Monday, May 16, 2022

When NFTs came to roller derby, roller derby fought out

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Shreya Christina
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When you think of roller derby, you probably think of tough people on roller skates racing around a track and hitting each other. You probably don’t think about the blockchain. But crypto has entered the arena whether roller derby is ready or not.

Three roller skaters — Lady Trample (real name: Samara Pepperell), Miss Tea Maven (Jennifer Dean), and Sharon Tacos (Cailin Klein) — attempted an NFT project this month. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital assets that are stored on the blockchain. One of the best-known uses of NFTs is to prove ownership of digital art, such as: those cartoon monkeys you may have seen, or Reese Witherspoon’s current twitter avatar (and last business venture). But you don’t “own” the art; instead, you own a token that represents it. You can also make a lot of money by selling these tokens.

Like crypto itself, NFTs polarize. Some see these digital assets as the great new frontier in art collecting, digital property and community. Many other people think they are an environmentally destructive scam where a small group get very rich from what are really just lines of code with no real value or use. This criticism played out on a smaller scale when the derby NFT project was announced.

Roller derby and NFTs are similar in some ways. For many, they don’t just represent a sport or an investment opportunity, respectively. They are also communities that outsiders don’t understand. They have both been accused of being a cult or a fad.

But these theoretical parallels don’t mean that the roller derby and NFT communities go hand in hand in real life. Trample, Maven and Tacos thought so and created ‘Bout Time NFTTT’. (Roller derby games are called bouts, and each of the skaters has a T in their derby name.)

If you follow roller derby, you know who at least one, if not all three, of the founders of ‘Bout Time’ are: they are top athletes who have played for the best roller derby teams in the world. Tacos came up with the idea in January. She says she got into crypto during the pandemic and that she had the skills and knowledge to produce her own NFT collection. Inspired by other NFT projects that donated to various causes, Tacos thought she could do the same for roller derby by donating a portion of the proceeds to struggling leagues. She contacted two skaters whose skills the project needed: Trample is an artist who can draw the images, and Maven works in marketing and could promote the project.

It’s not uncommon for skaters to start their own derby-related businesses, from making gear and clothing to owning the stores that sell it. But these are all tangible goods and services that make sense to people. NFTs would break new consumer derby territory.

Roller derby could use some help. During the pandemic, the sport largely came to a standstill. Two years later, it is far from being recovered and probably never will. Many leagues lost their locations, their sources of income and their members. A cash injection could do wonders for them. The three also saw this as a way to generate more outside interest in the derby, or as a starting point for other uses of NFTs and the blockchain that could also popularize the sport.

You can see where they would get that idea from. A lot other sport- competitions and athletes get into NFTs, so why not this one and why not? And the DIY ethos of derby resembles the decentralized community that encompasses most successful NFT projects — and the NFT space itself. Maven said she also saw this as an opportunity for more women to get involved in a largely male-dominated industry. Trample drew the basic image of a roller skater and the hundreds of interchangeable elements, from the skates to the tattoos, that would go on top. They generated thousands of images, each with its own NFT.

“It was just trying to be a broad representation of the sport and a cool way to create something that is collectible,” Trample said.

They announced the project on March 9 with an Instagram Live, along with a website which provided all the details, social media accounts and a Discord channel.

Here’s How It All Should Work: On March 31, ‘Bout Time would drop 10,000 NFTs that people could buy for $25 worth a cryptocurrency called Polygon† Depending on the number of NFTs they sold, they donated up to 50 percent of their proceeds to roller derby leagues, with the NFT holders deciding as a group which leagues. Another 5 percent would go to nature nonprofits to compensate the environmental costs of hitting the NFTs. The rest of the money would be divided among the three, minus any other expenses they incurred and the taxes they owed. If they sold all 10,000 NFTs, they would each make a nice chunk of change, but nobody got rich here. Not from the first sales anyway – NFTs have of course been known to skyrocket in value.

You have to wonder if there was enough crossover between the roller derby community and the NFT community to sell 10 of these, let alone 10,000. But ‘Bout Time’ didn’t think there should be. People who like NFTs buy from collections that don’t represent the things they like or always do, from cartoon cats nasty pixelated punks† Why not derby skaters?

“I think the artwork is super cool,” Tacos said. “I like most of the things Trample designs, and I’m sure other people think it’s cool too.”

Ideally, they said, most of the money wouldn’t come from the derby community at all. But it would go back in.

That’s not how most of the derby community — or at least its most vocal segments — saw things. In hundreds of comments on derby-related social media outlets, the three were accused of many of the same things that the NFT world in general has been criticized for. People didn’t understand what NFTs were or what they would buy. They said NFTs were: scam and pyramid schemes. They saw celebrities use their fame to monetize their fans. They promoted a project that harmed the environment. If you don’t know much about NFTs and can’t wrap your head around them, it’s easy to see their downsides. It’s much harder to see how good or useful they are.

Unlike most NFT projects, however, this criticism came almost entirely from their own community, a community that has supported them in the past and believed the project could help. The three anticipated this and thought they were willing to tackle it. But they hadn’t anticipated how vitriolic, numerous, and generally negative the comments would be. They had supporters, but most were afraid to show that support in public or they would be attacked too. “Bout Time was also concerned that all the leagues they contributed to would face similar animosity. Social media combined with the derby community can lead to some pretty nasty piles.

“They just want to fight, and I’m not a fighter,” Trample said. “It’s not my nature – on the track, yes. Off the track, no.”

In the end, the three skaters decided it wasn’t worth angering the roller derby community to create what this new one could have become. They decided to pull the plug.

“If this community doesn’t want us to run this project, then we’re not going to do this project for them,” Trample said. “The whole reason was to raise money for the derby community, and they spoke out so forcefully against us.”

So ‘Bout Time NFTTT is over before it started. But all three say they believe NFTs — or at least the blockchain technology they’re based on — are here to stay. Tacos is already involved in another NFT project, which may find a more receptive audience. Or maybe not: Some reports say the NFT bubble is about to burst, with average selling prices falling in recent months. On the other hand, people have been saying for years that the bottom of the crypto market will fall, and it still does.

For now, it looks like roller derby isn’t ready for NFTs. Or maybe it will find a different, unique derby way. As one person noted in a derby gossip group on Facebook that heatedly discussed the matter, “Blockchain” would be a good derby name.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here so you don’t miss the next one!

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