Image of C.J. Stroud in uniform holding a football, from Lockerverse.
Football quarterback C.J. Stroud is one of Lockerverse’s earliest partners, working with the platform to develop a digital collectible collection. — Lockerverse

Why it matters:

  • Fandom is an increasingly powerful driver of commercial behavior, with sports and entertainment standing to benefit most. To illustrate, fans of Taylor Swift gave a major boost to the 2024 Super Bowl broadcast. Women and men ages 18 to 24 and girls ages 12 to 17 combined for almost two million more viewers over last year’s game.
  • Following the Supreme Court’s Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) ruling in 2021, college athletes are now allowed to benefit from their own personal brand, yielding a market of up to $1.17 billion.
  • Lockerverse taps into these shifts with a mobile-app-based community platform where athletes at the high school, college, or professional level can monetize their own personal brand and connect with their fanbases on their own terms.

In the age of social media, our favorite celebrities and entertainers feel closer than ever. The ever-shortening gap between celebrities and their fans is shifting the fundamental nature of fandom, and in turn becoming a major driver of consumer behavior.

Lockerverse, which launched in 2022, is a digital platform designed to work for both fans and the public figures they follow. So far, Lockerverse has partnered with athletes including NFL star quarterback C.J. Stroud, and Bronny James, upcoming NBA rookie and son of Lebron James; institutions including ESPN and Morehouse College; and artists like Chaka and Bianca Pastel.

Operating somewhere between Web3 (a decentralized online ecosystem based on blockchain technology, aiming to give users ownership and control over their data and interactions on the internet) and traditional social media, the platform allows athletes, musicians, and other creators to share original content with fans, sell merchandise, and organize digital and IRL experiences, all within a single platform.

How experience in entertainment law helped birth a new business idea

Co-founder James Carlos McFall found success as a sports media and entertainment attorney, where he first interacted with major professional athletes.

“That experience representing a lot of those folks was fantastic because I learned how to help them monetize their IP [intellectual property] and help them avoid some of the pitfalls that go along with just the day-to-day business deals that they're often presented with,” he said.

“What we started to see was that a lot of those folks did want to get closer to their fans, but there was really no place to facilitate that.”

I think what we're seeing is a new generation who understands the value of their brand and who want to have a direct connection to the people who are watching their content or purchasing products that are tied to them. It’s happening with amateur athletes … it's happening with professional athletes, and it's happening with TikTokers and bloggers.

James Carlos McFall, Co-founder, Lockerverse

A platform for athletes built by tech-industry heavyweights from Pinterest to LinkedIn

McFall’s realization coincided with the rise of the “creator economy,” which takes influencer marketing to the next level. The term refers to a burgeoning economic and social ecosystem where individuals leverage digital platforms to generate income by creating and sharing content, products, or services directly with their audience. It empowers creators — a loose designation that includes artists, writers, influencers, entrepreneurs and more— to monetize their skills and passions through various channels including social media, blogs, podcasts, and online marketplaces.

McFall recognized a gap in the burgeoning creator economy for athletes. He and fellow law partner Trey McDonald mobilized to build a solution that could help athletes at all levels – not just the top-tier talent coming through his law firm.

The pair tapped McFall’s former Stanford football teammate Marcus Rance, who had pursued a career in data and analytics for tech industry heavyweights like LinkedIn and Pinterest, to complete the leadership triumvirate and add Silicon Valley bona fides.

“We felt that if we built the platform and had the right athletes and brands, who really did care and were passionate about the relationship with their fans, that would facilitate the growth that we wanted in a way that was absolutely organic and sustainable,” McFall said. “And it's really happened.”

[Read: Trend Forecasters on Four Key Consumer Trends Set to Impact Business in 2024]

Tapping tech to monetize the commercial power of sports fandom

Lockerverse happens to have come along at a particularly opportune moment for the sports industry. Technology has revolutionized relationships between public figures and their followers, in turn shifting the nature of fandom itself.

During this past NFL season, Taylor Swift’s fanbase alone demonstrated the commercial power of fandom: According to Sports Media Watch, interest in the pop star and her relationship with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce is estimated to have helped boost Super Bowl viewership among women and young people overall.

“The Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift phenomenon is just another example of the evolution of fandom,” McFall said, “driven by technology and by creators and fans evolving in terms of what they want out of each other.”

Lockerverse has positioned its platform as a key tool for athletes at all levels of fame to monetize their status and get a larger piece of the profits they might have once shared with third-party intermediaries. College athletes in particular, newly empowered following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) ruling, stand to profit from what is now estimated to be a $1.17 billion-dollar industry.

“I think what we're seeing is a new generation who understands the value of their brand and who want to have a direct connection to the people who are watching their content or purchasing products that are tied to them,” McFall said. “It’s happening with amateur athletes … it's happening with professional athletes, and it's happening with TikTokers and bloggers.”

[Read: 3 Emerging Social Media Strategies Businesses Must Know to Grow]

 Lockerverse founders, James McFall, Marcus Rance, and Trey McDonald.
Lockerverse founders James McFall, Marcus Rance, and Trey McDonald. — Lockerverse

Brokering fan relationships delivers results

Unlike other platforms with less direct connection between creator and fan, Lockerverse enables a level of intimacy and personalization that it says is not possible for creators to deliver on other social media platforms. Users can participate in real-time conversations via community channels and direct messaging. Depending on the way an individual creator uses their platform, members can also get access to an exclusive feed of video, photo, and livestream content, as well as physical merchandise.

Football quarterback C.J. Stroud is one of Lockerverse’s earliest partners, working with the platform to develop a digital collectible commemorating his performance at Ohio State. Now playing for the NFL’s Houston Texans, he has continued to work with Lockerverse to develop his digital fan community and release limited edition, exclusive physical merchandise. “He's a person who knows the value of fandom,” McFall said of Stroud. “The relationship between him and his fans is really important to him and he wants to nurture that.”

Lockerverse has also teamed up with the University of Oregon to host Ducks Rising, a fan community channel with subscription revenue benefiting student athletes. The community’s highest-paying members have access to virtual and in-person events and can request personalized video content from their favorite teams or individual athletes.

The Lockerverse team is still working to refine the product as it evolves. According to McFall, the platform’s user base has grown 20% month-over-month since its beta launch in 2022. They are now focused on continuing to sustain organic growth among both fans and athlete partners.

“Our ultimate goal is to be the go-to platform for sports and culture,” Rance said. “We're talking to creators every day, iterating the product and refining it and making it the best possible thing that it can be.”

“We're pretty bullish about the opportunity to expand it rapidly as we continue to bring on more athletes [as] brand partners,” McFall added.

Embodying a ‘for us, by us’ mindset

The Lockerverse business model is about more than just capitalizing on the opportunity to connect fans with their favorite athletes and creators.

For its three Black and Hispanic co-founders, it’s a way to offer representation to athletes, artists, and other creators who do not often see themselves reflected in the board rooms of Silicon Valley. For example, in 2022, only 1% of venture capital funding went to Black founders.

“There haven’t been a lot of companies built by Black and Brown people, even though oftentimes those are the people who are athletes or creators, whose hard work goes into building these cultural trends that really captivate audiences around the world,” McFall said.

“There haven’t been a lot of tech companies that are built by people who look like us and with a unique insight into what it's actually like to be an athlete or an artist who's trying to break through.”

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