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In August 2021, Autograph, an NFT platform co-founded by serial entrepreneur Richard Rosenblatt, Dillon Rosenblatt, Josh Payne, and professional football player Tom Brady launched, in hopes of creating a unique experience for celebrity athletes and fans through digital collections and experiences.
The vision of Autograph originated from one of Autograph’s co-founders and now-CEO, 23-year-old Dillon Rosenblatt. Having previously created a startup at 15, Rosenblatt’s entrepreneurial spirit sparked his interest in cryptocurrency in college, and he noticed projects like NBA Top Shot, a blockchain-based virtual trading card platform for NBA NFTs. From there, the idea came to life as Rosenblatt thought of adapting talent in sports to the digital world through storytelling.
“Sports collectibles were an easy way to step into the digital art space because owning an autograph or a signed baseball in the physical world has been a trend for many generations,” Rosenblatt said.
Brady, a family friend, joined Rosenblatt’s venture to enter the NFT world, a space he held previous interest in. His involvement created a snowball effect for Autograph’s perception in the sports world—its board of advisors now includes Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, DraftKings co-founders Jason Robins and Paul Liberman, and professional skateboarder Tony Hawk. Autograph quickly grew through exclusive deals, connections, and partnerships, having sold more than 100,000 NFTs (prices ranging from $12 to $1,500 each) less than one year post-launch. With major players on board and a successful first year under their belt, Autograph closed a $170 million Series B round in January 2022 led by Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.
Last month, Autograph announced a partnership with sports network ESPN to mint their first NFT collection featuring Brady. The digital collection will feature three ESPN zine covers of memorable moments in his career, and 50 tokens signed by Brady will be available for purchase as well. A second collection will be released through the partnership to mark the 10th episode of Man in the Arena: Tom Brady, a docuseries on ESPN+, Hulu and Disney+ for a limited time.
Along with ESPN, Autograph formed partnerships with fantasy sports contest and betting company DraftKings and entertainment company Lionsgate. In July 2021, Autograph’s NFTs began to be sold exclusively on DraftKings Marketplace, a digital collectibles ecosystem. In contrast, the Lionsgate partnership allowed for Lionsgate digital collectible content to be launched on Autograph, with iconic film franchise NFTs of John Wick, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, and Mad Men among the likes of Usain Bolt and Rob Gronkowski on Autograph’s platform.
To carry out the unique digital collections and experiences Autograph touts as its selling point, NFTs are served on the Polygon blockchain. This is an Ethereum expansion sidechain, so it uses less energy per transaction compared to Ethereum itself. Since criticism often accompanies Ethereum due to its energy-intensive process, celebrities and brands within sports may be more willing to engage and partner with Autograph, with less environmental criticism to follow them.
One instance of a significant partnership was Autograph’s collection with Olympic gymnastics athlete Simone Biles, where she launched her first collection made of 10,000 NFTs. As part of the Mystery GOAT series, Biles’ NFTs were released in a “separate, stylized collection released via trading card pack-like blind boxes” along with other athletes. Customers pay a fixed price for a random piece in the GOAT collection they purchase, unlike the varying price levels of other NFTs on Autograph.
Another unique element of Biles’ collection is the style of certain pieces in the collection. Autograph created animation centered around moments such as when Biles’ mother realized her daughter needed to join gymnastics, which strayed from Autograph’s usual featured sports memorabilia in each collection. In addition, the 8-bit style gave the collection a more retro feel, as Autograph began to expand its channels of bridging those special connections between athletes and their fans. “We see this as a really interesting way of taking something from the past, putting it into a futuristic product, and then having it live forever on the blockchain,” co-founder Rosenblatt said in regards to the Mystery GOAT stories, which also featured Tony Hawk and Wayne Gretzky.
Autograph’s most recent venture into sports is planning to honor one of the most popular motosport spectacles over the last century, the Indianapolis 500. In celebration of the 106th race in May 2022, Autograph is offering an “exclusive redeemable 2022 Indianapolis 500 Race Day NFT”, free for those who purchased a ticket for the event, a “NTT IndyCar Series Mystery Driver Container, featuring 33 distinctive driver cards, one for each of the highly skilled athletes competing in this year’s Indy 500”; and a “one-of-a-kind, intricately detailed re-creation of the 1972 Indianapolis 500-winning car for Team Penske.”
In the announcement of the partnership, Rosenblatt stated, “This collection pays homage to the Indianapolis 500’s illustrious past and celebrates the future of the sport. Each NFT was crafted with painstaking detail to create a unique collection that will also deliver new types of utility for fans, bringing them closer to the sport, the event and the team they love.”
Like the Mystery GOAT series, Rosenblatt drives the point that Autograph works to honor success in sports of past events by bringing these feats into the digital world, all while engaging newer generations of fans and creating a personal bond between athletes and supporters.
Although Autograph may be primarily targeted towards connecting athletes with their fans, investors of the platform say it’s bound to impact the Web3 space in general and its wider cultural movement. “The model of monetizing the fan base [and] connecting with a fan base at the same time is something completely new,” says Bo Ilsoe, the managing partner at NGP Capital, a venture capital firm investing in data-driven technologies. Even as an individual who has yet to purchase any NFT, Ilsoe notes the importance of Autograph creating new business models surrounding a larger audience through creating stories. Similarly, Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman asserted that Autograph will be a “cornerstone platform” bringing Web3 to the mainstream.
Outside of digital collections, Autograph has also worked on creating an accessible user experience, even for those just entering the space. Those with NFTs can access exclusive Discord community chats with their idols as community buy-in. The community experience Autograph offers is crucial to the platform. According to a national poll by Morning Consult in March 2021, approximately 50% of NFT owners said the community majorly contributed to their decision to collect. While the interest in NFTs has risen in recent years, Autograph has also allowed purchases with credit cards and charged at relatively affordable prices (with about 5,000 Tom Brady NFTs being sold for $12 each) in an effort to drive accessibility in the NFT world. “[The] point was to create an accessible experience… to get this in a ton of people’s hands.” says Rosenblatt.
Ultimately, Autograph’s creation of immersive digital collectibles through storytelling gives a peek into how the sports industry is adapting to the digital world. Rosenblatt’s ventures with sports figures may seem to target a specific audience, but as Autograph looks to opportunities in movies and music, it is evident that the cultural capital potential the startup possesses will look to redefine the future of entertainment.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Katherine Zhang is a contributor to Identity Review from the University of California, Berkeley. Do you have information to share with Identity Review? Email us at email@example.com. Find us on Twitter.
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