On April 13th, Rosie Brennan wrote in an Instagram post, “The world is constantly changing and I’m trying to move with it.” The post announced the launch of an online auction for a limited edition NFT, in partnership with the organizations Parity Now and VereNFT. The NFT, titled “Perseverance Trail”, was designed by artist Kerri Schiff and features a mountainous ski trail with a variety of images of Brennan racing in her Team USA suit.
If you just read that introduction and thought, “Wait – what does any of that mean?”, you’re not alone. It’s a very new realm and can very quickly make you feel as though you’ve been transported into the Matrix.
For starters, NFT stands for “non-fungible token”. An NFT is a unique and non-interchangeable digital asset, typically a piece of digital art or music, that is stored on a blockchain and can be sold or traded via an online marketplace. A blockchain is more or less a virtual ledger for transactions in that marketplace, made across a secure network. To learn more, you’re better off heading to Forbes, or reading this helpful and entertaining article on The Verge.
When it comes to Brennan’s Perseverance Trail NFT specifically, the highest bidder on the auction is purchasing a unique piece of digital art, along with the exclusivity of that token.
“For our physical reality,” Brennan explained in a call, “you’re purchasing that [digital] image and you are then the only one who then owns that. So I can’t reproduce it or sell it, or make it a poster. It is just that singular item.”
For those who bid at different levels, regardless of whether they eventually own the NFT, Brennan has offered a tiered list of rewards: $100 gets you a signed athlete card, $500 for a signed World Cup bib, $1000 for a 30 minute Zoom session, and $2000 for a three-month personalized training plan.
It’s an altogether different and very new avenue that an athlete might incorporate to support a career, and Brennan admitted to still being in the learning process. That said, she explained some of the factors that were intriguing about the proposition.
“Maybe the more interesting part about NFTs is that, because there is only one of them and it’s tracked, it has a digital footprint. So, if somebody buys it, I get some of the proceeds from [the sale] and the artist gets some and then Parity Now gets some. But every time it’s resold after that, I continue to get some of the proceeds. So that’s kind of different from a physical piece of art. When an artist sells a piece of art, that’s the only time they gain profit from it. If that [buyer] then resells it, the artist doesn’t get any benefit from that.”
Another unique aspect is that the value of the NFT may increase with time. “As we see in art, most artists don’t become famous until they’re dead.” Brennan laughed as she expressed that thankfully, athletes don’t need to wait quite as long, however, it remains unknown what they will accomplish during their career until it is finished, or what they may achieve in other spaces afterward.
Ultimately, the NFT marketplace remains a nascent and still-developing platform for investment and trade, and it’s unclear how profitable this type of auction could be in the long term. Nevertheless, Brennan applauded Parity Now for offering women these non-traditional opportunities.
“It’s obviously very [new]… and so who knows what that really means, but I’m impressed that this organization is kind of pushing the boundaries in these areas and looking at different ways to create, not only like money for athletes, but just also awareness and marketing and hype.”
Taking a step back to how this came about, we’ll rewind to the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, when Brennan found herself frequently riding the bus to and from the athlete village with American bobsledder Lauren Gibbs, who she described as “super outgoing and very friendly” and seemed to, coincidentally, be on a very similar schedule to the cross country ski team. After earning an Olympic silver medal in 2018 and a World Championship gold in 2020, Gibbs retired and became a spokesperson for Parity Now, an organization which advocates for equal pay, media representation, and opportunities for professional women athletes. Parity’s community of athletes includes more than 165 Olympians and Paralympians across more than 40 sports, all working together to “[propel] professional women athletes forward.”
When initially approached about the NFT opportunity, Brennan put the idea on hold. However, after seeing other women athletes on the marketplace and learning more about the process, she decided to give it a go.
From there, Brennan worked through a lengthy questionnaire to identify the aspects of her career and self that were most meaningful, to guide the artist in creating the design. Brennan also provided a wide variety of images of herself skiing to ensure the sport would be well-represented. She was then allowed to provide feedback throughout the process, until landing on a finalized piece of digital art
“It was cool to see an artistic interpretation of the values that I felt [were] meaningful in my ski career,” she said.
