The three major sports leagues in United States, the NBA, MLB and NFL, now have all invested significant amounts of resources into the blockchain industry, hoping to enhance their fans’ experience.
Interest in blockchain technology by the U.S. major sports leagues is a result of an unlikely source. In 2018 the web application CryptoKitties, from Dapper Labs, sold millions of digitized kittens. These cats function as collectibles and use blockchain technology to ensure that each cat sold is an authentic version. The digitized kittens also break the traditional idea that a product must exist in a physical sense for it to be rare. Many major league sports industries noticed this explosion in sales from CryptoKitties and believed they could sell collectibles or memorabilia using the same Blockchain tech.
NBA’s Blockchain Experiment
The most recent sports league to jump on the Blockchain phenomenon is the NBA. It is not the association’s first venture into the virtual world. Last year they premiered their Esports league with the 2K league, centered around the popular basketball video game NBA 2K. Within the past month, NBA signed a deal with Dapper Labs to bring NBA Top Shot to their fanbase. Here, fans can own a clip of a video that’s been converted into a unique digital token inscribed on a blockchain.
Additionally, owning these tokens will allow fans to participate in an upcoming fantasy league. Caty Tedman, Dapper Labs marketing executive, explained that more rare collectibles, such as Kawhi Leonard’s game winning shot in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, will be sold at an auction while more common moments will have a fixed price. Furthermore, she disclosed that fans will have access to a secondary marketplace where they can buy used collectibles or sell their existing ones.
Top Shot is expected go live later this year during the NBA season, but for now there is a splash page where fans can complete an early sign up. There is a lot of excitement from the NBA team about this new connection to their fanbase. As a senior executive Adrienne O’Keefe stated, “This [will be a]groundbreaking game and what we believe will become coveted digital collectibles for basketball fans around the world.”
This new adventure for the NBA, however, does harbor some doubts, especially concerning Dapper Labs blockchain network of choice, Ethereum. The collectible kitties did prove too much for their software, bringing the network to a complete halt during CryptoKitties height. Dapper Labs has made improvements to Ethereum, hoping it will support a larger capacity. This past November the company raised $15 million, expanding the development of its own technology.
On the other hand, the NBA is not the first major sports league to draw in younger fans with this digitized feature. MLB partnered with Lucid Sight to bring its fans MLB Champions, which also runs on Ethereum. A bit different from Top Shot, fans draft players and win Caps, the in-game currency based on game card performance. Fans can also enhance the rewards earned based on lineup choices and game events.
The partnership seemed like a perfect fit for the sport to reach a younger crowd. As Kenny Gersh, MLB’s executive VP of gaming and new business ventures illustrated, “This is taking something that’s always been apart of baseball…the positive experience you’ve had with baseball cards or other collectibles, [and]bringing it to a younger and digital-savvy audience. And it’s the blockchain that makes it possible.”
Popularity of MLB’s Blockchain App
During the inaugural year, the app did not popularize as well as Major League Baseball hoped. In the first version of the game there is a huge learning curve, for younger generations. To start, fans have to own some kind of ether already and transfer it to a web plug-in called MetaMask. Despite all that, MLB Champions still posted impressive numbers for a new technology in its first year. They had more than $1.1 million worth of figure sales and trades with over 270,000 transactions. There were entire MLB teams that sold for $18.9k and even some single player items went for $7.5k.
In 2019 they started off the season with a draft sale of 6,500 MLB figures per team. Speaking with two representatives from Lucid Sight, Chase Kokal and Stephen Townsend, explained a greater concerted effort towards all users and streamlining their experience. Their aspiration for the game is that any individual can participate regardless of their knowledge of Blockchain technology. That mindset ties into their goals for the 2020 season. The game’s developers aim for a platform that’s free-to-play and enjoyable for all. At some point in the near, they even hope to have MLB events even when games aren’t happening.
NFL’s Blockchain Pilot
A typically conservative league, the NFL also stepped into the blockchain industry. Around the same time Major League Baseball partnered with Lucid Sight, the the NFL Players Association bought a stake in SportsCastr, a company powered by the blockchain network FanChain. This network serves as the environment where past and present NFL players, along with assistance from the NFLPA’s Athlete Content & Entertainment, provide live commentary on football and other live sporting events. They debuted this product in the third quarter of 2018 and similar to the other leagues, fans use this platform to buy merchandise and even tickets.