When Players Only started last fall, it was billed as a unique NFT project, co-founded by Michael Carter-Williams, supported by other pro athletes, that would allow investors who bought its non-fungible tokens to interact with them in person and through the online community the project was building.
But by this spring, the project had sputtered. Conversations on its Discord server — a voice, video and text digital platform, had slowed. An April AMA session centered on the project’s founders hearing out grievances from its NFT holders. A long backlog of giveaways built up.
The biggest criticism was that the community that had been marketed had not been actualized. Players Only had raised roughly $1.5 million in NFT sales, but the utilities — the interactions and events NFT owners say they had joined for — were few and far between. Of the seven professional athletes billed on Players Only’s website as founding members, six rarely showed up to talk in the Discord channel.
In mid-May, about five months after Players Only started selling non-fungible tokens for the first time, a shadow server on Discord was created for some of the project’s NFT holders. It was invite-only and intended to be a place where this splinter group could air its complaints about the project and eventually preserve evidence in case the NFT project went awry.
By the time Players Only co-founder Brooks Brown announced in June that the project was being shut down, dozens of its members had already spent weeks wondering if they had been swindled (Carter-Williams vehemently disputes this notion) and if Players Only had any intention of fulfilling all its promises. They wondered where all the money had gone (at one point the NFT had that $1.5 million in sales but by Feb. 17 had only $2,500). They also wondered why they had received so little in return — one NFT cost .08 ETH when they were sold, or roughly $350. Near the project’s end, they were being sold on OpenSea, a secondary market, for approximately $23.
The project’s Discord chat lit up with anger when it was clear that Players Only was finally petering out, and gallow’s humor that at least word of the myriad troubles the project faced would go public.
Brown’s update, however, was just the beginning of a tumultuous week for Players Only and for Carter-Williams. In a matter of days, the project would be revived and then shuffled off to a larger NFT operation, while Carter-Williams tried to rehabilitate his reputation, offering refunds to those who reached out to him.
The sudden changes came on the same day that The Athletic spoke to Carter-Williams, on June 9, about the project’s problems, and Players Only was already set to sunset. In that conversation, he denied any malevolent intentions; he said the project simply failed.
“If there’s a mistake that I made, I’m willing to say that we made a mistake. This project was a failure. There are people that are owed things, that will receive what they are owed, and it took too long of a time. Yes, I agree. But I don’t deserve to be called a liar,” he said, referring to accusations made on the official Discord server. “I don’t deserve (for it to be said) that I stole people’s money. I don’t deserve that. People say that this project was a rug-pull; I put too much time and effort into this for that to be the consensus of it. And there’s too many people that were happy with the project for that to happen.
“I was the founder of this project and the people that were working with this project as well don’t deserve to be called that and have their image be tarnished like that.”
Carter-Williams, a nine-year NBA veteran, was at the center of Players Only — a highly visible target, unlike his two co-founders, Brown and Austin Grieshober. Carter-Williams’ public profile and status as an NBA player were an attraction to some investors, who thought that would serve as a buffer against vicissitudes of the NFT world, where projects sometimes crater behind anonymous creators.
While NFTs rocketed into the mainstream because of successful initiatives like NBA Top Shot and the Bored Ape Yacht Club, they also attracted more ignominious attention. A Twitter account devoted to noting them all has more than 94,000 followers. Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox had a scandal in February.
Last month, when Brown announced the project and its Discord were going to be shut down soon, he said that Players Only would hand out 20 more Ethereum in giveaways before the end. The official channel consisted of unhappy investors maligning Players Only and demanding refunds and threatening legal action.
The Athletic had a call with roughly a dozen of the holders, who detailed their concerns before the project went through its most recent upheaval, and who were granted the ability to only be attributed by their Discord handles in order to speak freely. They blamed the three co-founders and complained that the other athletes involved rarely interacted as they believed was promised. A call and text to Brown went unreturned.
“I have nothing; nothing to show from it,” JVKongs said. “I’m not in this project, or this specific project, for the money. I’ve had some other projects for speculation, for money. This project was about the utility, about the athletes, and I got none of that.
“I don’t think we’re being greedy by saying somebody has to sort of speak up for that and deliver on some of that or do some sort of refund or pay back for that. These are not anonymous founders.”
Over the next week, Carter-Williams tried to salvage Players Only and his image among the group. He held one-on-one listening sessions with some holders, and jumped into Twitter Spaces one Friday with many more — 194 people tuned in. He spun off the project to a more prominent NFT company, saying he hoped it would allow Players Only to live on instead of being shut down.
For some holders, it did not matter. They just wanted to rid themselves of any interest in Players Only and cashed out, receiving refunds from Carter-Williams for the tokens they held.
Players Only promised to connect the athletes involved with the holders who joined by buying its NFTs. It added Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, Lance McCullers, Marcus Zegarowski and Dennis Smith Jr. as partners. They were listed on the website and promoted the project on social media or in the Discord.
