• Alec Fante

Show me the... Bitcoin?



[1]


The 1996 Academy Award winning movie Jerry Maguire portrays Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., making cocky sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) yell “Show Me the Money!” [2] It looks as if Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Russell Okung is a huge fan of this movie as he finally, after a two year battle, got the Panthers to agree to pay half of his $13 million salary to cashless app Strike so it can be converted to bitcoin, which so far has shown him some serious money. [3] This unprecedented move has brought him a big return on his NFL salary which in essence makes Okung one of the highest paid players in history.[4] Although this made headlines in 2020, Okung was not the first major league athlete to use the new world of cryptocurrency and technology to potentially increase their income. In fact, the worlds of sports and technology have been colliding lately as more and more professional athletes, teams, and leagues have ventured into the world of cryptocurrency. [5]

Jerry Maguire made it seem so easy; a sports agent was responsible to secure and negotiate a contract for a pro athlete involving as many zeroes as he could. Sure there were things like salary caps, bonuses, and guarantees to deal with but today there is a whole new vocabulary in the sports world and it is blending more and more with technology. [6] This past year has been an era of little or no in-game fan revenue due to COVID-19 restrictions so leagues, teams, owners, and athletes are looking for new opportunities to make more money. [7] Enter concepts such as the non-fungible token (NFT), blockchain, and cryptocurrency and it may seem that the sky is the limit in this brave new world of sports. [8]


Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, is an enthusiast not only for basketball, but for blockchain technology. [9] Blockchain is a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system. [10] Essentially, blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across the entire network of computer systems. [11] Looking for ways to secure his income, Dinwiddie had for years been interested in financial markets, most recently cryptocurrencies. Wanting to do more than simply invest, Dinwiddie began to imagine a financial instrument that would allow him, and other athletes, to fully maximize their upside. [12]With that idea, Dinwiddie began to realize just how he could actually become the investment vehicle and allow others to invest, and cash in, on him and his success. In January 2020, Dinwiddie launched his token based investment vehicle. [13] While new to the sports world, this idea has been done before by celebrities. Back in 1997 for example, musician David Bowie paid investors a fixed annual return on the success of his career. [14] These “Bowie bonds” used the singer’s current and future revenue as collateral which is a strategy that Dinwiddie was trying to imitate.


Dinwiddie’s premise was to convert his employment contract into a tradeable financial asset. People could invest in his contract the same way people invest in corporate bonds. [15] This seems to be a good move showing that Dinwiddie is smart and innovative with his money. By receiving investor’s funds up front he would get paid earlier then he would by the Nets. His goal is to take that early money, invest in other opportunities, make enough to pay back investors and make a profit as well. [16]

The NBA had concerns about the proposal, especially regarding the third year of Dinwiddie’s contract with the Nets, which was a player option. His original tokenization plan called for the possibility of investors earning significant dividends if he decided to opt out of the final year of his existing deal. The NBA was not enthusiastic to this idea citing a provision that “no player shall assign or otherwise transfer to any 3rd party his right to receive compensation from the team under his uniform player contract” and that it was too close to being classified as gambling. [17] Dinwiddie compromised and, although the original token based investment plan remained intact, removed the player option element from his proposal. [18] It is not exactly clear how the idea played out, as COVID-19 definitely disrupted his plan, but there is no doubt that Dinwiddie has opened the door for other players to continue to move toward tokenization and pushing the league’s boundaries. If successful, Forbes writes that the Spencer Dinwiddie bond would “revolutionize the way professional athletes own their own brands and intellectual property.” [19]

Bitcoin is actually not brand new to the sports world, in fact the Sacramento Kings began accepting the cryptocurrency back in 2013, but lately it is at the center of attention. Recently, the Oakland Athletics were involved in a crypto deal when a full season six-seat suite could be bought for one bitcoin.[20] Last December, Russell Okung began converting half his NFL salary into bitcoin.[21] Since then, the surge in bitcoin’s value has brought a big boost to his earnings. Despite the sensational sports headlines, the NFL is not technically paying his salary in bitcoin, but it is being converted to the cryptocurrency through mobile payment app Strike.[22] With bitcoin’s price jump during the first quarter of 2021, his salary effectively went from 13 million to 21 million which in essence makes Okung one of the NFL’s highest paid players.[23]


