Now Is The Time to Root for The Sports Underdog

After more than 15 years as a promoter, it comes to me instinctively. I spot a young martial arts athlete, perhaps in South Asia, Middle East, or Latin America, and immediately I notice that "special thing." Sometimes it is as obvious as a physique suited to combat or some natural talents. But often, it is more subtle. You can't tell if it is the way they move in the ring, an innate fortitude, or that intense spark in their eyes. But it is there. A sign that I can recognize without doubt: potential.

My whole life, I have been haunted by not being able to give all of those athletes their fair opportunity. In Thailand alone, there are more than 65,000 professional fighters, most of them living in poverty, willing to do anything to get a job offer outside their home country. This is a scene I have watched in Brazil, Russia, Malaysia and even in Europe.

This is not unique to combat disciplines. You see the same with young prospects in most of the niche or alternative sports, from arm wrestling to powerlifting, or even in Olympic sports with huge fan bases, such as volleyball. How can the $400 billion global sports industry be so badly out of balance? Millions of athletes struggle without a future while a few get richer and richer. Untold potential is wasted in an industry that only benefits a handful of people in a handful of sports. This is the plight of a decades-old system that few believed could ever be changed. Until, believe it or not, the arrival of new technology -- blockchain.

At first, blockchain and its associated world of crypto amounted to little more than a collection of nerds, coders, and gamers, the little guys who shared a vision of disruption. Being in the fighting business, I immediately liked the aggressiveness of this bold community stepping up to take on the big banks on behalf of ordinary people, even opening a crypto center right next to Wall Street. These outsiders opened my eyes to how you can turn entire industries upside down, no matter how big or powerful. These early blockchain rebels were underdog fighters. And I understood them at first sight because I was once an outsider myself.

Rooting for the weaker party was ingrained in my fiber from the very beginning. My family had to leave Greece and settle as economic refugees in Germany. I grew up among Lebanese, Serbians and Eritrean friends, all of them running away from their own horrors, all of them dreaming and fighting to make their way in a new country. I learned from them that sometimes you have to fight to make your own destiny even if it is a tough road and often away from home.

So, in 2004, at 19 years old, I moved to Thailand and started out as a fighter myself, living in camps across the country with dozens of other underdog fighters. It's a hellish life, but also an honorable one. Once again, I found myself with people battling against all the odds for a better future for their families. Their resilience still inspires me today. When I became a fight promoter at the age of 24, I made a promise to come back to try to help them.

By the time the blockchain movement began, I was immersed in my own Muay Thai revolution. I fell in love with the country and with the sport, and decided to do my part to help make a difference. Back then, foreign fighters were matched with weaker Thai rivals, easy to beat. It was an unfair system that held back the sport and actually took away the fun and excitement.

After working six years for the biggest fight promoter in Thailand, the Don King of Muay Thai, I saw an opportunity to open the discipline, often called Thai Boxing, to offshore contestants, helping more money to flow into the domestic circuit and helping my former boxing mates at the same time. We launched a successful company based on equal matchmaking that brought together different fighters from different nations to clash on a new fair, entertaining televised format. I could have settled for that. Sure, it was more than anything I had dreamed of in my childhood. But an idea was growing stronger in my mind.

The more I got into the sport's backroom, the more I realized that only a real paradigm shift could address the most pressing issues in the industry: the lack of opportunities and diversity, the unfair distribution of revenue, the underserved audiences, and the growing disconnect between athletes and fans. At the same time, as I kept watching the blockchain industry develop and when NFTs or non-fungible tokens arrived, I had an epiphany. The crypto underdogs could come to the rescue of the sports underdogs.

NFT Sports Tokens Essay
EX Sports has designed a platform to mine and trade unique tokens for underdog athletes in niche disciplines. iStock / Getty Images Plus

NFTs are unique digital tokens that can prove the ownership and authenticity of any digital creation, from images to videos to texts. Anyone can still duplicate them, but the NFT creates a single owner for every token. A global and unforgeable transaction log living on the blockchain that verifies its uniqueness. It is simple and it works. This technology has been successfully applied to tokenize digital artwork, digital music, video clips, virtual real estate, digital pets -- from kitties to rocks, newspaper articles and even memes and tweets. And I believe it is also ripe to disrupt sports.

Now, you may be wondering how something so small could bring such a big change? The NFT technology allows us to replicate and improve the collectible card model with any athlete of any discipline or skill at a global scale. It is like a Panini sticker album, but open to any athlete, no matter how lowly from any sport, no matter how niche. The minted tokens serve a triple purpose here. First, they are a secure way of funding players, building a direct bridge between them and their fans or potential sponsors. Second, they can also be used by federations, trainers and clubs, as a way to bring communities, local governments and sports together. And third, they open the way for investors to tap into a new asset class in the collectible industry, a sector that already has solid traction.

Of course, from the NBA to the NFL, many in the sports industry are already trying to use the NFT potential to keep their grip on revenue flow. Collectibles, sports tickets, and other intangible assets are being tokenized by some of the richest and most profitable sports organizations and players in the world -- including NFL superstar Tom Brady or the most famous soccer players from the biggest European squads. But they are failing to understand the real potential of this tool.

The same way the first blockchain community-created tools that "bank the unbanked," I hope to bring the same spirit of democratization to the sports world. Now, I am CEO of EX Sports, where we have designed a platform to mine and trade unique tokens for underdog athletes in niche disciplines, from Muay Thai to powerlifting, from volleyball to table tennis, opening new ways for their passionate fans to support and connect with their heroes. Our goal is to create an ecosystem based on a fair revenue-sharing model that gives a fair opportunity to all sportspeople in the world.

The skill to detect potential has a lot to do with experience, analytic eye, and, for a few years now, a lot of data. But it is also an act of imagination. Seeing beyond things as they are now, and envisioning what they could become. I see NFT as the foundation of a new decentralized sports industry, more equal, more diverse, and more financially sustainable. I can feel it, it is the underdog moment.

Toli Makris is the founder and CEO of EX Sports, a platform that allows sports fans to buy, trade and sell digital sports collectibles.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.