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Rich Kleiman’s 2021 Year in Review

As 2021 comes to a close, we look back at a year of growth and advancement here at Boardroom and Thirty Five Ventures, as well as throughout the overall business landscape of sports, pop culture, and technology — and the innovators who make the whole thing go.

This year welcomed a slew of groundbreaking deals, products, trends, and ideas that fundamentally changed the way we look at sports, business, and culture. And to determine the top takeaways, we turned to Boardroom and Thirty Five Ventures co-founder and co-CEO Rich Kleiman in a wide-ranging conversation on Dec. 15 to provide a look back at what stood out most to him in a year of creative disruption.

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Top Trend of 2021: Crypto Tech & the Metaverse

While you saw the world of blockchain technology and the metaverse within a small, segmented community in 2020, it became a whole new world and a global movement this year, Kleiman said. In 2021, an increasing number of corporations, leagues, and teams made their own commitment and aligned themselves with different exchanges and platforms, pushing this trend into the mainstream in a major way.

“That has now sped up the evolution and adaptation of crypto and accelerated things a lot faster than anyone could’ve imagined,” Kleiman said.

Companies like FTX, Solana, Nifty’s, Opensea, and Crypto.com became household names, with FTX even striking a deal with Major League Baseball for umpire uniform patches, buying the naming rights for the Miami Heat’s arena, and signing ambassadors like Tom Brady, Shohei Ohtani, and Stephen Curry. Not to be outdone, Crypto.com found a jewel for its crown in claiming the naming rights for the LA arena long known as the Staples Center.

“They all just started becoming [like] Universal Music — their own conglomerates,” Kleiman said. “The way they were all able to create this new market so quickly was really wild. And there’s no norm. Every month, you have to learn a whole new language. I think that’s what’s really surprised me more than anything is the speed in which things are evolving. You still hear people who will tell you ‘I’m not getting involved.’ And the next time you see them, they’re telling you the seven coins they’ve invested in.”

Keen observers have likened this new world of “Web3” to a reimagining of the early days of the internet, with the obvious caveat that just about everyone has broad, equal, and high-speed access to participate in these new worlds, whereas that wasn’t the case 25 years ago.

It’s now all about who really wants to accept and embrace things, as Kleiman sees it.

Part of how Kleiman and 35V have embraced the space is through both early investments and expanded partnerships with Coinbase and Dapper Labs which he sees as two premium brands with long-term benefits. As for other companies in the metaverse Kleiman has his eyes on, he’s focused on smaller, more niche platforms that aren’t trying to compete directly with the major brands that dominated 2021.

And with people buying up virtual real estate in metaverses like Sandbox and Decentraland for millions, Kleiman notes that a lot of us already spend a large portion of our lives in some way, shape, or form in a digital world anyway, especially those working remotely.

“And because of that, it’s easier to embrace it fully and get creative in your mind when you think about people’s digital behavior and how we’re still just scratching the surface,” he said. “I think it’s going to be interesting when there’s an “unlock” in our brains and we realize that what we’ve valued so greatly in the physical can now actually be duplicated — and made more interesting — in the virtual. A brand like Bored Ape Yacht Club is only the beginning. The creativity that’s put into some of those things is what triggers our demand.”

Cards & Collectibles

There’s no question, Kleiman said, that Michael Rubin and Fanatics dominated the space in 2021. As a leader, Rubin was able to achieve a rare feat: Take a wealthy, successful,and innovative company and build on what the brand stood for.

“It went from a merchandise and consumer brand to a truly transcendent brand. And so much of that has to do with him and the moves they’ve made,” Kleiman said. “He was fearless in taking what was successful and being able to read the landscape around him and move on it quickly. And to be able to see that and make a shift within his business, I think it’s like having an MVP season.”

Rubin and the company secured a trading card deal with Major League Baseball, marking the eventual end to baseball’s relationship with Topps that reaches back seven decades. And we haven’t seen the full slate of Fanatics’ trading card, gaming, or NFT products yet, which we’re sure to get bigger glimpses of in 2022.

Like the metaverse and crypto, Kleiman sees the collectibles industry next year emphasizing the brands who start to own niche verticals and separate themselves in terms of what they put out and curate.

“There will be a lot of physical value brought to the metaverse that will kind of change the way we look at some of these things that we’re all collecting,” he said.

Music & Culture

Kleiman came up with a list of artists, producers, and executives who had a killer 2021.

In no particular order: Kanye West, Drake, LeBron James, Maverick Carter, Rich Paul, Jay-Z, J. Cole, Wale, Lil’ Baby, Wassim “SAL” Slaiby, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, SZA, Kevin Lyles, H.E.R, and Steve Stoute.

What’s the common thread between all these uniquely talented individuals?

I think there’s no difference today as there was years ago as it relates to skill and consistency,” Kleiman said. “There’s always a group of people who have the ability to do it over and over again, to reinvent themselves, even if so slightly. And to do it with a certain intangible, the way that they move and the way that the music and their business work together seamlessly. It’s why Rihanna is so beloved. It’s why someone like Zendaya is more a part of the cultural conversation than any other young actor out there.”

