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Talking sports, art, and NFTs with round21's Jasmine Maietta
👋🏽 Hello everyone, gm gm, WELCOME BACK to another edition of the Overpriced JPEGs newsletter, where we’re catching you up on web3, NFTs, and the greater world of emerging tech.
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Sports marketing is going through an evolutionary shift: Instead of repping brands, athletes are the brand. Content creation is connecting sports teams with communities in fun and novel ways. And giant strides in technology are giving people ‘ownership’ of the fan experience in previously unimaginable ways.
Sitting at the epicenter of it all is round21, a sports lifestyle brand using merch as a canvas for art and culture, with a web3 slant. Carly recently welcomed round21 Founder + CEO Jasmine Maietta to the pod to learn more about this fascinating world, and how Jasmine views the global sports tech market - which is projected to reach a whopping $55B by 2030.
An athlete herself, Jasmine played professional basketball overseas before leading branding efforts at multiple major companies, including Peloton, Hasbro, and Under Armour. In this interview, she shares the importance of building strong brand identity, recent collaborations with world class athletes, and how round21 is shaking up the world of sports merchandising.
We’ve excerpted highlights from Jasmine’s responses below, which have been edited for brevity and clarity. We encourage you to check out the full interview on our YouTube channel or in any of our podcast feeds.
On Macro Sports Trends:
I've been in sports since early identity formation, which was middle school through college, and I played professionally overseas. So as a player, and working in the marketing side of sports, I witnessed this generational shift literally as it was happening, which were really three things:
1) Sports Endorsements: The big car, beverage, and shoe deals - that dynamic when I was playing was about endorsements and posing with a product and getting paid
2) Fandom as Armchair Entertainment: The idea that you sat and you passively watched a game, you didn't go out and engage the way that fans do today
3) Values: Back then, the value of sports was rooted predominantly in performance. Whereas today, people align with and invest in players based on who they are, what they represent.
So for us, round21 is a representation of a modern sports brand. We want to take advantage of these athletes who are brands, and give them a platform to express who they are through the game and beyond. We want to take advantage of this consumption of sports 24/7 - in real life, digitally and physically, and be a platform for partners, players, and fans to participate in.
On the Rise of Personal Branding in Sports:
Michael Jordan was definitely the catalyst or the spark for personal branding in sports. I think credit to him and his mom, to have the confidence to say that I'm the brand, and this is a product that I'm going to get behind. And that mindset is certainly how the athletes that we work with are approaching the opportunity they have. I also feel like the investment that Nike made in the marketing of that is a benchmark for what is required to succeed. And as a small startup, round21 obviously doesn't have that kind of budget, but we can be more creative today.
So with round 21 partners like Kayvon Tibideaux, who was drafted number five last year in the NFL Draft, or Brittney Griner, which will be the one of our top partnerships this year - all of it has to do with who they stand for in their own skin with their community. round 21 is looking for those types of athletes.
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On Building for Individual Fan Identity:
We feel like there is a truth to feeling who you are through what you're passionate about. Sometimes that identity is, ‘I'm a Bulls fan.’ And sometimes that identity is ‘I'm a Bulls fan from Brownsville, and I identify as an African American male.’ And it's a needle that has to really thread balance of multiple facets of identity. I think the Bored Ape Yacht Club did it better than anyone at the time, which was individual PFPs, but with a black and white logo that says ‘I'm a part of that club.’ And that balance is the one we’ve taken, which is, ‘I'm a fan of something in sports, an athlete, a team, a league, a movement, and I'm someone.’ Providing that duality or multiplicity of identity through round21 provides is really the value we offer within the overall merch environment.
On Redefining Sports Merch:
Rarely do you see player merch that really cuts through, and we wanted to bring a sense of the insight around collectability and trading cards to fans, but in a new form and format for the sport or for the game. So when we partnered with the NFLPA (NFL’s Players Association) we were very intentional with players we launched with and the artist we partnered with. Dwight White hand drew iconic plays and represented the sounds of the commentators and the fingerprints of where the players hand would have been on the ball when that play was made. The fans went crazy for that format of a collectible that was very individualized that commemorated a player that they love.
We're also hot off the presses of our World Cup drop with the US Women's National Team Players Association. We represented the players as individuals, but coming together on the global stage for the World Cup. Our artist, Jayson Atienza, is Filipino, born in the US, the son of a deaf mute father who communicated through art his entire childhood. Forbes and the Washington Post did feature stories on this collab because it was the first time that merch had the symbolism of national pride and the players represented in a way that crossed well beyond the tee. We think that that bespoke approach is what will continue to keep us relevant, and continue to keep the athletes and players associations interested in how we bring their stories to life.