In July 2020, Zap Inc. founder Jack Mallers announced his startup Strike product, which allows people to receive bitcoin as dollars via direct bank deposits, often direct deposit paychecks.[24] This is what Okung is doing; using Strike to swap his salary from the NFL from dollars directly into bitcoin that is sent to a storage wallet held by Okung. [25] Even though technically the league did not actually pay in bitcoin, the NFL had to sign off on the deal. [26] This could mark the beginning of a wider adoption of cryptocurrency among major sports leagues, an adoption which Zap founder Mallers claims is already happening. [27] With Strike, there are no currency conversions and very low fees which is why Okung was able to immediately convert his paycheck into bitcoin, taking advantage of every minute of its upward trend. Okung states, “Money is more than currency it’s power” and stresses that getting paid in bitcoin is a way to opt out of the “corrupt manipulated economy we all inhabit.”[28]

Okung is not the only NFL bitcoin enthusiast. Buffalo Bills quarterback Matt Barkley also requested to be paid in bitcoin by two different NFL teams, both of whom refused. [29] Barkley wanted the 49ers in 2017 and later the Bengals in 2018 to pay his contracts in bitcoin when he signed with them. In early 2019 Russel Okung encouraged his idea tweeting “how dope would it be to see a ESPN headline with an athlete being paid in $BTC” [30] Barkley’s requests got rejected but he does get credit for being the first to ask a professional sports team to pay a player’s salary in cryptocurrency, much to the satisfaction of Okung.


These new lucrative ideas may seem like magic bullets for the future wealth of an athlete, but there are some speed bumps along the way. In the case of blockchain based NFT’s, the value comes from what buyers are willing to pay. This situation could create a bubble and obviously bubbles can pop. [31] Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are known to have drastic swings in price making them much more risky than regular transactional currency. Still, it seems to be a positive trend that so many athletes are taking a close look at their current and future financial positions.


Let’s look at some big names from the past: Allen Iverson, Raghib “Rocket” Ismael, Mike Tyson, Vince Young, Dennis Rodman, and Diego Maradona. What do all of these people have in common besides being renowned sports stars who earned multi-millions? They all went broke. [32] According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of NFL players file for bankruptcy after only 2 years of retirement. After 5 years of retirement, 60% of NBA players suffer the same fate. [33] How can this be? One reason is that their earnings window is small. What they make in a couple years needs to last a lifetime. Adding to the problem is a lack of personal financial knowledge and sometimes being victimized by corrupt advisors, both of which have left many athletes broke just a short time after that seemed an impossibility.[34] In that light, Dinwiddie’s idea seems genius. And so does Okung’s…for now. Bitcoin is volatile so it is more important than ever for players to educate themselves. Okung’s approach seems to be a smart one. He is splitting his salary between bitcoin and US dollars, and is so far earning himself a pay raise. [35] Sorry Jerry Maguire, Okung is showing himself the money.




References:

[1] Photo, https://prosportsextra.com/panthers-ot-russell-okung-becomes-the-first-nfl-player-to-be-paid-in-bitcoin/


[2] Jerry Maguire. Directed by Cameron Crowe, performances by Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr., 1996. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0116695/


[3] Jabari Young, Russell Okung’s Bitcoin Salary Could Trigger More Pro Athletes to Invest, CNBC, (December 30, 2020), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/30/russell-okungs-bitcoin-salary-could-trigger-more-pro-athletes-to-invest.html


[4] Id.


[5] Pat Evans, The Pro Athletes Buying into Cryptocurrency, Front Office Sports, (December 12, 2019), https://frontofficesports.com/pro-athletes-cryptocurrency/


[6] Bill Shea, Blockchain, Crypto, and NFTs are the Risky ‘Next Generation of Value Creation’ in Sports, The Athletic, (March 30, 2021), https://theathletic.com/2484646/2021/03/30/bitcoin-crypto-nfts-ethereum-sports-business/?article_source=search&search_query=bitcoin


[7] Id.


[8] Id.


[9] Kevin Arnovitz, How Investing $150K in Spencer Dinwiddie Would Actually Work, ESPN, (October 21, 2019), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27853850/how-investing-150k-spencer-dinwiddie-actually-work


[10] Euromoney Learning, What Is Blockchain?, https://www.euromoney.com/learning/blockchain-explained/what-is-blockchain#:~:text=Blockchain%20is%20a%20system%20of,computer%20systems%20on%20the%20blockchain.


