A decade or so ago, it was clothing lines. More recently, it’s been wine. But burgundies and bordeauxs are so two years ago.
The off-the-court obsessions of handsomely compensated NBA players often follow popular trends. But the latest one can’t be sipped, nor can it be sewn. Hell, you can’t even touch it, and its skeptics describe it as a scam.
That obviously hasn’t stopped cryptocurrency—the nebulous term for the various digital currencies, like Bitcoin or Ethereum, that are an increasingly popular investment for the rich and wannabe rich alike—from becoming the cool new thing ballers across the Association nerd out about. That is, if they haven’t already become an investor or signed up to be an endorser.
“It’s definitely getting more popular,” says two-time All-Star Trae Young. “Older guys are starting to bring it up to us younger guys about how to manage our money. It’s a cool topic.”
But as crypto’s mainstream appeal continues to grow and its creep into NBA circles becomes more conspicuous by the month—with arenas, teams, and superstar players announcing sponsorship deals left and right—it brings up a curious question: Will there come a day when NBA players eschew the good ol’ American greenback and choose to be paid directly in crypto?
Such a scenario might sound preposterous now, and there’s zero indication that players are about to start demanding payment in digital currencies. But given that companies like Crypto.com and FTX have thrown astronomical sums of money to rename arenas in Los Angeles and Miami, legends like LeBron James and Steph Curry have signed on as endorsers, and an ever-increasing roster of notable names around the league are dabbling in some form of crypto, is it that far-fetched?
A lot, of course, has to change before NBA players no longer prefer to be exclusively compensated in anything other than dollars. But if you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run, there’s evidence that the evolution toward contracts one day being paid in crypto has begun.
“Just like the game has evolved and changed when you’re talking about on the court, people, the world is constantly evolving, changing,” says Heat forward Jimmy Butler. “Is it possible? Very much so. Will it happen? I don’t know.”
The six-time All-Star is one of the more prominent names around the league that have embraced crypto. Butler recently partnered with Binance, a company that describes itself as operating the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange. In an ad that kicked off the partnership last month, Butler mocked those blindly jumping on the crypto bandwagon because celebrities have endorsed it. “Trust yourself and do your own research,” he tells his 802,000-plus Twitter followers. Butler, one of the more inquisitive players in the NBA, did his. He started by asking former teammate Andre Iguodala.
“The dude is a genius in more ways than one,” says Butler. “Obviously, basketball talent, yeah. Overall, good dude. Great dad. But it’s like if you have any question about crypto or what to invest in, that’s who you pick up the phone and talk to.”
Iguodala, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is well-known for his Silicon Valley ties and business acumen, so it makes perfect sense that Butler would hit him up for intel. In January, Iguodala announced he was partnering with an investment app to convert portions of his 2021-22 salary into Bitcoin, the most popular and well-known crypto currency among the roughly 10,000 available.
“Is it possible? Very much so. Will it happen? I don’t know.” — Jimmy Butler
But the player who perhaps owns the earliest crypto bona fides is Spencer Dinwiddie. The Mavericks guard has been one of crypto’s biggest proponents in the NBA, dating back to 2017, when he first publicly embraced alternative currencies. He’s been outspoken ever since about the benefits of crypto and even made headlines in 2019, when he asked the Nets to convert his contract into a secured digital investment. Dinwiddie wanted to sell tokens against his pact, essentially allowing investors to gamble on whether he would earn more or less on his next deal. The pros and cons of that are an entirely different, and complicated, subject, so we’re not going to get into it. Just know that the league swiftly said no to Dinwiddie’s proposal. But the episode illuminated crypto in a big way around NBA circles. Two years later, more and more players are learning the ins and outs, often from one another.
“Everybody’s just bouncing thoughts and ideas off of each other,” says Butler. “I think that’s what the majority of conversations are, just getting intel about whatever is going on, because there’s always somebody that’s really locked in on something that can teach anybody anything. So as much as crypto is becoming a big thing, I think that the conversations around crypto is so everybody can learn what everybody else knows around the league.”
