Long before Simona Halep became the top-ranked player in women’s tennis—a reigning French Open champion who has earned more than $27 million in lifetime prize money—the 26-year-old Romanian was a no-name teenage hopeful, struggling to pay for her nascent tennis career.
Upon turning pro at age 14, Halep needed money to cover the equipment, coaching, and travel needed to improve her skills and international ranking, expenses that can cost as much as $100,000 a year. Yet with scant support from corporate sponsors or her home country’s underfunded tennis association, Halep was stuck—until Romanian shipping tycoon Corneliu Idu agreed to pay for her to play in European junior tournaments.
Two years later, Halep won the junior French Open. A star was born, with an assist. “My parents did their best to get me to where I am today,” she said in 2016. “But it was good for us we had that help.”
For Russian blockchain entrepreneur Pavel Stukolov, stories like Halep’s indicate a problem within tennis—and a business opportunity. “There are a lot of talented juniors who have to answer the question whether they want to proceed in their sports careers, or should they choose a stable career in something else and go to high school and university,” he says. “And that’s because their families can’t afford to provide the financing.”
Stukolov aims to change that. His new talent management company, TokenStars, plans to find and fund tomorrow’s tennis stars through a blockchain-based digital platform that will allow fans and others to invest in promising juniors roughly akin to the way they might invest in a racehorse or a Silicon Valley startup.
The pitch to tennis fans, Stukolov says, is simple. Help find the next Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova.
The basic idea works like this: investors use traditional money to buy “ACE tokens,” a TokenStars-issued cryptocurrency based on the Ethereum protocol. That cash goes to support junior players selected and managed by the company. Meanwhile, the tokens can be redeemed on an online marketplace for athlete-related goods and services such as autographs and memorabilia, one-on-one video chats and in-person meet-and-greets.
The pitch to tennis fans, Stukolov says, is simple. Help find the next Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova. Be a part of their success from the start. Receive exclusive opportunities to interact with them. “Let’s say you want to train with your favorite player,” he says. “Currently, that’s very hard with any professional player, not just a Serena Williams. Our token holders will have a chance to pay with tokens for those kinds of activities.”
TokenStars is not the only effort to build a sports business around blockchain. The Fan-Controlled Football League is using the technology for an eight-team indoor football league, scheduled to launch next year, that will allow fans to vote on everything from team uniforms to rosters to in-game offensive playcalling. Unblockable, an American company led by former FOX Sports executive Jeb Terry and former San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, promises to offer crypto coin collectables whose value will be tied to the on-field performances of real-world athletes. (How that will actually work is unclear: language on the company’s website is vague, and a spokesperson did not respond to a BREAKER interview request).
What makes TokenStars unique is its focus on tennis—and on athlete development. A longtime sports fan who previously worked in venture capital, Stukolov has been building the company’s infrastructure and business plan since 2016, and counts Russian tennis agent Maya Kurilova and former players Sergey Demekhine and Anastasia Myskina among his advisors.
In fact, it was conversations with Myskina—a former French Open winner and top-10 player who is now the vice president of the Russian tennis federation—that helped Stukolov understand the funding struggles facing many junior players. According to both the British Lawn Tennis Association and the London-based Association of Accounting Technicians, total development costs for a player from age 5 to 18 can exceed $300,000, in part because elite tennis academies in France, Spain, and the United States charge $60,000-$78,000 a year.
For top juniors, academies sometimes provide scholarships or fee waivers. National tennis federations and traditional talent management agencies like IMG also can help teenage players cover their expenses. Nevertheless, athletes and their families often are left strapped and scrambling.
When tennis star Maria Sharapova moved from Russia to the United States at age 7 to train at a top academy in Florida, her father, Yuri, came with her and took a job as a dishwasher to help pay for her lessons. The parents of Noah Rubin, a former Wimbledon junior champion currently ranked No. 138 on the ATP Tour, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the sport—costs that reportedly strained their marriage and complicated their eventual divorce.
