Can you imagine Nathan Cleary’s million-dollar salary being paid in mix of cash and cryptocurrency, or Tom Trbojevic negotiating his next deal with a Bitcoin bonus? It might sound absurd to most, but it’s not as fanciful as you might think.
In the wake of the NRL’s first foray into cryptocurrency sponsorship – a mega deal with the rapidly growing Brisbane-based digital currency trader Swyftx – the players’ union has one big prediction: crypto is part of the future.
So much so they’ve even hinted they will look at options in the next collective bargaining agreement, due to begin in 2023, for players to have the option to be paid in cryptocurrency.
“It is a form of currency, and we need to work with the NRL and clubs to look at building something, particularly in our collective bargaining agreement,” Rugby League Players Association chief executive Clint Newton said.
“If that does happen, our strong recommendation would be that education is a critical factor for players wanting to receive crypto payments as part of their salaries.”
Wests Tigers recruit Oliver Gildart has been one of the most outspoken players about the cryptocurrency craze, and said he would love to explore further how it would affect players in the future.
And the use of digital currency to pay elite athletes and staff from sporting organisations is not new to Australian franchises, with the Australian Baseball League’s Perth Heat signing a deal with Bitcoin payments company OpenNode.
All players and staff are paid in Bitcoin and the club also accepts payments for sponsorships, merchandise, and ballpark concessions in digital currency. They’ve even been dubbed “the Bitcoin baseball team”.
“The players have been positive and backed the club’s decision,” said Perth Heat chief executive Steven Nelkovski, speaking to the Herald from the United States. “The response elsewhere was phenomenal.
“There was 179 million people the announcement reached on November 17. We announced on the same day as the Staples Centre was re-named Crypto.com Arena – and our announcement was hailed as more significant within leading voices in the Bitcoin community.
“What we had previously done in three years for online sales of merchandise we eclipsed in four weeks through Bitcoin jerseys. The response was overwhelming.
“Three months later I’m spending time in the US speaking to Bitcoin-related companies about what we’re going to do in the next 12 months and into the future.
“I really think this is a takeover. It’s a warning to other teams – you either join or get left behind. The next step will be, when will the next contract be to the value of Bitcoin and not AUD? This is not slowing down.”
The NRL’s deal with Swyftx, which will include naming rights from 2023 to the Bunker, its multimillion-dollar video review system, was hailed as “the largest cryptocurrency partnership of any sport in Australia”. Swyftx employs 200 people, but is growing so quickly it has 100 positions vacant.
But the NRL’s agreement hasn’t pleased everyone.
Gambling reform advocate Reverend Tim Costello argued cryptocurrency was liable to even less regulation than sports betting, and young men like NRL players were particularly susceptible to the volatile nature of investing in the digital stock.
Newton agrees, and says the players’ union is aware of the risk cryptocurrency carries for its members.
“We are aware of the interest in the cryptocurrency market as a potential revenue source for athletes and more will follow,” he said.
“We have seen both huge gains and serious market corrections with cryptocurrency which highlights the dynamic nature of the sector. It is important to remember that right now it remains unregulated, which means it carries a significant risk for investors.”
The discussion about non-fungible tokens is expected to also be part of the upcoming collective bargaining talks between the NRL and players, such as Ryan Papenhuyzen and Kenny Bromwich who have established their own collections of NFTs on a blockchain.
South Sydney were the first NRL club to sign a deal with Sportemon Go, a physical and virtual tokenised sports start-up company.
The Rabbitohs said the club would work towards plans to release a series of digital assets via NFTs.