The NWSL and the World of Crypto: Women’s Sports Teams and the Ethics of Buying Into Trends
What is an NFT?
The NFT acronym stands for ‘non-fungible token’ and has been a popular topic of online conversation from late 2021 into early 2022. While the buzz around NFTs has been prominent in many online circles, there’s a general public consensus that nobody really knows what they are.
If you haven’t heard of NFTs you’ve probably seen one or a screenshot of one somewhere along your time on the internet during the past 6 months. The one NFT heralded for the popularization of the conversation is an image of a monkey smoking a blunt (yes you read this correctly). The introduction of NFTs to the general population separate from the crypto community has also led to a mass influx of online memes surrounding and mocking the topic.
An NFT is essentially a digital asset or symbol that represents real-world objects like artwork, images, designs, etc. These assets are bought and sold exclusively online using cryptocurrency software. A recent Forbes article defined cryptocurrency as a “medium of exchange that is digital, encrypted, and decentralized. Unlike the U.S. Dollar or the Euro, there is no central authority that manages and maintains the value of a cryptocurrency.” Unlike the currency we’re used to, cryptocurrency does not fluctuate as a result of third-party markets such as banks.
So what’s the difference between an NFT and a regular image or GIF on the internet? The answer ranges from “no difference” to “a huge difference” depending on how much you care about the business as a whole and whether or not you decide to invest in it. Arry Yu - the Chair of Washington Technology Industry Association Cascadia Blockchain Council - describes the role of NFTs as “creating digital scarcity.”
Unlike images or GIFs which are in infinite supply, NFTs are limited in supply which increases their demand among people who choose to invest. “But can’t I just screenshot an NFT and it can be mine?” - yes, you can! However, the maintenance of NFTs comes with a built-in authentication that allows buyers to prove that they own the original items. The view on screenshotting NFTs depends on if you care about owning the image - a large part of the entire NFT trend is the idea of “digital bragging rights.” If you don’t care much for bragging about owning that particular image, screenshotting essentially gets the aesthetic job done. NFT and crypto is basically a niche that is understood and important within their community but generally useless to people who function outside of its context.
How do NFTs Work?
As mentioned before, NFT stands for “non-fungible-token” so unlike physical money that is “fungible” ie. traded or exchanged for one another, NFTs have unique digital signatures and an equivalent exchange cannot be made between them. NFTs are not mutually interchangeable, so unlike the U.S. dollar or Pokemon cards, you cannot trade one for the other in a way that is equal to both sides of that transaction.
NFTs exist on a blockchain which is a digital and public ledger that can record transactions and identify ownership. Most NFTs are held on an Ethereum blockchain, which is another type of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. The essential goal of making transactions available through cryptocurrency via blockchain is to allow creators to sell their art outside of auctions or galleries - and while NFTs have been circulating for many years, the increase in public awareness is probably attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing market of digital selling and purchasing.
The Ethics of NFTs
Aside from the conversation surrounding the value of NFT ownership, the main concern with the growing popularity of NFTs is the environmental burden that it poses on an already strained relationship our large corporations have with our planet. Not only is there an environmental concern, but its growing support from popular celebrities such as Shawn Mendes and Brie Larson with outstretched audiences raises the concern for future damage being done.
The media outlet, The Verge, has reported that NFT creation and consumption via the Ethereum blockchain is partially responsible for rising emissions that are generated by the energy needed to oversee or “mine” cryptocurrency transactions. Interactions with NFTs and NFT transactions have corresponded with a carbon footprint that is ecologically damaging. While this area of data is new and continually contested, there seems to be a general consensus that the wide use of Ethereum for NFT marketplaces is adding a strain on the abundance of energy that the platform already takes up.
So how does Ethereum take up energy? In order to ensure that transactions are protected and secure as they don’t have a third party overseeing their currency, the “proof-of-work” security system is implemented. This system keeps financial records by making users, also called “miners,” solve complex puzzles that use up energy. As miners solve these puzzles they are able to add a “new “block” of verified transactions to a decentralized ledger called the blockchain.” The miners get rewarded with transaction fees and other tokens. The Verge commented on this process by stating it “is incredibly energy inefficient on purpose. The idea is that using up inordinate amounts of electricity - and probably paying a lot for it - makes it less profitable for someone to muck up the ledger. As a result, Ethereum uses about as much electricity as the entire country of Libya.”