When money is tight and options are limited, families turn to private benefactors—arrangements that can be fraught for everyone involved. After turning pro at age 14, Italy’s Camila Giorgi reportedly financed her rise up the WTA Tour ranks by stiffing a series of investors that included a wealthy couple in Connecticut, an Israeli internet entrepreneur, a group of Alabama businessmen, and the owner of a Phoenix tennis academy.
Stukolov wants to broaden the pool of potential tennis investors and make those investments more transparent. “We can do better than, ‘you find a wealthy guy who believes in you and likes you, or not,’” he says. He also believes that TokenStars will be able to identify overlooked talent by giving tokens and cash rewards to parents and coaches who submit scouting reports. “Currently, the traditional sports agencies don’t have a lot of agents who work and cover juniors in emerging markets,” he says. “So a lot of young players at that critical age of 13-15 in a country like Brazil or Russia who can’t afford one of the big academies are off the radar.”
TokenStars’ business model is similar to that of traditional agencies: the company will collect a share of future prize money won by its junior players, and receive commissions of 10-30 percent on professional players’ sponsorship deals. Marius Copil, the top-ranked Romanian player on the ATP Tour, and WTA players Veronica Kudermetova and Elitsa Kostova already have signed marketing management deals with Stukolov’s company, which claims to have raised $4.9 million through an ACE token sale that took place last year.
According to TokenStars’ business plan, more than half of those funds will go to sponsoring junior players who have yet to be identified. For the company to be successful, about half of them eventually need to reach the top 200 in the ATP and WTA rankings, with a few of them cracking the top 50. “Your first real income in tennis comes when you’re 18, 19, 20 years old,” Stukolov says. “We understand that it’s long money.”
Success is hardly assured. At this point, TokenStars is less of a thriving business than an ambitious pilot project in search of real users, like almost every other blockchain startup. According to DappRadar data, only a handful of Ethereum-based applications typically serve more than 300 active users a day. While a niche sports application could become the ecosystem’s breakthrough killer app, that prospect seems doubtful, particularly since slumping Ethereum prices may depress retail interest in ACE token purchases. Fan interest in tennis might not translate into a widespread desire to invest in players’ careers as if they’re stocks: Fantex, a company backed by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and sports executives that was founded in 2013 and allowed fans to buy and sell interests in professional athletes, has since shut down its trading platform and lost its CEO and co-founder.
At this point, TokenStars is less of a thriving business than an ambitious pilot project in search of real users, like almost every other blockchain startup.
Finding profitable athletes may be more difficult still. Four years ago, Tennis Australia estimated that the average male tennis pro loses about $6,000 a year, while the average female pro earns just over $5,000. The organization’s chief executive, Craig Tiley, says that to have a financially sustainable career, a player has to be within the top 100. Meanwhile, International Tennis Federation study published in 2016 found that of the top 100 junior players, just seven percent of boys and 19 percent of girls later reached the top 100 of the pro ranks.
“In junior tennis, you only have to play a couple of events for word to spread that there is a young prodigy,” says Ryan Rodenberg, a sport management professor at Florida State University who previously worked in the tennis industry. “So my sense is that the cream already rises to the top, and financing is potentially available to anybody. But if those players can’t even afford to get to tournaments, they could fall through the cracks.”
Ultimately, TokenStars is less a bet on blockchain than on the idea that the elite junior tennis market is pricing out potentially prosperous pros, presenting an opportunity for arbitrage. Stukolov believes the next Haleps are out there, waiting to be discovered and funded—and not just in tennis. “It’s the same problem in hockey,” he says. “This is just our first step.”
The original version of this article stated that ACE Tokens can be redeemed for a share of future endorsements and prize money. In August 2017, a TokenStars announcement on Medium stated that token holders could “receive compensation for activity” and that “athletes can give a lot in return to early supporters” including “a share of earned income.” Pavel Stukolov clarifies, “advertising commissions and share of prize money are important parts of the token economy, but the users can’t directly exchange or receive company’s profits in return for the tokens.” The article has been amended accordingly.