Even though many NBA players earn more money than most Americans can fathom, you don’t have to be a genius to understand the appeal of crypto to them. As financial literacy and security have become increasingly important topics to the league and players, many have become savvy investors and celebrated businessmen, including James and Curry. With crypto, an investor can earn short-term returns that blow away traditional stocks or real estate. Crypto is easily accessible and anonymous. More and more places are accepting it as payment. Plus, there’s the cachet of being one of the cool kids and adopting it during its early stages.
“I’ve definitely had it brought up to me,” says Young. “I have some stuff in some things. I’m still learning. I’m going to get more involved.”
For those skeptical of crypto, concerned it’s just a financial fad that could very easily burn out, Joe Pompliano says there’s no need to worry about it disappearing overnight. The founder of Huddle Up, a newsletter that covers the business side of sports, points out that crypto is a multi-trillion dollar industry. As an asset class, it ain’t going anywhere. “The NBA or any of these teams don’t think it’s going to be gone within two to three years,” says Pompliano. Otherwise, he points out, they wouldn’t be cutting deals.
The biggest downside of crypto, of course, is its volatility. Values fluctuate wildly from week to week and day to day. You can win big or lose a lot. Skeptics will highlight its lack of security, since cryptocurrencies aren’t backed by any government or central bank—transactions can’t be reversed, making it ripe for scams. If you’re going to invest in crypto, you really need to do your homework, because there are thousands and thousands of digital currencies, many created to solve very specific problems. And if you’re an environmentalist, you’re well aware of how harmful crypto mining is to the planet.
Pros and cons aside, there’s a very basic reason why no NBA player can be paid—nor will they be paid in the near future—in crypto. It’s against the rules.
“If you look at the CBA, it specifically states that you either have to be paid in a check or direct deposit,” says Pompliano. “They literally are not allowed to do it right now.”
Article IV of the NBA CBA, ratified in 2017, stipulates: “[A] Team may pay a player under his Uniform Player Contract in cash via a check made payable to the player or via a direct deposit made to the player’s bank account. Compensation of any other kind is prohibited.” And as it pertained to Dinwiddie’s odd request three years ago, the CBA states: “No player shall assign or otherwise transfer to any third party his right to receive Compensation from the Team under his Uniform Player Contract.”
For crypto to become a viable compensation option, the league and players have to agree to a change. The CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2023-24 season, although there’s an option to opt out of it this summer. No one expects that to happen, and, quite frankly, it’s even harder to imagine the compensation bylaws changing for two very big reasons.
For starters, the Players Association, the union representing NBA players, would have to feel that the majority of its members wanted a cryptocurrency payment option and bring it up for negotiation. Such an option would make sense for the NBA’s highest earners, who have money to throw around and could easily weather the volatility of crypto. But what about all the players who pull in way less than the league average—according to Basketball-Reference, it’s $5.8 million this season—and can’t be as cavalier as the top earners?
“When you think about it, there are way more players who make the minimum than $45 million a year. You have to do what’s in the best interest of all the players,” says Pompliano, the Huddle Up founder. “You’re a union. You work for everyone. It all depends on the amount of guys who are asking for this. If it’s three or four guys asking for this and it’s a sticking point with the league, and they’re like, ‘You’re going to have to give us something in return,’ I doubt it happens.”
The other thing preventing the players from being paid in crypto anytime soon is basic economics.
“When teams earn more revenue in crypto than in fiat. That’s the only time it makes sense,” Mark Cuban tells Complex Sports via email. “It’s more cost-effective for a pay in fiat and let the player just buy crypto.”
The Mavericks owner, who also is one of the stars of the popular entrepreneurial show Shark Tank, isn’t talking about compact Italian cars. He’s talking about the dollar, because fiat is a government-issued currency not backed by a physical commodity, like gold. Fans and businesses are not paying for all the things that keep the NBA humming—tickets, concessions, sponsorships, media rights, you name it—in anything other than benjamins for the foreseeable future. And there’s zero appetite for a team to incur the additional payroll fees it would cost to distribute crypto to its employees.
So for now, and at least the next few seasons, NBA players will just have to settle for the status quo—even as enthusiasm around crypto continues to rise around the league. A crypto compensation option feels a little too ahead of the curve when it’s time to negotiate the next CBA. But 10 years from now? Or 20? The NBA could be full of crypto bros clamoring for an alternative to the traditional check or direct deposit.
“I never say never,” says Butler. “Why not?”