Chain reaction: Soccer star Hal Robson-Kanu on blockchain’s sporting potential
"People always oppose change,” Thomas Robson-Kanu points out as he discusses the merits of cryptocurrency and the technological advancements made plausible by the invention and development of blockchain.
Thomas by birth, Hal by virtue of popular culture, Robson-Kanu is a name now steeped in Welsh sporting folklore. Having scored one of Wales’ most famous goals en route to the UEFA Euro 2016 semi-finals, the winger now plies his trade for Championship outfit West Bromwich Albion, while away from the pitch the 29-year-old’s focus is on taking the curious enigma of blockchain into the mainstream.
It is a sphere that has fascinated Robson-Kanu since reading the original bitcoin white paper in 2008, and it is the same fascination that has informed the concept behind Sports Ledger, the multilayer blockchain-centric company he co-founded in 2017.
He is tackling the venture head-on, commuting almost daily from his club’s training complex in the West Midlands to the company’s office in Chiswick, West London. It is, he explains, an endeavour that requires his full attention, particularly given he is launching Sports Ledger amid a backdrop of scepticism, not only as a professional athlete, but with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the deeply complex world of distributed ledger technology.
“You look at when the industrial revolution came about and the opposition to that,” he says of a societal trepidation surrounding technological progression. “We look back at the first stages of the internet – there was opposition to that; we look at the first stages of electricity – a lot of people were saying that electricity would burn your house down.
“That was the narrative. It wasn’t talking about the potential values of it and the way in which we now use it.”
The same mainstream disquiet is attached to blockchain. Robson-Kanu, however, is in no doubt as to its potential; Sports Ledger carries an ambitious strap line – ‘The Future of Sports’.
Its advantages, he implores, are undeniable: an ownership of personal data amid a proverbial fightback against today’s social media giants; an ability to profit from content creation; a means of cost-cutting; a place to engage more closely and deeply with a fanbase; a platform to secure, access and share biometric data; even the chance to use statistics to scout undiscovered talent. The list is endless.
Its biggest challenge, he acknowledges, is in convincing the masses to buy into a concept whose finer digital minutiae require a significant level of expertise. Yet, as Robson-Kanu highlights, there are few who comprehend the inner workings of our modern-day staples.
“To actually understand the full function and full potential of all the infrastructure behind blockchain is going to take people a long time to do,” he acknowledges. “But nobody truly understands how the internet works.
“They know it works, but what they also know is that they just use it and they use it because applications and use cases have been built on top of the internet – whether that’s a Google search engine or whether that’s a video call on Apple.”
Where the internet differs from blockchain, though, is in its core function. The development of the technology since bitcoin first appeared in 2008 means that a centralised model can now be built, where not only information, but value can be exchanged.
As the former Reading midfielder puts it: “The internet is the internet of information; blockchain is the internet of value. Fundamentally, the adoption of blockchain will occur through use case.
“With what we are building at Sports Ledger, you are simply going to use it as an application. It’s not a case of needing to understand the concept of blockchain to use it - you don’t.”
In a changing society, the notion of focusing on blockchain’s benefits rather than its technological intricacies marks a crucial modification of attitude. Indeed, it is an ever-growing market – according to a Research and Markets report, the blockchain industry is set to be worth US$7.59 billion by 2024.
As Robson-Kanu says: “People are beginning to understand the fundamental values of blockchain and how it will enhance every single person’s life – whether that’s from recording land registry records on blockchain or recording health records, executing purchases of a house, which would normally take six to eight weeks but could occur instantaneously and fully verified and completely transparent.
“The adoption of blockchain will happen at a faster rate than the adoption of the internet. This is simply because, if you track technological innovation and revolution, we are on this upward trend in terms of our actual technological innovation as a human society and a human race. It is not going to take as long as the internet – it’s going to happen a lot quicker.”
It is a timeline corroborated by Omar Jackson, the director of Cryptech, a Berkeley Assets-owned blockchain technology business. He argues that the sports industry has little choice but to embrace the benefits of the technology.
“All major top-flight football clubs and top sporting institutions will all be adopting some form of blockchain technology within the next 24 months,” he predicts. “Clubs have so much data that they have to hold on their system at any one time. The most secure way of holding that now is through blockchain.
