deal with Paris-based Sorare, which is developing an NFT-based fantasy sports platform and has itself reached a $4.3 billion valuation.

Still, the alignment of leagues and frontrunning players in the space is not deterring star athletes from exploring their own options. In early October, the intellectual property lawyer Josh Gerben noticed that Dallas Mavericks favourite Luka Doncic had filed for two trademarks: Lukaverse, for a platform to create, sell and trade NFTs; and Lukamorph, for a brand of sports-related NFTs.

The NFT Space

While league-wide marketplaces offer potential reach, scale and variety, athlete-led properties carry the promise of a personal connection that could prove meaningful to fans on a different level. As the NFT space matures, Pickstar is evolving an end-to-end offer to develop products that can make a real impact.

A detailed consultancy process will help produce digital collectors’ items that express what really matters to fans about each hero, celebrating great moments from his or her career, offering a greater insight, or accompanying a unique real-world experience.

Pickstar has now begun collaborating with Sportemon-Go, a digital ecosystem and platform building digital assets and other unique experiences that are changing the way fans are interacting with sport. This partnership will not only allow fans to buy and trade NFTs, potentially generating engagement and unlocking revenue opportunities, but to find them through in-venue promotions on matchdays and connect them with digital and physical activities.

As much as the monetisation of new forms of intellectual property might introduce greater complexity or reset the balance between different actors in sport, it also generates powerful new options for working together. If carefully handled, creating NFTs from existing content can give fans a stake in their sports that they have never held before, but brands, athletes and teams can also work together to multiply their impact.

Whoever leads the charge, the challenge will lie in realising that potential.

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