By Peter Hall
MANCHESTER, England, March 9 (Reuters) - Soccer stars have a new play thing. From Brazil's Neymar to Liverpool's Andrew Robertson many have got involved in NFTs, with these crypto assets giving us a glimpse into the sport's ever-changing future.
You may have noticed Neymar or England defender Reece James change their social media profile picture recently to what appears to be a funky digital artwork of a monkey - part of the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection of NFTs.
Shorthand for "non-fungible tokens", NFTs are digital assets, possibly linked to an image, video or sound clip. While ownership of the originals is insured on a blockchain - the technology behind NFTs - many people are baffled why so much is spent on items which do not physically exist and are free to view online.
"Footballers are prime targets for these things," one agent who works with English Premier League players told Reuters.
"It is a status thing - going into training to say they own something. Like a watch that sits on the side they never wear."
Some owners of NFTs also hope to benefit from rising prices, giving them an incentive to promote their assets.
"These apes were selling for 180 dollars last year," Tim Mangnall, CEO of UK-based Capital Block, an NFT agency focused on soccer, told Reuters. "Now most sell for between $750,000 and $2 million. It's a very exclusive club.
"I'm a Bored Ape Yacht Club fan, but I think we are definitely in a bubble around NFTs and art."
The reaction has been mixed to say the least, with Robertson and fellow Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold forced to turn off their Twitter replies to their "collection" launch such was the volume of angry responses.
NFTs' links to cryptocurrency and the mystery around the new craze were the main areas of concern.
"There are plenty of fan engagement models around without getting involved in NFTs," Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Association told Reuters.
This isn't the first occasion people in football have dabbled in speculative investment schemes, but this time the clubs want to cash in too.
Germany's Bundesliga has a NFT partnership with digital company Sorare, while U.S. National Basketball Association Top Shot platform proved so popular that the crypto company behind it, Dapper Labs, made a deal with Spain's LaLiga division. Sorare's status is being investigated by the UK Gambling Commission.
So just like basketball fans paid more than $200,000 for an NFT of a video of a LeBron James slam dunk, a rare digital trading card of Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland sold for almost $700,000 in January.
The Premier League wants a slice of the pie.
"I know every single Premier League club has had conversations about NFTs," Mangnall added. "Fan engagement is the big draw. We haven't even scratched the surface on what clubs can do."
The Premier League declined to comment when approached, but a source close to the dealings told Reuters the body is working through its options. British media reported any deal could be worth 400 million pounds to clubs.
Last month, former Chelsea captain John Terry removed the Premier League trophy from his "Bored Apes" after a legal intervention by the league related to its trademark rights.
Many top teams around the world have launched their own fan tokens, where supporters can pay for a say in minor things, like a pre-match song. Something again not universally well received.
But with the money at stake, more of these kind of things seem inevitable, with the technology already in place for a new virtual world to open to the masses.
"I'm an Arsenal fan," Mangnall added. "I'll watch Arsenal play and then (coach) Mikel Arteta's interview. Then I'll watch shows with other people talking about it.
"Imagine if you could create an NFT that gets me in an exclusive club where I could get personal insight from Arteta that's only available to a select group of 1000 who own that NFT?
"The possibilities are endless."
(Reporting by Peter Hall; additional reporting by Elizabeth Howcroft; Editing by Toby Chopra)
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