On Sports Merch as Cultural Goods:
The way I've always led is - you build for the company you're becoming, not the company you are. And I firmly believe that the culturally conscious are going to start to show up and wake up in sports in a way that will be a mass renaissance around sports merch, and it's already starting. We don't do anything that's cheap and rubber or a commoditized supply chain, everything we do has a premium hand feel and comes from an ethical factory. We try to build to a limited run or time-based digital drops, so that we only make the physical twin so that there's less waste.
Ten years before electric cars were a thing, people thought - who’s going to buy a Prius? That's what we believe, round 21 is. We are the Prius of our industry, and we believe that the culturally conscious are going to care about the story, the make the product, the model, the scarcity, and certainly the partners we keep we say no to most inbound, because we know that in brand management, half the time who you keep your company with is a part of who your brand is. And so all of that combined is a long view. And we do believe we're making products for sports fans. They may be still hiding a little bit, but they'll come out.
On the Value of Content Marketing:
We're building what we believe are long-term - not transactional - relationships with our community. The brands I've worked for, including Peloton, Under Armour, and Hasbro, have played around with pricing a lot. I've witnessed price sensitivity, price value, and the psychology around price, and we are just building a completely different model. The words ‘sponsored’, ‘advertorial’, and ‘advertisement’ reflect an outdated marketing model, in my opinion. Content that's rich, that entertains, that teaches you something and helps you discover something is still advertising - but it's done in a way that is purely trying to engage the community on your terms, in the spirit of them choosing what they want to do with that next.
On Being the First Company with NFTs on Shark Tank:
[editors note: round21 successfully reached a deal on camera with Kevin O’Leary, but it fell through after taping concluded. Jasmine elaborates here.]
It didn't end up the way my dream had. We are celebrating self expression in sports. You've got Damon and Mark who've been in fashion and sports. And at the time, we had just dropped the Bored Ape basketball, locked a 6-figure purchase order at Dick's Sporting Goods, and had all the characteristics to get a deal from those two. Well, that didn't happen.
Kevin O'Leary in 2021, when the show was taped, had made a disproportionate investment in blockchain technology very publicly. And it was cool for him to see NFTs as part of what we are building. Yes, we use tokens as access to special edition products and for other experiences, but we’re really proud that the token is not the product - thank goodness, right?
Through due diligence, there were indicators that there was misalignment around where the ‘mission’ of the business was versus the ‘transactions’ of the business and that misalignment was too big of a talking point.
On Forging Blockchain Partnerships:
We feel blessed to have partners in the NFT and blockchain community that still see the value of round21 and continue to invest with us in bringing products and experiences to life. We're doing our fourth Coinbase event with NY Liberty, because for them sports culture is a very important part of culture and they value round21’s approach to driving what feels like a personalized, cool, curated experience. We also brought an NFC-tagged apparel dropped with IYK to that. It's a great example of everyone playing to their strengths and thinking about the fan first.
On the Digital Future of Sports and Tech:
A lot of people describe round21 as sports, art, and tech. And I always say thank you, because the tech piece enables the sports and art. We’ll continue to build ways that enhance fan engagement through products and experiences, and our augmented reality products, like ones that we've done with the NFLPA with the US Women's National Team, bring the art to life.
To us, we think every product is the beginning of the next experience. Now you layer in tagged apparel, where you get access to this collectible that represents the moment and it gives you deeper content, or early access to the next thing. That ecosystem is the opportunity with technology in round21 and we’ll continue to leverage it across all of the different paths that tech will take, if it enhances the fan experience.
On the Outlook for NFTs:
Am I optimistic? Yes, these are all tools. It's like in the Gold Rush asking if you're optimistic about the shovel or the pickaxe. Yeah, I'm optimistic that it will be used. I think from a sports perspective, being able to show off your individuality within digital gaming is an obvious unlock. And with the partnership EA Sports has done with .SWOOSH, there’s early indicators that there’s a trajectory that's happening, and round21 is in the discussion as well. But from our perspective, thinking about what it takes for NFT's to be successful, feels like it'll make my brain hurt. So instead, we just think about whenever we do something, what's the next thing?
The reality is, every NFT project, platform, and partner that is still building - is building with a long-term, sustainable position in mind. Hoping and waiting to redeem or collect something quickly feels like the old way everybody used to operate. And I would just encourage people to think about that sustainable, durable value that the partners and the properties are trying to create and participate in it in a positive way and provide the support that it's going to take to get there.
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