What Winning In Web3 Looks Like

Mark Epps, Director of Web3 & Comms at the ATP Tour pens a piece on what really matters when leveraging Web3 in Sport.

ATP Tour: What Winning In Web3 Looks Like

If you’ve ever picked up a Michael Lewis novel you’ll know his stories centre around things that go unnoticed. Moneyball, Big Short, Blind Side are all stories of “unseeable” success, born in places where nobody is paying attention. That’s where the gold is. One tactic Lewis uses is to trial-run book ideas at dinner parties with friends. If their eyes glaze over, he knows he’s on the money.

This is how it feels to be driving Web3 at a global sports league right now.

On the one hand, it’s all so obvious. Tennis has a billion global fans, 95% of whose relationship with the sport is intermediated by social media or broadcasters (read: we don’t know who they are…). At the same time as the fabric of our lives is becoming more digital, we’re literally seeing the new plumbing of the internet getting laid. One that’s empowering direct connection, ownership and culture to flourish online. The new paradigm is coming.

But: it’s been a while since sports Web3 made your average business exec stand up and take note. Case studies from prior cycles are getting quietly removed from internal pitch decks as they wind down or fail to sustain interest. We’ve entered glazed eye territory.

I find that tension between indifference and opportunity absolutely invigorating. It brings an asymmetry to the work. What a privilege that is.

Now, it’s time for sport to land another banger.

Two NFT collections in at the ATP Tour (LOVE and POSTERS) and my understanding of what’s important has evolved a lot. We’ve experienced success and disappointment. I’ve learned to double down on certain ideals and let others go. And I’ve chiselled away at setting a vision, communicating it, and getting after it.

So, here goes. Some of my own tenets for navigating this space. These are more notes to self than anything. Ideas that I continually return to that keep me grounded and able to filter signal from noise.

Hopefully it helps our industry hit the next one out of the park, Oakland A’s style.

Resist complexity.

I know how valuable this one is because I’m guilty of violating it.

On POSTERS, our goal was accessibility. Creating something that truly spoke to the tennis community (vs. the Web3 community) and served as their entry point into the space.

But, we overcomplicated things. The concept included:

  • A collectible Nitto ATP Finals event poster
  • Designed by an internationally renowned artist
  • Which you can co-create (or buy the original)
  • And receive both a physical print (shipped to you) and digital collectiblecounterpart
  • All for $50 + shipping, available online and at-event, payable via credit card or crypto.

The original event poster by Honor Titus.

Co-created editions.

That’s a lot to educate fans on, not least during our biggest event of the season. We were competing for cut through against event media coverage, stacked social channels, and 30+ sponsor activations. You have seconds to capture attention. If fans need to work to “get it”, you’re toast. No amount of marketing spend can compensate for overcomplication.

Layer on the fact we had multiple stakeholders in the mix and our positioning became even less pointed.

Critically, the user experience reflected the fact we stretched ourselves too thin in other areas. It wasn’t the seamless entry point for tennis fans we had envisioned. This is again a derivative issue of trying to do too much, and fans ultimately voted with their feet. Ouch.

Now compare that with LOVE. Art powered by match data! Simple proposition, clean execution. Sell-out.

That said, we’re proud of a lot. We set an ambitious goal. Tapped into a beloved of tennis culture (tournament art). And the product itself was beautiful.

We also had the Top 8 players in the world co-creating NFTs which was just epic. (Watch the clip here).

A post shared by the ATP Tour

It takes enormous force of will to resist the urge to overcomplicate. It takes active effort to sharpen your proposition. And have the confidence to say: we are happier doing less. I believe the thoughtfulness and intention behind those the design choices pay dividends and help you cut through. As a rule of thumb: if it takes more than a sentence to explain, keep chopping. Simpler is almost always better.

Set and forget your vision.

Everyone needs a North Star. Ours in fan identity on the blockchain.

The size of this prize is immense. Tennis fans will stay up at all hours of the night to watch their favourite players. They make memes. They covet their sun-bleached 2016 Rolex Shanghai Masters cap. There are so many ways to love this sport – and none of it gets noticed. Like other sports we have close to zero data on this.