“It’s harder to hack, it’s more efficient and there’s far less paperwork. It allows clubs to massively cut costs and save money on overheads. Where there was paper and individuals needed for the movement of paperwork from one party to another, that won’t be required because it will all be on a digital ledger.”
In short, a primary consequence is that blockchain could see the death of the intermediary – both digitally and, perhaps, physically. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, professors Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani describe the technology as ‘an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.’
For Robson-Kanu, the key term is ‘peer-to-peer’ – it encapsulates the fundamental selling point of blockchain. He uses the example of smart contracts to illustrate how the technology rids a transaction of the need for a third party to create a direct chain, which documents the full extent of any transactional deal. “If you were to do X and I was to do Y, you would receive Z,” he says.
Blockchain’s intercessor-free smart contract also brings greater transparency, with the technology’s major feature being its ability to document the exact path of any transaction, which has obvious implications for player transfers, salaries, third-party ownership, and other often opaque dealings.
“The ability to transfer a player from one club to another will be done far more quickly, far more securely and far more efficiently than has been done before,” suggests Jackson. “We’re talking about the transfer of paperwork because it’s a peer-to-peer system. You will have all the player’s details, all the information and data held on a blockchain. And that can be transferred from club A to club B so that club B owns the rights to that data and, therefore, the player.”
A further, perhaps under-appreciated benefit of blockchain’s potential to alter the transfer market is its speed. Jackson raises the recent case of David de Gea, the Manchester United goalkeeper whose proposed move to Real Madrid was reportedly scuppered at the last moment by a slow fax machine.
Omar Jackson explains that blockchain has the potential to make monetary transactions instantaneous, allowing sport to avoid the type of delay that reportedly saw David de Gea's proposed move from Manchester United to Real Madrid fall through.
The technology of the ledger on which the transfer’s data could be held would prevent such an issue. “If blockchain was utilised at that time, [the transfer] would have been instant,” the Cryptech director explains. “It would have been done within two or three seconds. It can make a major difference.”
As far as Robson-Kanu is concerned, opening up the at-times mysterious complexities of the sports industry is fundamental to the future relationship between club and fan. “We are not coming in to disrupt and tear up the industry,” he stresses, pointing out the difference between evolution and revolution. “What we are actually saying is let’s look at sport and what actually contributes the most to sports – the fans.
“Fans have a right to understand and see transparently what they are paying for and the people who they are paying to see and what they are doing on a day-to-day basis, or what they do during a game on a detailed level.
“Rather than being an opinion-based industry, it would move to an information-based industry and alongside that, a transparent information-based industry, which is a massive catalyst in terms of what blockchain can do.”
Opening the sports industry up to its supporters is one of Sports Ledger’s many ambitions, all of which delve well beyond the mere benefit of the additional security provided by blockchain’s virtually unhackable cryptographic transactions.
Sports Ledger’s own white paper projects myriad applications for the technology, including a social platform for fans, athletes and clubs to share content. On that platform, cryptocurrency – in this case, Sports Ledger’s SPSL token – would act as the key to unlock and purchase the right to view other users’ content.
The use of digital tokens in the sporting sphere has already begun in earnest, with the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) partnering with Hashletes and Player Tokens respectively. Both companies rely on the purchase of digital tokens in order to obtain bespoke ‘cryptogoods’, such as digital player trading cards. MLB Crypto – built on the Ethereum blockchain – sold US$500,000 worth of ‘cryptogoods’ within its first two months of existence.
Another company operating in the space is French crypto firm Sorare, which recently signed the world’s first soccer league-wide blockchain collectible deal with Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League. The deal came just 12 weeks after the business’ launch – firm proof of a burgeoning collectibles market that, according to Forbes, is now worth US$370 billion.
“We really want to bring crypto to mainstream Europe,” explains Nicolas Julia, Sorare’s founder. “Everything we do can be used by mainstream customers. You don’t need to own any cryptocurrency, you don’t need to understand blockchain. Everything that you see on our platform is designed to try and replicate the normal experience that you would have on Amazon or on Ebay.
“There are no competitors in the world who let their customers pay with both normal currencies and cryptocurrencies. It is something that we offer – that people can enter our platform through their credit card and can get out of it a crypto reward.”
