If BitPay's decision to promote bitcoin through a college football playoff seemed bizarre or peculiar at times, the event ultimately succeeded as spectacle, promoting the emerging technology's benefits to many hearing about it for the first time.
The Bitcoin St Petersburg Bowl packed in references to bitcoin amid the typical college football trappings, the cheerleaders, marching bands and garishly painted fans that assembled in Florida throughout the week. Bitcoin was visible at a Christmas Day 'Battle of the Bands' competition, a commemorative physical bitcoin was used during the official coin toss and BitPay executive chairman Tony Gallippi explained bitcoin on local sports radio.
Though advertising blanketed the host stadium at Tropicana Field both on field and on ESPN, evidence suggests the event may have had the greatest impact not on a more general audience, but on BitPay's target demographic – small merchants.
In contrast to the skeptical college football fans in attendance and a sometimes critical social media viewership, the more than 20 local merchants surveyed by CoinDesk throughout the day were receptive to bitcoin as a payment method.
Still, the event featured a dedicated bitcoin 'Fan Zone' aimed at consumers. Located just blocks from the stadium on bustling Central Avenue, it was here where bitcoin arguably had the most impact on this demographic as attendees were able to ask questions and engage the industry.
AirBitz CEO Paul Puey, who showcased his company's bitcoin wallet at the booth, perhaps best summed up the industry's optimism that the game and similar events will have a more lasting impact on consumers and the general public.
"This event is not going to be remembered for the people who played in it, this event is going to be remembered going down as the biggest event to expose bitcoin in 2014. I can tell my kids about the Bitcoin Bowl, that I was there, that I educated a handful of people."
Perhaps most notable, however, was the lack of bitcoin payments at the event itself, as bitcoin was not accepted at the venue's retail stores or concession stands as it is at other US sports venues in San Jose and Sacramento.
"We could not come to an agreement on bitcoin being in the stadium with the Tampa Bay Rays," BitPay spokesperson Ashley Wheeler said, referring to the baseball franchise that calls the venue home.
As for the game, the North Carolina State (NC State) Wolfpack defeated the University of Central Florida (UCF) Knights after an exciting late comeback by their opponent. The final score was 34 to 27.
Up close with bitcoin
NCR Silver product manager Reggie Kimble, who cited the Bitcoin Bowl as one of the reasons the payments giant integrated bitcoin into its point-of-sale system, believes events like the Bitcoin St Petersburg Bowl are effective and needed.
"A lot of people are interested in bitcoin and really, the name Bitcoin Bowl has inspired a lot of curiosity from the general public which is sadly disillusioned and asking a lot of questions, so it's an opportunity to educate," Kimble told CoinDesk.
However, Kimble noted that, for now, such education is still in the early stages. "I can tell you the most frequently asked question is 'Tell me all about this bitcoin'," he added. "Consumers want to know about it."
Chris Brunner, president of bitcoin brokerage Trucoin, reported more success, speaking to "a few hundred" people at the booth over the course of the day where he showcased his company's new bitcoin ATM solution.
"It's been exciting for us to speak to people who are from a slightly different demographic," Brunner said. "As bitcoin becomes more mainstream, it's exciting for us to touch base with the world outside with the tech-sphere."
Elsewhere, mobile payments startup TabbedOut was in attendance.
Consumer awareness low
Outside the booth, however, attendees seemed less concerned with bitcoin.
A random sampling of both NC State and UCF fans by CoinDesk suggested that bitcoin awareness among the crowd was limited, even despite the presence of the BitPay and bitcoin logos throughout the stadium and surrounding shops.
Regardless of demographic, many fans of both NC State and UCF were unaware of bitcoin, had only heard about it in passing or believe bitcoin is a company. Most seemed generally receptive to the idea of digital money, while others suggested they would learn more about bitcoin after hearing its benefits.
Steve Patterson, author of the e-book What's the Big Deal about Bitcoin? was also in the crowd interacting with fans, and reported similar findings.
"I've spoken with a few people here and no one understands anything about [bitcoin]," he said, adding that he's had the opposite experience with local business owners.
Twitter tipping blitz
The educational efforts surrounding the game weren't limited to St Petersburg.
On Twitter, bitcoin enthusiasts such as author Andreas Antonopoulos; bitcoin investor Erik Voorhees and core developer Jeff Garzik engaged social media users with bitcoin tipping service ChangeTip, donating bitcoin to those interested in learning more about the technology.
— Jeff Garzik (@jgarzik) December 27, 2014
There, the industry helped dispel common misconceptions about the technology, while engaging users who demonstrated a real interest in the digital currency and poking fun at bitcoin's more visible critics.
BitPay refines its pitch
The game also showcased new advertisements for BitPay, both of which took opposite approaches to appealing to merchants while stressing bitcoin's benefits as an online payment option.
The ads are the first by a bitcoin company to appear on ESPN, a major US sports network that reaches 100 million households in total.
One video took a decidedly humorous approach to highlighting the difference between bitcoin and credit cards, painting traditional online payment companies as a greedy mafia.
Watch the first commercial here:
Another was more serious with its tone, emphasizing the benefits for merchants. The approach suggests BitPay is still trying to refine its pitch to a wider audience, but that small merchants remain its core focus.
BitPay boasts a notable stable of billion-dollar clients including online retailers TigerDirect and Newegg, and most recently, Internet pioneer Microsoft, though neither ad catered to enterprise companies.
Watch the second video below:
BitPay did not respond to an inquiry about whether the commercials would be aired again on ESPN or other networks.
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Images via Pete Rizzo