The project’s website and Twitter account said there would be giveaways for signed memorabilia, events in real life, impromptu meetups, regular conversations with the players listed as “founders” on the website, and other tangibles, which it called utilities. Players Only promised to split members into teams and to have competitions virtually and in real-life.
EVERY SINGLE ONE OF OUR NFTS NOW COMES WITH UTILITY🚀
Games of horse🏀, playing catch⚾️🏈, practice facility tours, UFC fights, game tickets, playoff tickets, signed memorabilia from stars, game-used gear, gaming streams, zoom calls, boxes of cards, and MORE🤯 pic.twitter.com/t6En7bAEzc
— Players Only 🏀 🏈 ⚾️ (@playersonlynft) December 14, 2021
Its Discord server was an attraction, where Carter-Williams and others dropped in regularly to talk. The athletes affiliated with the project filmed videos announcing their presence, while the community hummed.
“I thought it was a really cool idea,” TubbySasquatch said. “I’d never seen a sports NFT like this before.”
The project fell short of expectations early on. Players Only hoped to mint, or sell, 10,000 NFTs; it ended up selling just 4,495, according to its website and its OpenSeas page.
The project’s roadmap promised to give away Ethereum at different stages, based on how many tokens were sold. If Players Only sold out, it would pay two holders to go to Disney World to celebrate like a champion. Instead, on Dec. 21, shortly a week after minting, Brown posted a giveaway just for holders who didn’t list their NFTs on OpenSea. Some holders still contend that because the mint was sawed off, then it should have been considered sold out, and utilities promised should reflect a sell-out. (The company refutes this notion.)
Shortly after mint, the athletes weren’t as visible either. Smith Jr. sent 13 messages in the Discord — 8 on Feb. 24, and hasn’t posted since. McCullers has not posted since Dec. 15. Grant stopped on Nov. 27. Harris posted 12 times, all on Jan. 24.
The Athletic reached out to team or agency spokespeople for Grant, Harris, Ross, McCullers, Zegarowski and Smith Jr. Harris, Ross declined comment through a spokesperson for their agency, Grant and McCullers declined to respond through team spokespeople. A spokesperson for Smith’s agency did not respond to emails.
On May 15, Brown said in an announcement on the Discord server he and Grieshober were stepping away. “We all wish the project had been more of a success story,” Brown wrote, then adding, “At this point, satisfying the needs of everyone in the community is seemingly out of reach.” He said the project had tried to partner with more athletes but could not, and blamed a weak secondary market and the low engagement on its Discord as issues that could not be overcome and said there would be no more items given away, only utilities. The two he mentioned were a fight watch with Carter-Williams and gaming with Carter-Williams’ brother, Zegarowski, who played in the G League this season. Brown said Carter-Williams still wanted to make it a “positive environment.” The project had run into trouble, he said, because of lack of interest.
Some holders felt as if the promises they had expected were unfulfilled. In-person events were minimal — Carter-Williams said there were three. A much-hyped Metaverse implementation never materialized. McCullers was brought in to lead a baseball division, Carter-Williams said, but that was never realized.
Prizes, like game-worn or signed items, won through giveaways, sometimes weren’t sent out, according to some holders. Carter-Williams confirmed that there was a long list of unsent prizes. When they were delivered, holders felt as if the product didn’t match the description.
One winner received a wrinkled, gray Magic practice T-shirt — but had actually won a signed jersey. That winner posted a photo of it in the official Discord and left a comment: “This project has been extremely disappointing.”
TubbySasquatch won a giveaway billed as a chance to get three Ethereum and an all-expenses-paid trip to Orlando. Only those with 10 or more NFT were eligible to enter. He received his Ethereum but not the rest.
“It didn’t go as well as it should have or you wanted it to but it went pretty well for you guys,” TubbySasquatch said, alluding to the money the project raised. “Let’s be honest, right? That’s the part I have a hard time with. I think everybody in here has a hard time with as soon as the mint is over — and they only sold half of them — $1.5 million, you already won. No matter what happens. You already won, right?”
Carter-Williams, who has gained attention for his work in the NFT world, said the project collapsed, but not due to a lack of effort. He said he put in “massive” hours to try to make it work and reached out to other NFT projects to try to collaborate. He reached a point, he said, where it became too much for him as he juggled Players Only, his family and rehab from ankle surgery. Carter-Williams did not play this past season and was waived by the Magic in February.
Brown said in the Discord that they spoke to more than 50 other athletes but none wanted to be a part of Players Only. Carter-Williams said he did not realize how difficult it would be to manage an NFT project alongside his NBA responsibilities until he had to do it.
“Do I think that people expected more? Yes,” he said. “But again, I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be in an NBA season and do all those things. I don’t think that people understand how busy professional athletes are. And I think that if I were to do it again when I tried to have to do more to fulfill people not being unhappy — because at the end of the day I don’t want anyone unhappy? Yes. But I think that they fulfilled a certain amount of utility. I do think that.”