If NFTs didn’t exist, miners working with the Ethereum blockchain would still be using significant amounts of energy. However, NFTs are inextricably connected to the supply and demand chain as they are in limited stock, making them susceptible to trends. As companies and celebrities with large platforms continue to promote and create NFTs and increase traffic on the issue, Susanne Köhler, a Ph.D. fellow at Denmark’s Aalborg University, suggests that “many NFT transactions send a stronger economic signal to the miners which may lead to increased emissions.”
The NWSL and NFTs
This leads us to the conversation as to whether or not it's ethical to promote the interest of NFTs to a general public that would otherwise have no relation to it, increasing the already expanding market.
Many NWSL teams have started advertising NFT collections as a part of their branding, the most recent being an announcement from Angel City FC (ACFC) that was met with a large influx of fan outrage from those concerned with the environmental reverberations.
On their website, ACFC described their collection as “22 rare Sol Rosa Kickoff NFTs, which will be given to 22 randomly selected fans. Whether you’re in the stands or watching from anywhere around the world, we want you to rep your fandom by owning this limited-time-only Kickoff NFT. There is no cost to you—fandom is priceless,” echoing their original tweet calling fans to claim their “proof of fandom.”
The question of encouraging fans to prove their support via their consumption of NFTs and crypto is already ethically mucky, but it becomes more baffling to hardcore fans who have supported the team because of their original mission. ACFC says they seek to “proudly rep Los Angeles, [as they] combine football, celebration, and service to create a community that will last for generations.”
The juxtaposition between investing in a market that is proven to be environmentally harmful and wanting to represent women’s soccer for “generations” is stark - should corporations not start buckling down on climate change policy, there will not be many future generations left to represent.
Another NWSL team that jumped the opportunity for an NFT collection is NJ/NY Gotham FC which announced their three-year partnership with the blockchain Algorand - their logo becoming the club's main jersey sponsor starting in the 2022 regular season. Andrea Panganell, Chief of Business Operations at Gotham FC, commented on the mid-seven figure deal: “whether it’s blockchain or sports, both of our organizations are committed to empowering women and impacting our community. I look forward to working closely with the Algorand team to launch initiatives focused on equality, inclusion, and the advancement of women in the blockchain, sports, and STEM sectors.”
Gotham’s community mission statement is similar to ACFC’s: “Gotham FC is committed to giving back to and strengthening our community beyond the pitch.” However, if both teams seek to strengthen their communities off the pitch, why are they tapping into an environmentally unfriendly market that fanbases are distanced from and even morally opposed to?
The central question boils down to this: is this run-of-the-mill corporate greed or is there a reason why women's teams are actively abandoning their mission statements and fanbase opinions to promote these new trends?
I think women’s leagues are put in a difficult situation from the moment of their creation: there are accusations of a lack of credibility and constant comparison to male teams. The NWSL is the third iteration of an attempt to bring a women’s professional soccer league to the United States after its previous predecessors folded due to a lack of external investment. Women’s leagues and players in those leagues are historically and frequently subjected to lower pay, less investment even with a higher chance of revenue, lower quality playing and training conditions, and a severe internal issue with the coaching staff and the abuse of players.
Game coverage is also a huge issue in terms of spreading the women’s game to wider audiences - only recently did the league turn to Twitch as a platform for international viewers to watch NWSL games but even then, the overall quality of the stream makes viewing for some fans completely unenjoyable.
It seems as if women’s leagues and teams are forced to turn to sponsorships and partnerships that undermine their missions in order to cement their credibility in a market dominated by men on all levels. Through this ethical bartering, they are able to create the profit necessary for the league and teams to continue to expand the game. This marketing strategy seems to be reminiscent of the phrase “the lesser of two evils.” Do NWSL teams have to risk upsetting their loyal fanbases in order to grow that fanbase? Is this vicious feedback loop something that will keep the league credible and offer the longevity of stable employment for players?
Regardless of the answer, fans seem to be at a loss. How do we support players we love when the only way to do so is through the medium of a league or team that represents something we fundamentally disagree with? Hopefully, this conversation continues to grow as well as the one beginning now about sustainable NFT exchange and a new greener future for crypto. All that is apparent now for the future is that fans are distrusting this new market many NWSL teams are propagating.