FC Barcelona will use NFTs and build its own metaverse as part of a strategy to attract new supporters, club president Joan Laporta said during his Mobile World Congress 2022 keynote. Sports clubs are increasingly turning to digital channels to engage with fans around the world and boost income, but investing in these unproven and early-stage technologies is not without its risks.
Speaking during the first day of the congress, which is being held in Barcelona, Laporta talked about how the football club, which is owned by its community of members, is looking at how the technologies can provide opportunities for growth. The club already uses virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) for fan experiences at its Camp Nou stadium.
“We want to develop our metaverse, our NFTs and all of these new business [opportunities] that appear in our world,” Laporta told the conference.
One of Europe’s most successful football clubs, FC Barcelona was founded in 1899 as a non-profit association and is owned by its club members. It has 144,000 members plus 1,200 Barça Fans, members of the online fan community of the club. Recently it has fallen into financial difficulties, and digital income streams could prove central to its recovery.
How is FC Barcelona planning to use the metaverse?
The metaverse, broadly defined as a three-dimensional virtual space where people and companies can interact, will be used by FC Barcelona to support its e-sports (competitive video gaming) teams and its online video offering. According to Laporta, the club’s Barca Studios audio-visual team is producing and commercialising content as well as developing the club’s metaverse.
“There has been a lot of attention [on] blockchain products and services such as NFTs and metaverse,” says Laporta. “We all know that the digital world will play a very important role in the coming year. We will soon be able to offer digital products to our members, to our fans [and] the fans of e-sports.”
He added that the club “is about passion and emotion”, and believes that these “technologies will help boost this essence to the limit,” while not sacrificing Barcelona’s heritage. Laporta also made reference to FC Barcelona players being in the metaverse, though at the moment it is not clear of the club’s plans for them.
How sports teams like FC Barcelona are using NFTs
Barcelona’s plans to issue NFTs currently lack detail, but could prove lucrative for the club. According to Deloitte Global, NFTs for sports media will generate more than $2bn in transactions in 2022, which is double the figure for 2021. It also expects that by the end of 2022, between four and five million sports fans globally will have purchased or been gifted an NFT sports collectable.
“Interest in sports NFTs is likely to be spurred by activity in the wider NFT market, including that for digital art,” the report says. “The top five most valuable sales of which had generated more than $100m by August 2021.”
NFTs relating to professional US sports such as basketball (NBA), American Football (NFL) and baseball (MLB) are already popular among consumers, according to research from McKinsey.
The keynote session chair and Mobile World Live presenter, Sasha Twining, said that this area is “fascinating” for football clubs. “Using NFTs to support its bottom line may be attractive to a club with a big wage bill, but fans will hate feeling exploited unless they are really getting something they want,” she told Tech Monitor.
“Another question for football clubs is how to compete with entertainment organisations for the wallets of a new generation,” she adds. “Younger fans are accustomed to an all-inclusive digital experience, wherever they are in the world. Clubs will now need to work out how to supply it, while maintaining the passion and ethos of the game."
But for a club like FC Barcelona using technologies such as NFTs is a necessity, Laporta said. “In this new world, in order to compete we have to develop [a] big department for technology and innovation,” he said.
Leo Gebbie, principal analyst for connected devices at CCS Insight, says that FC Barcelona’s move to use the metaverse and NFTs isn’t a surprise. “We’ve already seen lots of overlap between sports and these technologies, with clubs and leagues auctioning or selling crypto tokens which promise enhanced fan engagement, or NFTs commemorating moments such as famous goals," he says. “It’s a method for these organisations to offer new digital experiences for fans, and generate revenue in the process."
However, Gebbie says, the use of cryptocurrencies isn’t as universal as some might think. “Some people view cryptocurrencies and NFTs as an integral part of the metaverse, but this is not fully agreed upon," he says. "The metaverse is very conceptual and is broadly seen as a next-generation of connected online experiences which will prioritise spatial computing, enhancing the internet as we understand it."
How to monetise the metaverse, therefore, remains up for debate. "Organisations like sports teams are very keen to be ready as this journey unfolds," Gebbie explains. "For clubs like FC Barcelona, virtual reality experiences such as stadium tours or 360-degree game broadcasts would be a natural way to offer fans new and engaging experiences."
Are NFTs and the metaverse sustainable opportunities?
While the metaverse and NFTs are both currently enjoying plenty of hype, is it really a long-term solution for football clubs such as FC Barcelona looking for additional revenue and ways to engage supporters? "At the moment, this is an unknown,” explains Conrad Wiacek, head of sport analysis at GlobalData. “We've seen a few examples of NFTs being used in sport, but at the moment from a tech point of view we haven't scratched the surface of what it can do."
Wiacek also warns that while the metaverse and similar technologies are great for fan engagement, it could leave them asking more questions: "As a fan, what I'd want to know is 'what am I getting for buying an NFT?'," he asks. "The average sports fan doesn't know what an NFT is. We're still in the educational phase."
"At the moment, [clubs are] using NFTs as a means of fan engagement, but I don't think the way they've been done so far is benefiting the fans,” Wiacek continues. “The danger is that while this is all very new and exciting, with clubs rushing to get involved, it's a short-term push for them at the moment." In FC Barcelona’s case, Wiacek believes any revenue would be “plugging a gap” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, he does believe sports clubs like FC Barcelona can make something of these technologies. "Once you've built the means to do it [then] they wouldn’t be held back by geography,” he concludes. “If you're able to create an immersive experience such as to be able watch a game without leaving your house, it gets interesting."