We envision a future where every interaction a fan has with our sport is collected as a digital token in their wallet. Attend a game? Buy a cap? Get up at 2 a.m. to check scores? Each of these actions says something about who you are and how you love the game. Collectively, these receipts power two epic new dimensions for tennis: recognition & reward.

How did you feel when Spotify Wrapped showed you’re in the Top X% of your favourite artist’s fanbase? What if that moment unlocked a gift? Or early access to a show? By building on-chain we create the open-source map, for brands within and beyond our ecosystem, to find and reach our fans whose attention is so very valuable.

A couple of things tend to happen when you present such a vision:

  1. You scare the crap out of management (pleased to say this wasn’t the case at ATP)
  2. You scare the crap out of yourself

The second one is particularly pernicious because it can lock you up. Look too far ahead and the doubts become very loud. Our sport has thousands of stakeholders. Will this ever be sustainableIs the promised land of brand interoperability really coming?

This is something I grapple with a lot. We’re a governing body! Today is about audience numbers and partnerships and governing. A phrase you hear a lot is “we’ve got to walk before we can run”. It’s actively unhelpful to talk about a bold future powered by tech that’s still finding its footing.

In this situation I believe your only option is to strip things back to atomic level. How can this benefit our business today? How do I help my colleagues kick goals today? What is the simplest, most de-risked, bare bones idea than can prove a win and get this aircraft carrier moving?

In essence, park your vision. Put it in your back pocket. Set and forget.

When Jensen Huang was sat in that Denny’s he wasn’t envisaging building a $2 trillion Nvidia empire. He just wanted to make video games look slightly better. Lesson in there.

The secret sauce is fun.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what precisely it is that moves me in this space. Why do the projects that grip me, grip me? Conversely, what are the things that make me go “yeah, that ain’t it”. Too corporate? Too contrived? Disconnected from what fans actually care about?

From that pattern spotting: the best stuff is fun.

I think there’s a tendency in sport to take things a bit too seriously. Sure, you can try to make fans’ time more valuable. We talk a lot about enhancing their experience. But as a result, a lot of the things we focus on end up cold and machine-like. Increasing engagement, building loyalty. 10% off at the merch store.

We all know that fans are drawn to sport for the inspiration, unscriptedness, human stories, and sense of belonging. That’s undeniable. But peer into tennis culture and you’ll find that fans love trick-shots. Or the clip of the ball-kid annihilating a giant insect. And of course, the memes.

Fans just want to have a good time. They want to be entertained.

For inspiration on this, I look at gaming. No other sector comes even close in terms of creating genuinely fun and sticky digital experiences. There are a few common forces that underpin that:

  • Epic meaning (give it purpose + narrative, build heroes)
  • Accomplishment (complete quests, level up)
  • Empower creativity (express yourself and receive feedback)
  • Social influence
  • Unpredictability (surprise and delight! What will happen next?)
  • Avoidance (of loss, missing out)
  • Scarcity (I want it because I can’t have it!)
  • Ownership (Web3 anyone…?)

On LOVE, we ticked several of these boxes. On POSTERS, we got a couple, but I suspect we also took ourselves too seriously. Fans always know it.

More than anything, this tenet has helped me understand what not to do. We’ve been pitched all manner of ideas over the last 24 months and it’s proven an invaluable gut check. The “solution space” of possible things a sports league could get stuck into in Web3 is vast, and filtering is important.

Of course, there are different pressures when you’re beholden via a partnership to launch x projects with y transactions by EOFY. But I would argue that it’s in neither of your interests to do something inauthentic, vapid or forgettable. Take the reins, you know your fans and what moves them. Make it fun.

These are the good old days.

To close I want to paraphrase Chris Dixon’s excellent book Read, Write, Own.

In the closing section, he reflects on how much is romanticised about the days of early tech. Jobs and Wozniak founding Apple, Larry Page and Sergey Brin tinkering away in a garage to create Google. While many of the smartest people in the world dismissed personal computing and the internet as unrealistic or a passing fad, these guys saw the future and built it.

That’s where we are today in Web3. These are the good old days.

A wonderful reminder to keep going when no-one is paying attention.

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