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Giving fans a voice: How blockchain technology is powering a fan-owned SailGP team

As a challenger sports league in its fourth season, SailGP believes its blank canvas will not only deliver a compelling global sailing circuit, but also a genuine alternative to established sporting competitions. SportsPro explores how this spirit of innovation has encouraged a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO), powered by NEAR, to democratise team ownership and bring fans closer to the sport.

6 September 2023 SportsPro


SailGP has always wanted to be different. From the moment the series hit the water in 2019, its ambition has been to create the most commercially successful global competition in the history of sailing, providing an annual circuit for the sports’ leading athletes.

It has combined high-speed foiling boats and broadcast innovations with a modern team-based structure, complete with consistent line-ups and branding.

The hope was that greater continuity would engage fans, boost the profile of athletes, and drive commercial interest. A global championship taking place in some of the world’s most iconic locations, 90-minute events and a digital focus would ensure that even casual sports fans would be interested and more able to understand the nuances of the sport.

Doing things differently

Three seasons on and it’s fair to say SailGP has largely fulfilled that target, achieving the largest sailing broadcast audience in the US since the 1992 America’s Cup. 

But a secondary mission has been to offer an alternative to established sports organisations and appeal to fans other than those who might be interested in sailing. An example of this in action is the Impact League, which ranks each team based on a series of sustainability criteria, with the winners securing a donation to their nominated ‘purpose partners’. Sustainability and purpose are, in effect, fields of competition. 

“We are a new sport to [many people] and it’s the first time they’ve seen these hydrofoiling boats going at nearly 100 kmph in close proximity,” says Ben Johnson, Senior Vice President of U.S. Strategy and Development at SailGP. “So we’re looking at offering them a way to [strengthen] their fandom and differentiating it from what they’re getting from other sports.

“When we look at something that’s new for our fans, we want it to be genuinely additive, whether that’s the experience on-site, the access they get to content, or the voice they have as part of our community that gets heard across the organisation, across the athletes, and is reflected at events.”

Now, there’s potential for a new team to do something unprecedented, transforming sports fans from passive bystanders into active participants…

Debate is at the heart of sports fandom. Countless hours are spent discussing tactics, recruitment, and governance structure, while even the design and colour of a kit can divide opinion. For most fans, these disputes are a source of entertainment, but there are plenty who genuinely believe they should be able to influence such matters.

Some teams do consult fans, and there are clubs with membership structures that put certain issues to a vote. But, in most sports, decisions are made by billionaires with the necessary capital to invest, leaving few other routes for fans to influence outcomes. 

But what if it didn’t have to be this way? 

Creating a Fan-Owned Team

SailGP has amended its rules of participation to allow for blockchain-powered DAO-facilitated fan ownership. Next year, a Fan-Owned SailGP team could join the league for Season 5, giving owners a say on everything from athlete selection and commercial decisions through to livery colours and a choice of purpose partner – making fans the decision-makers through decentralised governance supported by NEAR Protocol.

The new team will be structured as a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) which uses smart contracts powered by a set of rules to allow collectives, rather than an individual or a centralised body, to have authority in decision making. The rules, as well as any actions taken, are recorded and verified with blockchain technology, providing a high degree of visibility. 

Put simply, blockchain guarantees the rights of fan owners against the whims of an individual and prevents interference. 

While the team is independent of SailGP, it will benefit from the organisation’s wider partnership with the NEAR Foundation. The firm’s blockchain is used to power a range of engagement initiatives including ‘The Dock’ – a Web 3.0-integrated fan loyalty, content and rewards programme – and is a ready-made platform for the DAO to launch on. 

Indeed, any possible DAO team will be powered by NEAR’s carbon neutral blockchain, which uses a much more sustainable ‘proof of stake’ methodology for validating transactions than other forms of crypto technology.

“When we first partnered with NEAR Foundation, we wanted to offer something that was entirely new,” explains Johnson. “So we looked at where other sports have limitations. They have very regimented, structured governing bodies and long histories. These are both things that make it incredible to be a fan but are also limiting when it comes to doing truly new things.

“The driving factor here was to create something that would give our fans a connection to our sport that they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. It delivers a degree of personal affinity in a way that isn’t possible with a traditional sporting event. No matter how much money I have, I’m not going to own an NBA team. The structures in place are just not designed for somebody coming in off the street. 

“There’s no better way to showcase your fan affinity than to actually own a part of a team.”

In line with its innovative ethos, SailGP has amended its rules of participation to enable any fan-owned team the chance to enter the league as a DAO. The parameters of how any fan-owned teams would operate are set by the agreement between SailGP and the existing ten teams – bolstered by the arrival of a German outfit part-owned by Formula One legend Sebastian Vettel in Season 4. 

But ultimately what any DAO actually does is dependent on these smart contracts and will be decided by the owners – the fans. 

Investors will be able to dictate how any DAO team is constituted, with decision making power over governance structure, team operations and commercial activities. Meanwhile fans will be able to have a say in team decisions, such as selection issues, and gives owners access to exclusive benefits and VIP experiences. 

There are some obligations on the team to protect both the integrity of the competition and fan owners, such as the requirement to establish a management team to perform day-to-day operations, but the scope of the DAO is up to members so long as it adheres to the framework. While owners won’t be able to say who is going to be on the boat, they will have influence and the management team will have to deliver regular reports. 

SailGP likens it to the same way that the executive reports into congress in the US government.

The hope is that DAOs will strengthen the bond with fans by making them feel more empowered to make a genuine difference, and belong to an exclusive, global community that gives them real access to the team and athletes. Ownership also generates a sense of achievement – because the team’s success is their success – and also a sense of good derived from SailGP’s purpose-led initiatives. 

“Our hope is that the DAO operates the team with every bit of the innovation and ingenuity and creativity that you see with the best teams around the world.”

Ben Johnson, Senior Vice President of US Strategy and Development at SailGP

Will it work?

SailGP acknowledges there have been other attempts at fan-owned teams with various degrees of success. However, it also notes that there has never been a successful DAO at this scale, despite several attempts to get things off the ground – mainly because of a lack of support from potential teams or governing bodies.

“This is not a new concept,” says Johnson. “There are some incredible properties that started a couple of years ago with regards to team ownership via blockchain and Web 3.0. But where you had interested groups looking to get into community sports ownership, you didn’t have willing parties on the other side of the table.

“SailGP’s [agility] and NEAR’s technology was this perfect marriage of something that allowed us to offer something that doesn’t exist in traditional sport.”  

But despite the support from SailGP management, Johnson is clear that the success of the venture – both on and off the water – will be down to token owners.

“Our hope is that the DAO operates the team with every bit of the innovation and ingenuity and creativity that you see with the best teams around the world,” says Johnson.

“They should start from scratch and create this purpose-led team that really reflects their community and their shared values.”

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