Disruption and innovation have been core principles of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague since it was formed two decades ago. It is now firmly established as Europe’s most prestigious basketball competition, and digital technologies have been crucial to this success.
At the season-ending Final Four in Belgrade last month, the league debuted new broadcast innovations and a virtual reality (VR) platform to engage viewers watching the action unfold at home.
But the reality is that television broadcasts can only engage fans for a few hours each week. The advent of mobile technology and social media has helped expand that relationship, but multiple activities and organisations are competing for the time and attention of every sports fan.
This challenge is why so many people within the sports industry are excited about Web 3.0. Blockchain-based technologies have the potential to transform the way fans interact with and consume sport, opening up a range of engagement and revenue opportunities.
The EuroLeague believes Web 3.0 can help fulfil its ultimate ambition of ‘24/7 engagement’ and has been carefully devising and refining its strategy for some time. Although it was eager to be an early adopter, it was also acutely aware of the embryonic nature of the sector and some of the criticism that crypto-based technologies have attracted.
Now, after more than a year of careful planning, the EuroLeague is ready to enter the world of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and bring its legions of fans across Europe into the metaverse.
EuroLeague is preparing to launch video-based digital collectibles with Clancy
From the outset, the focus of the EuroLeague’s Web 3.0 strategy was on fan engagement rather than speculation. It was adamant that any blockchain-based product would not be exploitative and would have to deliver genuine value for fans. Tokens might take the form of a highly desirable collectible or offer additional benefits such as tickets, merchandise, or experience.
It believed the utility of these tokens was what gave it value for fans to buy and sell, not because it was an item that would be traded like stocks or commodities.
“We have a responsibility to keep our fans safe,”Rayde Baez, Euroleague’s former head of digital content and marketing and now strategic consultant who helped devise the league’s strategy, tells SportsPro. “We cannot lead them to places that are unknown to them and they [spend] their life’s savings. With some [crypto applications] there is a certain element of risk but we are not selling financial instruments. We are an entertainment company, and we will offer functionality.”
During lockdown, the EuroLeague was inundated with approaches from various companies claiming to be able to assist the organisation with its Web 3.0 strategy. But initial experiments failed to yield the desired results and the organisation’s digital and commercial teams decided to “push pause” on their efforts so they could better understand the technological landscape and devise an effective strategy.
“It was the wild west out there,” recalls Baez. “Even though we know [Web 3.0] had massive potential, that particular potential wasn’t evident back then.”
The EuroLeague worked to create an approach that would allow it to maximise the benefits and revenues of Web 3.0 while mitigating both the risks to itself and its fans. The decision was made to work with multiple partners rather than a single end-to-end vendor, because this would allow it to diversify risk and choose the best partner for each product category.
Although the EuroLeague eventually believes crypto-based technologies can be applied to everything from ticketing to how individual clubs manage their back office, the most obvious areas of interest during the first phase of implementation were categories that were analogous to physical products such as trading cards.
NFTs with genuine value
‘EuroLeague Euroreels’ are video-based digital collectibles based on key moments from the 2021/22 season. Each ‘card’ is minted as an NFT and combines the footage with information and statistics to create a unique collectors’ item that can be traded with other fans. Each item is available in different rarities and will give owners benefits such as early access to game tickets and exclusive merchandise.
Euroreels have been created with Canadian blockchain specialist Clancy, which actually first approached the EuroLeague more than a year ago. In the end, the EuroLeague was won over by Clancy’s experience, its technological capabilities, and its willingness to collaborate closely to ensure the competition’s criteria were being met.
“We picked Clancy because its technology is very robust and they give our partnership a level of attention to detail that we demand from our partners,” explains Jose Luis Rosa Medina, Euroleague’s senior director corporate partnerships and licensing. “We don’t want to be just one number in a big partnership [presentation] slide and have a very shallow relationship.”
To minimise the threat of Euroreels being monopolised by speculators, the EuroLeague is inviting fans to join a beta phase so they can create accounts and get alerted when the initial drop goes on sale.
Apply now to become a founding holder of EuroLeague’s EuroReels NFT community🤩
Founding NFT owners will be rewarded with an ever-growing set of utilities and benefits that keep on giving!
— Turkish Airlines EuroLeague (@EuroLeague) June 14, 2022
The second major blockchain-based initiative is fantasy basketball. Fantasy sports are one of the most effective ways of keeping fans’ attention outside of matches because success relies on keeping up to date with all the latest news and player developments. Players will interact with the application several times a week, watch more matches because they want to see how their fantasy team is doing, and there is a community aspect.
NFT-based fantasy sports build on this engagement by allowing players to own and trade the assets they play with. These NFTs can also be used in the metaverse, allowing players to showcase their fandom and, like Euroreels, can also have additional perks that enhance their utility.
Starting next season, the EuroLeague will become part of Unagi’s ‘Ultimate Champions’ platform, allowing players to buy, collect, and trade officially licensed digital cards of their favourite players and assemble fantasy teams that compete with other players. Ultimate Champions launched earlier this year with 35 different soccer partners, offering a proven platform that can be used for basketball.
Entering the metaverse
The final element of the EuroLeague’s initial forays into Web 3.0 is the metaverse. The EuroLeague wanted to create an immersive environment in which fans could express themselves and exhibit their support for their favourite team. The vision was to create a “digital twin” of the world of EuroLeague that would add value for both fans and for partners, something that it didn’t think was possible if it just “bought some land” on a third-party platform.
“We have a deep stable of commercial [partners] that we need to serve so we cannot be constrained by the rules of others,” says Rosa.
The result was the ‘EuroLeague Land’, a digital environment on mobile devices, PC, and on Oculus Quest headsets created by VRM. Here, fans create digital avatars, interact with each other, play games, and earn coins that unlock special features and money-can’t-buy experiences. On top of this, fans can also earn Turkish Airlines ‘Miles and Smiles’ points for their metaverse achievements – evidence of the commercial potential for the metaverse.
A further example of how the metaverse enhances fan engagement is the plan for supporters of the EuroLeague winners to buy ‘championship ring’ NFTs that allow anyone to share the glory.
The EuroLeague is pleased with its early forays into Web 3.0 but also understands that it is taking a long-term approach when it comes to blockchain. It believes that it will take time for crypto-based sporting products to become a mainstream proposition but wants to be ready for when that time arrives. Already it is looking at building a single marketplace to unify its NFT propositions.
It says it will judge the success of its Web 3.0 projects by how they drive engagement and add value to its partnerships. But ultimately the plan is for cryptocurrency to build on and strengthen the league’s reputation for innovation.
“The basketball world is unique in general because there’s both the NBA and the EuroLeague [as major but distinct competitions],” concludes Rosa. “Both are innovative in the way they are shaping sport and entertainment, but we have to play to our strengths, and we have many clubs that are well-known across the world, like FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich.
“That’s a huge advantage that no other [sports] property has and these clubs can have a global and local impact in what is a very lifestyle-driven sport.”