San Jose, CA

Blockchain technology enabling the upcoming global revolution: a use case discussion with SF 49ers VP, Umesh Johari

Vic Aquino
photo of QB Trey Lance by Terrell Lloyd

Part one of a three-part Silicon Valley technology series

An earlier Newsbreak article on blockchain and crypto technology offered a broad explanation on how and why the world will experience its next profound change.

It begged for more specifics where in the Silicon Valley there are always prime examples.

In this case, San Francisco 49er vice president of strategy and analytics, Umesh Johari, shares his perspectives of this next-coming digital evolution often also described as “Web 3.0” powered by blockchain technology.

In most simplest terms, blockchain is a method to record, duplicate and distribute data on a decentralized network that no one entity can own or control.

What could it all mean for a multi-billion dollar sports industry and especially, the coveted fan experience?

The approach with Johari was to discuss in far less technical terms and moreso what a blockchain-enabled world will mean for businesses and more importantly, the human experience.

Johari’s position is inherently meant to explore the how, what, where, why and when’s of any technological engagement for the 49ers football organization.

“As I speak on behalf of the team, it usually aligns with my own business strategy views,” Johari prefaced. “And sometimes, with something as new as this, it can be different, as it’s all still evolving.”

Behind the scenes

NFL teams don’t need to directly develop technologies or services to expand their business reach, as their focus is to proliferate their brand and put the best-possible “product” out on the field. Professional sports teams basically rely on business partnerships.

It’s an endless, and sometimes vicious cycle to keep their lifeblood going – the fans.

Fans represent all dimensions of the numbers that aren’t on the playing field from concessions, ticket sales, viewership, merchandise sales and more. The intent is to make things flow as easily and efficiently as possible behind-the-scenes for better profits.

"Blockchain technology from a backend standpoint is not a focus,” shared Johari. “But if we are presented with a backend technology that leverages blockchain and it can improve our operations, we'll definitely listen.”

Blockchain is the underlying technology that powers the current cryptocurrency and NFT craze with digital creators (crypto and NFTs require its own dedicated conversations).

The ecosystem around blockchain that is the applications, services and people are not yet ubiquitous or fully matured. Though blockchain technology has been around for about a dozen years, it can still be considered early in terms of mass adoption.

But it’s also about to get to our collective consciousness given the insane amount of attention and money that big financial institutions, governments and celebrities are throwing into a blockchain-enabled future.

It's something that can't be ignored any longer.

Basically, blockchain technology decentralizes the control of everything. No one entity, government, person or even nefarious intent can monopolize or “hack” what should be a more natural ebb-and-flow of business and the human interactions it’s supposed to benefit (idealistic yes, but that is the intent of the technology).

There will also be more privacy, security and more data and content ownership for the individual, globally, like never before.

“When there’s a better solution for us that is created by a particular provider, we’ll certainly do our diligence and pick the right partner,” said Johari. “If a potential partner in that space is building applications and technologies on blockchain that can provide us an operational edge or efficiency, we’re going to listen.”

Johari continued, “There’s mutual benefit with our current partners now and there’s usually a cool story behind each as well. Like the SAP Executive Huddle provides us a constant sweet spot to view and react to real-time data around all our business and revenue sources on game day. It gives us an operational edge. So when that right blockchain partner comes around, we’re going to continue to listen.”

There’s no doubt professional sports teams often lead the way in many social and technological changes as cutting-edge businesses in their own right.

On the frontlines where so many are looking & waiting

The San Francisco 49ers are a very high-profile, global brand. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, sports teams often represent the will of a city, its history and, of course, many lifetime experiences and memories for many.

What’s most interesting in a blockchain empowered web 3.0 world is what the future holds in such an environment.

The 49ers hold a considerable amount of intellectual property. It’s another big foundational element where content is still king for big businesses.

"There are some cool use cases for NFTs from a ticketing standpoint,” Johari points out.”In all likelihood, that would be someone like Ticketmaster and it will be league driven when that happens.”

NFTs are non-fungible tokens that are blockchain made.

In plain English, it means any digital and/or tangible item or entity can have a unique permanent digital record that anyone can see and verify anywhere at anytime. That digital record lives on a decentralized network (vs. how it is now, where your data is centrally managed and controlled by governments and corporations).

NFTs can also have a built-in, automatic executable contract, which is its most salient feature.

“With a verifiable game ticket, the potential for secondary market sales is huge,” says Johari with even keener interest. “The team gets to participate in that and obviously, that’s really interesting. So, with Ticketmaster already in that world, you can see where that’s going to go.”

More often, game tickets can be scalped or resold. With an NFT type ticket, teams can now get a pre-determined automatic revenue share regardless of who or how many times that ticket is sold.

“There's another ancillary benefit an NFT ticket gives the ticket holder and it’s something that doesn't go away even when the game has long been over,” said Johari. “With an NFT ticket that sits in your digital wallet, let’s say it was for the NFC championship game that became an all-time classic – people will be able to see that you actually attended that game. Think of all the things that can happen in perpetuity from just that one example.”

Think of old Super Bowl tickets or even playing cards of certain high-profile athletes that are now considered alternative investments.

“When these types of NFT tickets change hands, we’ll be capable of seeing the data,” Johari added. ”We get to learn about new fans that we have out there that we need to engage or more directly sell tickets to them just as well.”

The gaming generation has already introduced the Web 3.0 to come

Millennials are the original video gamers, but Gen Z-ers (born anywhere from the mid-90s to mid-2000's) are often known as the gaming generation having already experienced the environments and communities where digital transactions are occurring.

The competitive gaming world, often referred to as ESports, is also already a billion-dollar a year industry. Colleges and even the Olympics have and support ESports teams.

“Probably the most interesting thing to me is how NFTs gets applied into gaming,” said Johari with deepening interest. “Like having EA Sports do something with NFTs in the Madden game.”

“Say, since this year we drafted quarterback Trey Lance. You get a Trey Lance player and I get a Trey Lance player,” said Johari. “But I develop Trey differently than you and I get his rating up to 99 and now I want to sell my Trey Lance player in the Madden game. It starts to get interesting.”

Johari, by default, is in the middle of all kinds of research and looks at things with keen balance.

“This is something I think people are getting excited about. Think about cryptocurrencies 5-10 years ago and most everyone said, ‘Ah, that's a bubble that's going to go away,’” expressed Johari. “Yeah, crypto has had its ups and downs, but it's continued and blockchain technology implementations will persist.”

In the Silicon Valley and around the world, whether we like it or not or know it or not, all the movers and shakers of the business and technology world are preparing for an inevitable future.

Though that decentralized intention is supposed to be baked into this coming technological revolution, it will still take a while for wider scale adoption and understanding.

“The fact that we're already having this conversation, even though this time last year, probably no one was talking about NFTs so much, says something right?” said Johari. “In the end, I think the key is how do you do it thoughtfully and in a way that's sustainable.”

“You don't want to just create little bubbles here and there and say we make a million bucks and it doesn’t have any legs and just annoys our fans,” Johari added. “You want to execute correctly on something meaningful, because at the end of the day, it’s all about fan engagement for us.”

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A 50+ year San Jose-native focusing on social awareness, social good, social impact and the hidden gems and treasures of the area. Freelance journalist & sports contributor to SB Nation & SF 49ers (@VicD_SJ on Twitter).

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