There will be no crypto commercials during this year’s National Football League (NFL) Super Bowl.
I know. No digitized, high-school aged LeBron James talking about a crunk future, no low-budget QR codes bouncing around the screen, no cute Shiba Inus. It’s kind of sad.
But after the year crypto has had, full of spectacular failures of trust, ethics and corporate responsibility (never mind the equally spectacular market crashes), here are some reasons I think it’s really not so sad and is, in fact, a good thing.
No cash? No sportswashing
With bitcoin’s price less than half what it was a year ago, any crypto company even substantially in the green (if one even exists?) is still preoccupied with surviving. Big, flashy marketing spends can wait. So too can the sportswashing.
Sportswashing describes groups, corporations or nation-states using the global popularity of sports to improve their reputations by proxy. Think of how Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world; how Qatar’s emir owns Paris Saint-Germain, which rosters three of the world’s most-liked athletes (all from different countries, with a combined population of 325 million people); how Russia hosted the 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2014 Winter Olympics; and how China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics.
In these situations, glitzy spectacles are all designed to shine a favorable light on those groups, corporations or nation-states to mask otherwise unfavorable realities. Super Bowl commercials can have the same flattering effect.
To be sure, I’m not implying that the crypto companies who had Super Bowl commercials last year are hiding human rights atrocities or something like that. But as we’ve learned since the last Super Bowl, many of them were hiding something not great.
And in the year ahead, perhaps the crypto companies that are able to gain ground without the benefit of these high-profile (and profile-heightening) commercial spots will be more fairly evaluated. At the very least, this time around their reputations won’t have been boosted by borrowed glory.
Does this mean the next FTX won’t use sports to garner favor? Unlikely. But for this year at least, we’re off the hook.
Less crypto executive hubris
The top of the market in any industry is marked by the overreaching hubris and long arm of ambition that characterize the industry’s executive class. Splashy and fancy advertisement spots like the Super Bowl are just as much about the ego boost of being seen on television by others and nurturing the “I’ve made it” feeling as it is about a savvy marketing spend.
It might be even more about the ego.
Crypto executives are no exception and they might yearn for it more than other executives, given the still-not-quite-mainstream acceptance of the industry as a whole. An association with the most recognizable brands in the world – Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Toyota? Sign them up.
Where that desire becomes hubris is when we consider if they even belong. Sure, the companies were flush with money last year, they were expanding and hiring at a breakneck pace and they were being invited to the tables of the rich and powerful – in government, industry, investment, media – so maybe they did.
FTX CEO Sam Bankman-Fried, for example, had already appeared on a stage in The Bahamas with President Bill Clinton before last year’s Super Bowl. He followed it up by testifying in front of Congress in defense of the crypto industry in a way that seemed sincere while donating influential levels of money to political campaigns. Not to mention the parade of TV interviews, including one the day after the Super Bowl on CoinDesk TV’s "The Hash". My ego is pumped just thinking about it; imagine if you lived it?
But if your company’s very foundation is built on eternal promises of a new paradigm or an untested new frontier of untold riches or, in some cases, a massive outright fraud, do you really belong?
At the very least we should thank our lucky stars: Crypto company executives can’t emerge from this year’s Super Bowl with boosted reputations (and associated egos) because of a loose association with a big event.
They’ll have to stick with earning it instead.