SoftBank buys into $4bn fantasy football start-up

Non-fungible tokens updates

SoftBank is seeking to score real-world gains from fantasy football and the rise of virtual sports collectibles, as it leads a $680m investment into French start-up Sorare. 

Founded just three years ago, Sorare is now valued at $4.3bn following one of the largest fundraising rounds for a European technology start-up so far this year. 

The Paris-based company runs a popular online game that allows fans to pick an imagined team of real footballers, earning points according to their performance on the pitch each week. Players of the fantasy game can earn or buy digital football cards, known as “non-fungible tokens” (NFTs), secured on the blockchain, which can also be traded as unique items. 

“The magic is really at the intersection of NFT collectibles and fantasy football,” Nicolas Julia, CEO and co-founder of Sorare told the Financial Times. “The two together brings something that is truly new.” 

The new investment is led by SoftBank, through its Vision Fund 2 and its Latin America Fund, but also includes many other leading venture capitalist groups, such as Atomico and Bessemer, as well as football stars such as FC Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué and former Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand. Previous investors include Accel and Benchmark.

These investors believe more fans will be eager to buy and sell Sorare’s NFT cards — the company’s only source of revenue — like trading over decades in physical collectibles, from Topps baseball cards to Panini football stickers. 

Sorare’s latest funding, just seven months after it raised $250m, follows an explosion of interest in NFTs during the summer. 

Market tracker DappRadar estimates sales volumes hit $5.3bn in August, compared with $2.5bn during the first six months of 2021 combined, as cryptocurrency investors reinvest their gains into digital assets and games such as CryptoPunks, Bored Ape Yacht Club, Axie Infinity and Loot. 

The risk is that NFTs represent a shortlived fad, with accusations that some crypto groups have targeted sports fans with the idea that they can net financial returns by speculating on NFT sales. 

Sorare’s Julia said: “You will never see in [our] marketing that you can make money. Like in the physical world, some people will do like [they do] with Panini cards. Some of them sell for millions and way more than NFT cards today. But the core experience is the game.”

Marcelo Claure, CEO of SoftBank Group International, who personally owns or has invested in a number of football clubs, including Bolivia’s Club Bolívar and Spain’s Girona, said: “It’s evident from Sorare’s amazing growth this year alone that football fans around the world have been eagerly waiting for the ‘game within the game’ that Sorare provides.” 

Many sports leagues have plunged into offering NFTs. In 2019, North America’s National Basketball Association partnered with crypto company Dapper Labs to launch “Top Shot” ⁠ — 12-second highlights encrypted on the blockchain and then sold to fans as digital cards. One of these, a clip of a LeBron James dunk, was resold for $200,000, even though a similar video can be viewed on YouTube for free. 

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Like other forms of crypto, trading can be volatile. According to cryptoslam.io, the Top Shot market has cratered. During its February peak, more than 80,000 buyers spent more $224m to acquire the basketball cards that month. In July, there were just 35 buyers generating sales worth $8.4m. The average sale of Top Shot cards dropped from $181.81 to $31.5 over the period. 

Cryptoslam.io’s data suggests the value of Sorare cards achieved its peak in March, when they were worth $281 on average compared to $168.92 this month, but they have also maintained stronger sales volumes than Top Shot in recent months.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport at Emlyon Business School, said the “gold rush fervour” surrounding NFTs in sport reminded him of the “feeding frenzy” by football clubs for an online presence during the 1990s dotcom boom. “People are making a bet that fan engagement is synonymous with an economic transaction,” Chadwick said.

Julia said Sorare has achieved $150m in revenues so far this year, with the latest investment to be spent expanding in the US and securing new deals. Last week, it announced a contract with Spain’s La Liga competition, and is in talks with the English Premier League, the world’s most watched domestic football contest.