With athletes from all sports competing in the NFT marketplace, Brennan said she “really wanted to highlight what makes cross-country, in my opinion, different from other sports. And for me, one of those things is the fact that we’re doing all the events and all the techniques.”
In the image, both skate and classic techniques are featured, along with a couple of fast tucks, in and out of the tracks. Brennan also wanted to feature the variation in terrain, in contrast to a more controlled environment like a running track, along with the natural beauty and challenge of a cross-country ski trail.
“I wanted that natural environment highlighted, which is the part I really like about mine — I think [the artist] did a great job making some really cool-looking mountains… And then to me, [Perseverance Trail] is such a great metaphor for life. Particularly my own [journey] in cross-country skiing that has just been so up and down, and maybe required a little more perseverance than others. And just using that analogy – that no two trails are the same. I don’t think anyone’s path in sports is the same either.
“And then, this fine balance of being present in the moment on a trail, but also having that adaptability and flexibility to deal with what the trail brings on any given day. Changing elements, changing snow, changing weather, and skis – all these [variables] that cross-country requires, and that are such an important aspect of life, really.”
As for working with Parity Now more broadly, Brennan does aspire to partner with the group beyond this NFT project. She explained that she has already benefited from some of the webinars Parity offers to women athletes to equip them with the variety of business skills they might need to successfully support their career and ensure they’re well set up for life after sport. Brennan also explained that Parity can help connect athletes with other companies for work in social media and advertising campaigns, which she’d like to participate in down the road.
“It’s just neat to see different groups trying to tackle women’s equality from different angles,” she concluded. “And I think this business angle is actually a very important one. Lauren’s a real go-getter, and so I’m sure that there’s more good things to come from it.”
Parity Now cites research that estimates that, of the $66 billion global sports sponsorship market, only 0.4% goes to women. “You read that right,” Parity Now said. “For every dollar spent on sports sponsorship, women receive just half a cent.”
As fans of cross-country skiing in the US, it might be easy to lose sight of this pervasive inequality faced by women in sport. We see Jessie Diggins’ face on magazine covers before the Olympics, equal opportunity for prize money on the World Cup, and a whole team of women ready to pop a Top-10 or podium on any given weekend. In fact, the results achieved by American women over the last decade-and-a-half have made it easy to forget that the U.S. Ski Team had dropped funding for the women’s program prior to 2006 — though we now have two books, World Class and Trail to Gold, to remind us of this journey.
Speaking to her experience in becoming one of the top women in the US program, Brennan said, “I feel very lucky to be an American woman skier. I think we have had a lot of really great opportunities. To be honest, I think in the last decade or so we’ve honestly overshadowed the boys and, if anything, they usually get the raw end of the deal. So that’s maybe been a unique perspective that we’ve had as women cross-country skiers, and something I definitely try not to take for granted. And it is interesting traveling on the World Cup, you do notice cultural differences and how countries treat men and women differently. And not all is good and not all as bad, it’s definitely different.
“From an international perspective, like on the World Cup, navigating that is challenging — figuring out what actually is equality and what that means to different people and different cultures, and how we implement that into the bigger scope of the world is definitely challenging.”
Brennan added that she felt Americans are “a little more progressive on that end”, which makes her proud to represent the U.S. Ski Team. She did point out that there is one very obvious source of inequality present at most levels of the sport: how far men and women race.
“That’s maybe the most glaring aspect in which men and women are not equal [in cross country skiing]. I’m definitely a proponent for equal distance and it sounds like, honestly, everyone’s moving in that direction. I actually think that change is coming faster than we all anticipated.”
Brennan serves as an elected athlete representative on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard cross-country sport committee and shared that equal distance will be a “big topic” at the upcoming annual congress. She also indicated that this is the case at the International Ski Federation level. “It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds in the next month or so. But I definitely think it’s coming.”
Circling back to the NFT and what all of this means in the broader context of her career, Brennan concluded with both uncertainty and optimism.
“I don’t know if it will become such a big thing that people are wanting to gamble on a young athlete in hopes that they make it big and their NFT becomes worth millions or something,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if that’s what the future holds or not. But I definitely think it’s a cool way to bring awareness and promote women’s sports and take part in an interesting project.”
Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646