How NFTs can ‘change the game’ for women athletes

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Sue Bird has been active in the marketplace and an advocate for the WNBA's crypto partnerships. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

As one of the few leagues that saw a significant increase in viewership following the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA has displayed massive growth potential in recent years. People are starting to take notice, and not just individuals but industries.

In May, crypto platform Coinbase announced new partnerships within the WNBA ecosystem to foster more participation in the cryptoeconomy and web3 through fan and player education, NFTs, and IRL activations.

“The WNBA was always an important part of our sports strategy when signing the league deal,” Jessica Williams, Director of Brand Partnerships & Experiential at Coinbase, told Just Women’s Sports. “It was integral to the core of the deal, and we were inspired by the league’s commitment to innovation and excellence.”

The goal of the partnership is to inspire the next generations of fans to get more involved in the crypto economy. WNBA legend Sue Bird, even as she heads into retirement, is 100 percent on board with the relationship for the future of the league.

“Women’s sports is a wonderful investment for a variety of reasons. One of the main ones is we haven’t been invested in historically,” she said. “When you see other leagues teaming up like the WNBA has teamed up with Coinbase, it’s a really good sign of things to come for both sides.”

One way Coinbase is looking to provide strategic partnership and resources to the WNBA ecosystem is through NFTs, one of the blockchain-based products that boomed in sports and beyond in the past year.

NFTs, short for non-fungible tokens, represent a unique asset like a piece of art, digital content or media. As with a trading card, their value isn’t as simple as a price tag on a shelf but rather determined by different attributes such as rarity, edition, design, etc. Unlike traditional trading cards, NFTs are cryptographically protected, allowing for the easy tracing of origin and ownership in the matter of seconds.

Think of NFTS like a baseball card, music file or Picasso painting that can’t be replicated, shared or altered. With the rise of NFTs, expert validation requirements, fake (imposter) replicas, illegal streaming or sharing, and storage requirements to maintain physical condition are eliminated.

NFTs also have utility in a digital ecosystem, with NFT holders able to unlock exclusive perks and upgrade the ticketing system for events, among other actions. These benefits give NFTs an edge compared to many of their counterparts in the traditional collectibles market.

“Coinbase NFT, Coinbase’s web3 social marketplace, is focused on meeting the gap between commerce (marketplaces that focus on buy, sell and trade volume) and social apps. We learned that people don’t just want better tools to buy and sell NFTs: They want better ways to discover them, better ways to find the right communities, and better spaces in which they can feel connected with each other,” Williams said. “That’s why we’re building a product that’s much more than a transaction. We’re looking to empower people to create, collect and connect.”

According to investment bank Jefferies, the value of the NFT market is expected to increase by around 30 percent to $35 billion in 2022, and reach $80 billion by 2025. With those numbers in mind, Bird is happy to be one of the WNBA pioneers in the NFT space, first as a player and now as a business professional and mentor in retirement.

“I think sports memorabilia is a huge business. We have an opportunity as athletes to actually build the product instead of just signing it. That’s where Coinbase NFT is exciting, because it gives fans that user-friendly marketplace to acquire and display your favorite NFTs,” Bird said. “Post retirement is going to allow me to dive deeper into all of this and maybe help some other current players navigate it. Sports memorabilia has proven it’s legit, and this is another element to that.”

The collectibles market, which includes NFTs and sport memorabilia, was valued at $372 billion in 2020, according to Market Decipher. The lists of the top-selling pieces of sports memorabilia are constantly changing, with the Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps baseball card becoming the most expensive ever when it sold for $12.6 million at Heritage Auctions on Aug. 28.

Bird understands just how big the business is and how the WNBA can take advantage of its growth, giving athletes more ownership of their assets and the opportunity to speak directly to their fans.

“NFTs are allowing athletes to take more ownership and monetization of their likeness. Where we first saw it was our voices and our platform on social media, and obviously this goes hand in hand, but that’s where we as female athletes now have a little bit of a say,” she said. “We can control what’s being put into the immediate universe on our behalf. What happens is, you get more eyeballs on you in that way, and then you start to see more interests. And then I would say in the last three to five years, you’ve seen it take a turn. NFTs are definitely one vehicle that allows women to create.”

Through their partnership with the WNBA Players Association, Coinbase is also providing new financial options to players. During the league’s 2022 Rookie Orientation, Coinbase hosted an education session covering crypto for the top rookies invited to the draft. They also set up all 144 WNBA players with Coinbase accounts and crypto funds to help them further familiarize themselves with the space.

The partnership is opening doors to players who did not traditionally have access to this type of financial training. Bird was one of the many players encouraged by the financial freedom and possibilities that crypto and NFTs can offer.

“I think back when I entered the WNBA, you talked about your 401k and your different investments, but it just wasn’t on the scale it is now,” she said. “NFTs allow us to market and auction our own products. More than anything, it’s refreshing for companies like Coinbase to invest in the WNBA, the Storm, in Jewell (Loyd) and myself. That’s really where we’ve seen a big change.”

While the momentum is building, there’s still much information a person needs to educate themselves on to become an NFT master. Many can be timid to jump into the waters of NFT trading and collecting, but Bird grows more confident by the day.

“It is an ongoing education process. Just when you think you think you have a handle on it, there’s going to be a curveball, and that’s very normal,” she said. “It’s OK to feel every now and again like, ‘Wait, what?’ Everybody feels that way. The more you learn about it, the less that feeling will be there, so you just have to stick with it. … I know I didn’t know what an NFT was until 2 years ago. We are all still learning, figuring it out on the fly, finding out what best practices are with creating collectibles that also have that tangible value or hold that experience.”

Sue Bird officially retired Tuesday night after 21 years in the WNBA. (Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Getting acquainted with NFTs can seem like a daunting venture. Bird followed time-trusted methods of listening to the experts.

“I was lucky to have a friend who was into it early. She just kind of broke it down to me and explained some things. What she did was she gave me some people to follow on social media. She pointed me to the right people,” she said. “This is not dissimilar to other things in life. How do you learn about anything? You have to find the experts, you have to read what they have to say, listen to podcasts or follow them on social media, and then you can stay up on all the trends via their knowledge and advice.”

For those who don’t have direct connections and want to learn about the crypto market, aside from creating their own Coinbase account and trying crypto in their free time, educational platforms such as Udemy, Skillshare and LinkedIn provide courses for all skill levels.

With a strong partnership and a bright future, the WNBA and Coinbase are looking to lead the charge in the expansion of the cryptoeconomy, bringing more eyes, publicity and influence to the league and its players.

As for Bird, 2022 was her final year of professional basketball. After a nearly two-decade career with the Seattle Storm and USA Basketball that included four championships, 12 All-Star selections, five Olympic gold medals and the WNBA career record for assists, games played and minutes played, she hung up her sneakers after Seattle’s Game 4 semifinal loss to Las Vegas on Tuesday night.

Beyond basketball, however, Bird feels she is just getting started in her NFT journey.

“There are no limits. There are no boundaries that are going to prevent Sue from being successful in whatever endeavor she chooses, Bird’s coach at UConn, Geno Auriemma, told ESPN’s MA Voepel recently. “Whether that’s within sports or outside the sports world.”

Daniel Newton is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.