[11] Id.


[12] Kevin Arnovitz, How Investing $150K in Spencer Dinwiddie Would Actually Work, ESPN, (October 21, 2019), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27853850/how-investing-150k-spencer-dinwiddie-actually-work


[13] Neal Freyman, NBA Investigates Spencer Dinwiddie’s Attempt to Tokenize Contract on Blockchain, Morning Brew, (January 13, 2020), https://www.morningbrew.com/daily/stories/2020/01/13/nba-investigates-spencer-dinwiddies-attempt-tokenize-contract-blockchain


[14] Kevin Arnovitz, How Investing $150K in Spencer Dinwiddie Would Actually Work, ESPN, (October 21, 2019), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/27853850/how-investing-150k-spencer-dinwiddie-actually-work


[15] Michael McCann, Spencer Dinwiddie and Reimagining the NBA with Tokenized Contracts, Sports Illustrated, (November 5, 2019), https://www.si.com/nba/2019/11/05/spencer-dinwiddie-nets-tokenized-contracts


[16] Id.


[17] Kai Sedgwick, NBA Star Spencer Dinwiddie Just Tokenized his own Contract, Bitcoin.com, (January 13, 2020), https://news.bitcoin.com/nba-star-spencer-dinwiddie-just-tokenized-his-own-contract/


[18] Nick Friar, NBA Threatened to Terminate Spencer Dinwiddie’s Contract Over Tokenization Plan, USA Today, (January 12, 2020), https://netswire.usatoday.com/2020/01/12/nba-threatened-to-terminate-spencer-dinwiddies-contract-over-tokenization-plan/


[19] Neal Freyman, NBA Investigates Spencer Dinwiddie’s Attempt to Tokenize Contract on Blockchain, Morning Brew, (January 13, 2020), https://www.morningbrew.com/daily/stories/2020/01/13/nba-investigates-spencer-dinwiddies-attempt-tokenize-contract-blockchain


[20] Jared Diamond, The Oakland A’s Offer a Suite Bitcoin Deal, Wall Street Journal, (March 16, 2021), https://www.wsj.com/articles/oakland-athletics-suite-bitcoin-deal-11615853946


[21] Scott Chipolina, Bitcoin has brought Russell Okung big Returns on NFL Salary, Decrypt, (March 16, 2021), https://decrypt.co/61593/bitcoin-pushes-russell-okung-up-the-ranks-of-nfl-top-earners


[22] Id.


[23] Id.


[24] Leigh Cuen, Bitcoin Startup Zap is Working with Visa, Coindesk, (July 2, 2020), https://www.coindesk.com/bitcoin-startup-zap-is-working-with-visa


[25] Chris Katje, Why NFL Player Russell Okung Takes Half his Salary in Bitcoin, Benzinga, (December 29, 2020), https://www.benzinga.com/markets/cryptocurrency/20/12/18957096/why-nfl-player-russell-okung-takes-half-his-salary-in-bitcoin


[26] Id.


[27] Id.


[28] Id.


[29] Brad Berreman, Matt Barkley wanted to be Paid in Bitcoin, Two Teams Refused, Fansided, (May 16, 2019), https://fansided.com/2019/05/16/nfl-news-matt-barkley-wanted-to-be-paid-in-bitcoin-two-teams-refused/


[30] Id.


[31] Bill Shea, Blockchain, Crypto, and NFTs are the Risky ‘Next Generation of Value Creation’ in Sports, The Athletic, (March 30, 2021), https://theathletic.com/2484646/2021/03/30/bitcoin-crypto-nfts-ethereum-sports-business/?article_source=search&search_query=bitcoin


[32] Tim Parker, Why Athletes Go Broke, Investopedia, (May 31, 2020), https://www.investopedia.com/financial-edge/0312/why-athletes-go-broke.aspx#:~:text=Lack%20of%20Financial%20Knowledge,would%20need%20later%20in%20life.


[33] Id.


[34] Id.


[35] Joey Held, Russell Okung Converted Half his Salary to Bitcoin Last Year-Here’s How Much He’s Made, Celebrity Net Worth, (March 26, 2021), https://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/sports-news/russell-okung-converted-half-his-salary-to-bitcoin-last-year-heres-how-much-hes-made/

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