Crypto and the world of sports are coming together like never before. The largest crypto companies are vying with one another to gain a toehold in the lucrative global sports advertising industry. And sports franchises are more than happy to accommodate their overtures.
This page takes a deeper look into how the newborn crypto sector has emerged as a goliath in the sporting world. The following sections discuss the biggest crypto sports sponsorship deals to date and the companies behind them, the sports and regions that attract the most crypto partnerships, and we compare the A-list athletes now pocketing their salaries in Bitcoin.
In 2021 alone, the top four crypto sports sponsorship deals were worth a combined total of $1.2 billion. The biggest of these was Crypto.com’s deal to acquire the naming rights of the iconic Staples Centre in Los Angeles for $700 million.
But Crypto.com isn’t the only cryptocurrency exchange with money to burn. FTX secured the naming rights to the home of the basketball team Miami Heat last year. Additionally, eToro has guaranteed sports partnerships with over half the clubs in the English Premier League in addition to top tier teams in mainland Europe.
Still, it’s not just crypto vendors that are looking to break into the sporting arena and gain from the lucrative advertising opportunities that come with it. Blockchain projects have also dialled up their engagement campaigns, particularly in Formula 1. Tezos have struck a sponsorship deal with McLaren racing and Fantom has made F1 drivers Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly ambassadors.
There has been a mammoth rise in the number of crypto sponsorship deals coming out of the pipeline in recent years. The bulk of these sports affiliations came to the fore in 2021 with crypto enterprises making full use of the embarrassment of riches at their disposal.
The crypto industry pushed through 72 sponsorship deals last year with teams representing sports like baseball, ice hockey, and mixed martial arts to name a few. This tally reflects a 7,100% rise in the number of crypto sports sponsorship deals since the first was signed in 2018 and a 380% hike compared to the figure in 2020.
And this uptick in capital expenditure doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon. According to one survey, cryptocurrency is perceived to be one of the fastest-growing industries ushering itself into the world of sports advertising. The sector may even hold the potential to unseat the sports betting industry from its throne.
That said, the increase in money poured into sports advertising was part of a larger pattern that saw higher spending across the board in 2021. In the USA, sponsorship revenues for the top five sports leagues (the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHS, and MLS) climbed to $4.8 billion last year –– a 44% increase from 2020.
When it comes to the sheer number of sponsorship agreements secured, it is eToro that dwarfs competitors like Crypto.com, FTX, and Coinbase with its 36 crypto partnerships formed mainly with European football teams.
However, the fact that the wingspan of eToro’s rivals extends toward other popular sports like basketball and mixed martial arts means that it is by no means certain which vendor will establish a dominant foothold in the sports advertising sector.
To this end, FTX spent $210 million on a sponsorship deal with esports team TSM on top of the $135 million they forked out to rename the American Airlines Arena in Miami last year. Similarly, Crypto.com splashed $210 million in a landmark deal with UFC in 2021 in addition to the war chest they amassed to rename the Staples Centre to the Crypto.com Arena.
The crypto industry’s intent to distinguish itself in front of a large audience of retail investors in the making was on full display earlier. This was clear when the live telecast of the Super Bowl attracted a frenzy of televised adverts paid for by many of the leading crypto apps and exchanges mentioned above.
Football has welcomed more crypto sponsorship deals than any other sport. According to our estimates, crypto organisations have put pen to paper on at least 56 partnerships with football players, clubs, and tournaments.
Still, the symbiosis between sport and crypto has not come without attention from regulatory authorities or backlash from fans. This was demonstrated when Arsenal Football Club was banned from promoting its fan token by regulatory authorities in the UK last year.
Fan tokens are believed to give sports fans a greater say in the internal-decision making processes of their favourite teams but have come under fire for the risks associated with investing in them.
Liverpool Football Club's recent decision to release an NFT collection was also met with contempt from its own fans. The fans expressed concerns that it amounted to no more than a “money-making” scheme for Liverpool –– one of the world’s largest sports enterprises.
The USA has the most crypto sponsorship deals in the world. Crypto entities have 29 partnerships with sports teams in this country. The UK is close behind with 26 crypto sponsorship deals with sports teams. At the same time, a large number of sponsorship deals can also be found in continental Europe, involving sports like F1, ice hockey, or football.
With this in mind, sports sponsorship deals lag behind in regions where per capita crypto adoption is highest. For instance, there are close to no arrangements between crypto industry players and sports enterprises in South East Asian nations like Vietnam and Thailand. This is despite an estimated 6% and 5% of their respective populations seeing crypto as an investment vehicle or transaction medium.
Similarly, African and South Asian countries can only claim two crypto sports sponsorship deals between them in spite of the fact that crypto users in places like Kenya, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan exceed 120 million altogether.
NFL star Odell Beckham Jr. made headlines last year when he became one of the first marquee sports players to take part of his wages in Bitcoin. The deal was worth a reported $4.25 million with the Los Angeles Rams.
According to data collected, the NFL trumps all other sports leagues when it comes to the number of players taking their salaries in crypto. About 8 NFL players currently see digital currencies form part or all of their wages. After the quarterback Trevor Lawrence signed for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year, he reportedly opted to take a large chunk of his $24 million signing bonus in Bitcoin, Ethereum, Solana, and other cryptos.
It’s also slowly becoming commonplace for NBA, MLB, and UFC athletes to ask, if not demand, for their wages to be paid out in crypto –– and particularly, Bitcoin. But this isn’t the only digital currency sought after by sports stars outside the NFL. When football sensation Lionel Messi signed for the French outfit PSG last summer, he accepted PSG fan tokens as part of his signing bonus.
From what we’ve seen so far, the blossoming relationship between crypto companies and the sporting world looks to extend into the future. Stadiums are being renamed after crypto exchanges while more and more athletes are opting to take their salaries in Bitcoin.
It’s clear that money is being streamed in every direction: from global pastimes like football and basketball to emerging sports like mixed martial arts and esports. What remains to be seen, however, is how successfully the romance between crypto and sports can navigate any obstacles thrown their way by regulators watching this special relationship with a keen eye.