Football: Premier League signs NFT deal with SoftBank-backed Sorare

Manchester City striker Erling Haaland (centre) can now be found challenging Arsenal players in the crypto world. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON – The English Premier League is partnering with French fantasy sports platform Sorare to sell non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a sign that the sporting world is continuing to embrace digital assets despite the rout in markets.

The deal gives Sorare a four-year licence to sell digital sports cards of players from all 20 Premier League clubs, Sorare said in a statement on Monday.

Sky News reported in October that the deal could be worth £30 million (S$48.8 million) per year. Sorare declined to comment on whether the figure cited by Sky News was accurate.

The cards in Sorare’s game are bought and traded in the form of NFTs, a kind of blockchain-based asset, using either cryptocurrency or traditional currency.

Paris-based Sorare raised US$680 million (S$892.3 million) at a $4.3 billion valuation in a 2021 funding round led by SoftBank.

Britain’s gambling watchdog has been investigating Sorare since 2021 to assess whether its game amounts to gambling. Sorare CEO Nicolas Julia said at a journalists’ briefing last week the probe was still ongoing. Elsewhere, France’s gambling regulator told the company in November to make changes to the game, including expanding its free-to-play option.

“The way that supporters follow their favourite teams and players is evolving and the Premier League is always looking for ways to engage with fans,” said Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League.

NFTs surged in 2021, but prices and sales volumes plunged in 2022 as investors turned cautious and the crypto industry was rocked by a series of high-profile collapses.

Many top football teams and sports stars promoted crypto assets – such as NFTs or “fan tokens” – to supporters during the boom. Proponents say they can be used to increase fan engagement, but critics say they risk encouraging financial speculation.

Members of the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), which represents fans in England and Wales, “have been raising concerns about crypto-based engagement partnerships at their clubs for many years,” a spokesman said, commenting on football’s engagement with crypto in general, before Sorare’s announcement.

“Supporter engagement shouldn’t be monetised. The lack of regulatory oversight for crypto and NFTs is obviously something which supporters should be aware of,” the FSA added.

The average sale price of a Sorare NFT dropped to around US$38 in December, down from a peak of US$281 in March 2021, but the number of Sorare monthly buyers and transactions is near an all-time high, according to blockchain tracker CryptoSlam.

Julia said the company, which has more than 3 million users, has “trended very differently from the rest of the space” because its NFTs have “utility value”.

“We never market the game as an investment... it’s a collectible that you can play in a game.”

Julia said 87 per cent of current users play the game without spending money on the platform.

Sorare involves an in-game cryptocurrency, but Julia said he plans to change this, calling it the “last remaining friction” for players who want to avoid cryptocurrencies’ volatility. REUTERS

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