Sorare’s concept is auction-based, with fans able to bid to win digital player cards, which can then be used in a worldwide fantasy game, competing with other users whose player cards relate to a range of global leagues. “It is tied to the real world,” says Julia. “We want to bridge the digital world and the natural world. Every week you get ranked in the leaderboard and you can win a reward.”
It is a modern extension of the Panini sticker craze, he adds. Whereas traditional stickers and even digital cards are replicable, the technology behind blockchain means that each collectible is unique and impossible to duplicate.
The use potential of tokens, however, goes further, with the concept playing a key role in the sports-focused social platform that is at the heart of Robson-Kanu’s plans. In the Sports Ledger platform, fans control their own personal data, which represents a key departure from the model employed by the major social networks.
“If we take Facebook as a model,” he explains, “the way they monetise their whole business model is through selling that digital identity of its users to a third party who have the intention of monetising that user’s profile or selling a product to that user’s profile.”
With every search, an individual’s digital footprint grows, with the social platform selling on the enriched user identity to advertisers and third parties. As Robson-Kanu elucidates, blockchain has the power to turn ownership of that data over to the user, which in turn could lead to monetary gain.
“We want users to share social content but also to own the digital identity through which they are creating that social sharing content and those behavioural analytics,” he explains. “As a user, they will then have control and then they might say: ‘Well, actually, I would like to keep my digital identity private.’ But at the same time, it will allow for those who say: ‘I don’t mind being communicated to.’
“What that would essentially allow for is external corporations and advertising companies who have a vested interest in you as a target market to come into the application and rather than pay the likes of Facebook or Instagram for access to your digital identity to communicate with you, they can now – peer-to-peer – make that communication with you.
“They can say to you: ‘Can I view your digital identity?’ And in return, rather than give your value to a third party corporation, they give the value to the user. That’s the whole model.”
The logic behind the concept is both sound and overdue, with the general population beginning to understand how social platforms work. “I think five years ago, people didn’t understand why these social sharing content platforms were valued so much,” Robson-Kanu suggests. “I think now, users are beginning to understand that actually they are the ones being monetised.
“That data should be held by the rightful owner and that owner should have the opportunity and the right to monetise it.”
When Robson-Kanu discusses data, he does so with greater ambition than simply benefiting consumers; he also wants to aid his fellow athletes. Currently, his own biometric and physical performance data is stored in a centralised system in what he describes as a “cumbersome legacy manner” - an inconvenient and outdated mechanism that verges on inaccessible.
Even to view his personal figures, he has to request access. Once in possession of his numbers, they remain of little use due to a lack of any technological interpretation tool. The data on its own is useless, with no apparatus to compare, say, this season with the previous year.
Sports Ledger plans to change that by creating a platform through which athletes can analyse, understand and compare their own statistics. “It will be adopted by showing the values within the application to professional athletes and to clubs,” says Robson-Kanu. “We have spoken with a number of clubs already, and the appetite and the interest for that is there.
“Part of our market research was about interviewing key individuals within the sports space and seeing where they felt there was currently a lack of value or value being lost because of a lack of technological innovation. We are very aware that the sports space is hungry for this type of platform.”
An extension of creating a decentralised platform on which to store personal data is the production of a biometric passport, as well as the capacity to compare athlete performance. It is a technological step that Robson-Kanu believes could help unearth a new generation of athletes in parts of the world that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Using wearable technology, young athletes in underprivileged regions worldwide will be given the opportunity to produce their own biometric data, which can then be automatically inputted onto the platform and accessed by scouts and club analysts. The tech will be supplied by Sports Ledger’s charitable arm, whose aim is to use blockchain to open up opportunities in the sports industry globally.
“All they need is a smart device and a GPRS signal to upload their data into a profile which they own,” explains Robson-Kanu. “The exciting thing here is that if the kid wears this for six months, he has then created an enriched digital performance passport.”
It is a long-term plan, but one that highlights blockchain’s potential to revolutionise the industry. And making a difference in the mainstream is certainly the zenith for Robson-Kanu. As the Welshman says, blockchain’s arrival is about evolution rather than revolution. But it’s coming and it’s here to stay.
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