Michael Houston

We all assume we will be able to keep up with trends when we are teenagers, but one day, technology overwhelms all of us - I just didn't expect that to come in my mid-twenties.

Speaking like my grandparents, I was furrowing my brow at non-fungible tokens, best known as NFTs, when they hit the market.

These days, technology is developing faster than ever before, so it is no shock that even university students have become confuddled by the latest developments, including cryptocurrency. 

Cryptocurrency and NFTs have become synonymous with each other, to some the way of the future; to others the ugly stepsisters of the online world. It all comes from crypto's reputation as an outsider, a club that revelled in gatekeeping for years - the financial equivalent of NME readers speaking about their favourite obscure bands. 

But as the secret became less of one, everyone wanted in on it. It was much easier to access Bitcoin or Litecoin back in the mid-2010s than it was four years earlier. Then during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wild West truly got underway. 

Everyone was buying Bitcoin in the latest boom-and-bust period, while even I chucked £50 into Dogecoin in the hope that social media manchild Elon Musk had predicted something correct for once: spoiler, he didn't.

Cryptocurrency has been criticised for its lack of regulation, its impact on the environment, its speculative worth and, in some corners, its cult-like following. The likes of Musk prophesises about the future and continued to do so with the "next big thing", NFTs. 

In short, NFTs are virtual possessions, they are not physical, and they can be collectibles, access-based or viewed as an investment. 

Most of the hype about them came from "crypto bros", again often worshippers of the new owner of Twitter. Much like cryptocurrency, believers saw it as a money-making scheme and investment, similar to what we see in art. 

Cryptocurrency has had a boom in the past few years ©Getty Images
Cryptocurrency has had a boom in the past few years ©Getty Images

Soon, you could not avoid the acronym and it was met - and still is by me - with great scepticism. Most have heard of the Bored Ape fad and other art scams in the industry. 

NFTs became synonymous with overconfident individuals boasting about their latest purchase of a knackered monkey who was apparently worth $200 because it had a sailor's cap on. 

Unsurprisingly, buyers found this to be a bubble that burst within a couple of years. In that time, many organisations jumped at the chance of having their own NFTs, with International Federations often made up of old men throwing themselves into an industry they had no clue of, due to the fear of missing out. 

Football clubs were selling worthless items to their fans, while shirt sponsors started to feature the likes of the not-at-all-suspicious-sounding Sportemon Go.

Despite all the mocking, NFTs are useful.

Bugge Holm Hansen, a special advisor in sport, digitisation and innovation at the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies, spoke to me after the smartcities & sport summit; where he made a presentation on NFTs. Admittedly, he expanded my stubborn mind to another way of seeing them as untapped potential in sports.

He said organisations need to create a "social contract" with its community and focus less on the "money grab" often associated with the trend.

"NFTs have got a lot of problems, people aren't buying them as much anymore, the value's gone down and it's because the contract between the clubs and the fans is broken," said Hansen to insidethegames.

"That doesn't mean that NFTs as a tool are not working.

"We are at the moment where we have to re-evaluate our NFT projects, we have to be honest that a lot of the projects were built on making money and we have to go back and know better.

"It's more a tool for engaging fans, customers and people around organisations."

Bugge Holm Hansen has suggested NFTs can be used for good, but are not currently ©smartcities & sport
Bugge Holm Hansen has suggested NFTs can be used for good, but are not currently ©smartcities & sport

The futurist used TIME magazine's initiative as an example of valuable NFTs, effectively giving readers a ticket to interact with editors, journalists and be privy to extra content.

Instead, he sees a better route for clubs by cutting out an external company as a branch between them and the community; instead suggesting in-house Web3 specialists could create NFTs for the club that were more personalised without involving people solely there for profit.

Hansen added the likes of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter would not be necessary for fans to engage with the club if NFTs were implemented correctly, creating a closer relationship between diehards and their teams.

"If you have sports clubs and fans you have a contract about selling that will hold valuation and I think that contract is broken at the moment," he added.

"I think a lot of fans are looking into the projects and asking what happened and if they have been scammed.

"Everyone knew the NFT world was risky. 

"It's new technology, new way of engaging with the fans; and we didn't have the same track record about the lifespan, so we created a narrative money-wise and grabbed the money and ran.

The Bored Ape collection has become the most infamous link to NFTs ©Getty Images
The Bored Ape collection has become the most infamous link to NFTs ©Getty Images

"Most clubs do not have a department who know how to work those tools so what we see is what we saw in the late nineties and early 2000s, that we need to go to companies who can programme different tools for you and put it out for the fans, but the problem is the fans think these are created by the clubs and don’t see the middle man here who is actually earning the money, it's all externalised.

"What I think will happen is a lot of clubs will become more engaged with the tools and will educate themselves. 

"They may need to do the NFTs themselves."

Hansen noted that sites like Bueno made it easier than ever for clubs to cut out a middle man when creating these NFTs, giving direct access for fans for original unseen content, as well as acting as direct investment into the club, rather than purchasing collectibles that can hold no real value.

Premier League side Liverpool Football Club were notorious in this cynical approach, with their NFT collectibles failing to attract many purchases - only 9,000 in its first week from an available 171,000 - and causing fans to be rightly annoyed by their decision of jumping on the bandwagon.

Liverpool fans criticised the club's decision to create NFTs, with the venture failing ©Getty Images
Liverpool fans criticised the club's decision to create NFTs, with the venture failing ©Getty Images

I am still not an advocate for NFTs, but much more open to them being used for good and less for cynical get-rich-quick methods. 

I asked why we need NFTs to create that access between fans and club when we have incentive-based host cites such as Patreon to reward supporters with bonus content, access to events and direct communication with their community. 

Simply, he rebutted this again with the middle-man argument. One day, clubs, artists, musicians, celebrities, International Federations and athletes will be able to create their own NFTs. No borders, no barriers, just direct access.

Maybe Hansen's predictions will go the way of the others we laugh at from 20 years ago, maybe he has nailed this down to a tee. What we do find with any technology is that Wild West phase. 

We've had the crypto crash, we've had NFTs capitulate. We are not far removed from cryptocurrency hedge fund and currency exchange FTX going under and their former chief executive Sam Bankman-Fried being charged for fraud.

Much like the unhinged early days of social media, one day it will become sophisticated and to a degree, monotonous. If organisations have a fear of missing out, they better get thinking of how this new technology can benefit their communities, rather than how it can yet again be used as a profit maker. 

Only time will tell if this is a fad or if the industry has a resurge. 

What is clear is: sport needs to understand this technology before diving head first into a confusing abyss.