While the project raised about $1.5 million, Carter-Williams said that 30 percent went to The Doge Pound, a platform they used to create the project. The other 70 percent, he said, was dispersed among the people involved with the project. Zegarowski received more than $100,000, as did others. Fifty Ethereum were given away in utilities, Carter-Williams said.
At the same time, cryptocurrency values tanked. So did the value of a Players Only NFT. In mid-June, they were selling for as low as 90 cents each. The Players Only team had expected sales on the secondary market would bring in more revenue, Carter-Williams said, which they would use to fund more things.
On Feb. 17, the project was down to $2,500, Brooks said in the Discord.
In the Twitter Spaces, Carter-Willaims said he regretted dispensing all the money right away because it left Players Only without enough to continue to grow. If he could do the project over again, Carter-Williams said, he would have kept more in the project instead of paying out himself and the other players and co-founders after the NFTs sold.
“We cut our feet from underneath us,” Carter-Williams said. “We f—ed ourselves.”
Carter-Williams said all giveaways that were still owed would be shipped out. He also said he had already planned to close the project down with new giveaways even before word of the issues in Players Only seeped out. On June 10, he changed those plans. To pay for these new items, he said he raised more money from the athletes involved outside of what was already earned through the original NFT sales.
Those are unlikely to placate holders, who had hoped for more opportunities to reclaim the community that had thrived before the mint and made the idea of a vibrant town square between holders and athletes seem plausible. By the end, even the giveaways weren’t enough.
“The promised utility started kind of dwindling,” TubbySasquatch said. “Okay, how many f—ing signed photos do I need of this guy? Right? How many like signed jerseys?”
Carter-Williams said he understands why so many holders are disappointed — some are irate — by the project. He also contends there were those satisfied with what they received from Players Only as well.
After a conversation with a reporter with The Athletic, he texted screenshots of tweets from holders expressing appreciation for the utilities they received, like a meet-up in Dallas with Carter-Williams, Ross and Harris.
“There was many people that were happy and the people that are not happy I do feel for you as well,” he said. “I’m not excusing that. There was mistakes that were made. This is definitely not what I envisioned. I wouldn’t say that this was a successful project. This is a project that did fail. In the past I’ve said this was a great experience because I’ve learned a lot from this project. But I empathize with those people that aren’t happy.”
Lately, Carter-Williams has tried to cauterize Players Only. On June 10, he announced that it would join the Knights of Degen, a more established sports-related NFT project. He said Drew Austin, a founder of Knights of Degen, was a mentor in the NFT world. Austin said on the Twitter Spaces that the trouble Players Only faced motivated him to bring Carter-Williams and the project in.
Carter-Williams began giving out refunds to holders who approached him about one over that weekend — it is not clear if he gave out refunds to everyone who asked. He said he had raised 20 Ethereum ahead of the announcement that Players Only was shutting down, then recovered another 24 Ethereum from athletes involved with the project.
ElectricBoogie said he invested $3,500 into Players Only and received $2,000 back directly from Carter-Williams. He then asked for another $700 to spend on Knights of Degen NFTs and said he received that too.
He believes that Carter-Williams was moved by the specter of bad publicity to start appeasing angry holders.
“I wholeheartedly believe that this dude is trying to do everything he can by pulling money from his own pocket,” ElectricBoogie said. “And refunding early investors to the best of his ability.”
Last month, as the Players Only fractured and Carter-Williams tried to smooth things over, Drokycell started texting back and forth with him. He is the project’s second-biggest holder, with 55 NFTs, and had gotten into it so he could get closer to NBA players.
Drokycell said he asked if Carter-Williams could get him tickets to a game, or if they could each bring their kids and sit courtside next to each other. Although Drokycell lives in Iowa, he says he’s ready to fly out to an NBA city if Carter-Williams agrees to it.
Even if that never happens, just having an NBA player’s cell phone number has been a thrill for him. He sent screenshots of their conversations to family and friends. The project was a flop, he said, but it took the collapse of Players Only to finally get what he was looking for.
“For a podunk, small-town guy, that is why I bought in, is the athlete access,” he said. “I guess it happened. It’s crazy how it came about.”
Carter-Williams is embedded in the NFT world now. Last month, he hesitated for a moment when asked if he will work on more NFT projects after Players Only and said he had already told companies he is working with that it might be best if he isn’t associated with them because of the new scrutiny he is facing.
But, he said, those companies still wanted him to work with them. They wanted him to come on Twitter Spaces and explain why Players Only failed. Those responses, he said, made him believe even more strongly that he had not been a part of any fraudulent project. Instead, he said he’ll let Players Only serve as a learning experience. Austin said on the Twitter Spaces last month he thinks Carter-Williams will be a value-add to Knights of Degen.
“I’m not gonna let this determine the rest of my life in the NFT world,” Carter-Williams said. “I’ll still be a part of projects, I’ll still do different things with projects. Yeah, I would still love to and still am going to be involved.”
(Top photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)