When he speaks to clubs across Europe who want to launch NFTs, their primary concern is money. “The number one thing is, ‘Oh, we want to make millions of pounds overnight,’” Mangnall says. “There’s a real problem in the industry because there’s a miseducation, and there’s a misunderstanding in the market of what an NFT is. It could be membership, it could be rewards, it could be something as simple as a ticket. It’s not about these big revenues.”
Everything is backwards. NFTs and the blockchain are infrastructure, not investments—buying an expensive digital asset because it’s an NFT is like rushing to buy your team’s new kit because you can pay by Visa, or because it’s delivered by DHL. “I think one big misunderstanding has been to frame NFTs as a space, a market, or a category, and it’s not. It’s just a technology,” says Julia. “When you have a booming technology like this, it attracts people who are here for the wrong reasons, who are not thinking long-term. It’s bad for the fans.”
It’s the utility that matters, and that’s something that’s been sadly forgotten in the scramble to speculate. “You’re not getting that from the football clubs because the football clubs don’t realize the level of work that goes into it,” says Mangnall. “It is a product, at the end of the day, that you’re selling to your fans. Treat your fans like fans. Don’t treat them like consumers.”
Early blockchain-based sports projects like Sorare worked hard to abstract away the complexity of the crypto world: You could pay by credit card, without a care for secure wallets and gas fees. Some of the newer projects make little effort to do that—almost as if the only reason they exist is to draw the vast community of soccer fans into the crypto world, to keep the liquidity flowing, to stop the bottom falling out.
Given the complexity of the crypto market—the wildly fluctuating cost of doing business on Ethereum, the risks of being scammed either by hackers or by the people who are actually selling you the NFT in the first place—you have to wonder whether it’s worth the headache. Ask the founders of blockchain-based sports projects why the utility they’re offering couldn’t simply be served with a member’s area on a website, accessed via an email address and password, and the answers are predictable.
“Blockchain allows for true ownership in ways the Web2 platforms cannot,” says Jorge Urrutia del Pozo, head of football at Dapper Labs, which runs hugely successful partnerships with the NBA and has signed deals with Spain’s La Liga, the German Bundesliga, and Italy’s Serie A to launch digital collectibles. “It allows for fans to trace and verify the authenticity and scarcity of their digital collectibles, and to unlock experiences that have previously been unattainable in other environments.”
Maybe we’ll get there. There is a world where the blockchain empowers greater levels of “fan engagement”—where supporters happily trade digital assets that unlock authentic experiences that bring them closer to their clubs. “There was a speculative phase. We feel like it’s more organic and healthy now,” says Michael Bouhanna, co-head of digital art sales at Sotheby’s, who helped launch the Barcelona NFT project, as well as one for Liverpool FC.