So, how does music change in 2022?

“I think there’s an overwhelming amount of content on streaming platforms,” Kleiman said. “And I think there’s gotta be a better way to curate and distribute.”

Kleiman expects more artists to go independent rather than sign with a label. He thinks we’ll see more unique and creative ways in which music is distributed, with artists increasingly utilizing the metaverse.

“The way music has worked in the physical does not have to in any way, shape, or form mirror how it will live in the metaverse, and it can’t,” Kleiman remarked. “There’s no way to challenge that, but the economics in the music business will not translate into the metaverse.”

Kleiman compares this point in time in the music industry to roughly 20 years ago when file-sharing, MP3s, and iTunes came along and the record companies had no idea how to react and proceed — but the difference between analog-to-digital back then and the internet to the metaverse now is that the music industry is far better equipped to what may come.

“If they don’t adapt,” Kleiman said, “that’s gonna be on the leaders in the music business. You need the right people to make this thing work in the new metaverse if they want to have the same impact and be part of it in the same way.”

Fashion

For Kleiman, fashion in 2021 was all about comfort.

Brands at every level adapted sweatpants and comfortable clothing to become the new “business casual.” And for someone who was never gonna put on a suit, Kleiman has been able to focus more and put on something fresh and dress to the level he wants to at his age.

Kleiman has special admiration for Nike. As luxury brands like Gucci, Balenciaga, and Christian Dior try their hands at designer sneakers, it’s easy to realize the Swoosh just does it all better for every occasion.  He also named Beyonce’s Ivy Park — and its subsequent promotion, including video creative featuring Kobe Bryant’s daughter, Natalia, and Beyonce’s own daughters, Rumi and Blue Ivy — as a line that continues to push creative boundaries and achieve instant sell-out status. Kleiman also showed love to Ronnie Fieg and Kith, noting the brand’s collaborative nature and ability to impact this lifestyle, and shouted out Madhappy and Givenchy.

And there was a special mention of the late Virgil Abloh and Off-White.

“Obviously, it’s so sad. He was just a special angel,” Kleiman said of Abloh. “That dude was an amazing individual. I didn’t even know him, but I know so many people close to him and I just saw how he operated and I followed his story so closely. I was indirectly connected in so many ways.”

Sports

Kleiman has always had a special love for tennis, but now he finds it so much more compelling, with a cool factor on the women’s tour and the star power of the younger women athletes like Emma Raducanu, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, and Leylah Fernandez.

“I hope they all stay healthy and that COVID doesn’t scale back tournaments ever because there are just so many incredible young players,” Kleiman said. “Emma Raducanu has all the makings of a superstar.”

As Raducanu enters the spotlight, there’s sadness that Roger Federer and Tiger Woods may not get to go out on their own terms. Kleiman is hopeful that Tiger gets to play in enough majors for golf and sports fans worldwide to get their fix. And while Roger and Tiger are on their last legs, Tom Brady continues to amaze at an epic, elite level.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been alive for anything like this outside of Michael Jordan,” Kleiman said of TB12. “You know you’re watching the absolute greatest football player of all time. I really do believe that.”

A few of sports organizations that stood out in 2021? Formula 1, the UFC, and the WNBA.

Kleiman thinks with the help of Netflix’s Drive To Survive, a global superstar in Lewis Hamilton and his incredible title race with this year’s champion, Max Verstappen, the opportunity is there for F1 to take it to the next level. And having attended a live UFC event this year, Kleiman now understands and appeal and the entertainment and has jumped on the bandwagon, something he did not expect.

And in its 25th season, Kleiman felt that with Cathy Engelbert at the helm, there’s never been more audience growth and awareness for the WNBA. He cited Candace Parker’s work on the court and as a broadcaster as an inspiration to her fellow athletes as well.

Kleiman likewise marveled at how there’s no end or limit to Rich Paul’s ascent in the sports and entertainment industries. With Klutch Sports continuing to grow and foster an invaluable including Farrah Leff, NFL agent Nicole Lynn, and many more, he looks forward to what Klutch and Paul will do in the year ahead.

Additionally, seeing more and more athletes become both enterprisers and entrepreneurs is something Kleiman loves and expects to continue to grow in 2022. Case in point: Another star with an incredible team around her, Serena Williams, whose Serena Ventures crossed over $30 billion in market cap this past year. With partner Alison Rapaport Stillman and senior associate Abir Liben, Serena Ventures is working to ensure that women of color have a seat at the cap table.

As for baseball?

“I know this isn’t probably everyone’s favorite thing to talk about, but what Dusty Baker was able to do in terms of allowing people for in some ways to root for the Astros, and they just continued to play well and win is pretty cool,” Kleiman said.

Shohei Ohtani is a pretty incredible addition to baseball, but I miss Mike Trout, too. I don’t want people to forget him. And I’m excited that hopefully Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom can stay healthy next year for the Mets. That’ll be fun.”

All told, looking ahead to sports in 2022, Kleiman is hopeful that a New York team takes home a championship.

“That’s always fun,” he said — though he’s not at all coy about his ultimate preference.

“Obviously, I want it to be the Nets.”

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