When the FTX cryptocurrency exchange imploded last fall, seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady made an emergency phone call.
He called Sina Nader, FTX’s head of partnerships. The exchange’s staff was in the middle of a crisis meeting with its beleaguered founder, Sam Bankman-Fried. Mr. Nader could not answer. “I never expected to turn down a call from Tom Brady,” he said.
Mr. Brady had reason to be concerned. As an “ambassador” for FTX, he had appeared at the company’s conference in the Bahamas and in TV commercials promoting the exchange as “the most trusted”[ads1]; institution in the loosely regulated crypto world.
His money was also at stake. As part of an endorsement deal that Mr. Brady signed in 2021, FTX had paid him $30 million, a deal that consisted almost entirely of FTX stock, three people with knowledge of the contract said. Mr. Brady’s wife at the time, the supermodel Gisele Bündchen, was paid $18 million in FTX stock, one of the people said.
Now FTX is bankrupt, and Mr. Bankman-Fried is facing criminal fraud charges. Mr Brady, 45, and Ms Bündchen, 42, have been sued by a group of FTX customers seeking compensation from the celebrities who endorsed the exchange. On top of that, the terms of the deal would have required the former couple, who divorced last year, to pay taxes on at least some of their now-worthless FTX stock, two people familiar with the endorsement deal said.
Their situation is the most high-profile example of a humiliating payoff to actors, athletes and other celebrities who rushed to embrace the easy money and online hype of cryptocurrencies. During the boom, Paris Hilton, Snoop Dogg, Reese Witherspoon and Matt Damon all splashed around or invested in crypto projects, bringing a mainstream audience to the crazy world of digital currencies. It was fun – and lucrative – while prices rose.
But last year’s crash ended the celebrity crypto bonanza.
In October, the Securities and Exchange Commission ordered Kim Kardashian to pay $1.26 million for failing to provide adequate disclosures when she endorsed the EthereumMax cryptocurrency. In December, a California attorney sued two crypto companies, MoonPay and Yuga Labs, accusing them of using a “vast network of A-list musicians, athletes and celebrity clients” to mislead investors about digital assets.
In March, the SEC accused actress Lindsay Lohan, online influencer Jake Paul and musicians including Soulja Boy and Lil Yachty of illegally promoting crypto assets. And in late May, after months of unsuccessful attempts, a process server served court papers on Shaquille O’Neal, the retired basketball star, who was sued for promoting FTX, according to legal documents. Mr. O’Neal was served while broadcasting from a National Basketball Association playoff game.
Representatives for Mr. Brady, Mr. Bankman-Fried and MoonPay declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Yuga Labs said the company had “never paid a celebrity to join the club.” Representatives for Bündchen and O’Neal did not respond to requests for comment.
Technology start-ups and celebrities have long had a symbiotic relationship. The startups offer stars a way to make money while staying at the forefront of internet culture; the celebrities help young businesses gain credibility and reach a larger audience.
Of all the start-ups recruiting celebrities to back crypto, FTX was perhaps the most eager. When Mr. Bankman-Fried was trying to make FTX a household name, he made a list of celebrities he could envision promoting the company, Mr. Nader, the former FTX chief, recalled. Mr. Brady’s name was at the top.
A former college football player, Mr. Nader was responsible for recruiting Mr. Brady and other stars. In June 2021, Mr. Brady and Ms. Bündchen agreed to a deal with Mr. Bankman-Fried, praising the “revolutionary FTX team.” Mr. Brady seemed genuinely interested in crypto, Mr. Nader said, and had occasional conversations with Mr. Bankman-Fried.
“Imagine a tiger and a lion talking,” Nader said. “They’re a little bit different, they do different things, but they’re really formidable in their own arenas.”
In 2021, Mr. Brady also co-founded Autograph, which helps famous people sell crypto collectibles known as non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Autograph raised more than $200 million from investors, and Mr. Bankman-Fried joined the board.
That same year, Mr. Brady and Ms. Bündchen starred in a $20 million advertising campaign for FTX, with commercials that ran during NFL games. Mr. Brady also posted TikTok videos with Mr. Bankman-Fried from FTX’s headquarters in the Bahamas, where he spoke at a conference in front of hundreds. Backstage, Mr. Bankman-Fried noted that he would like to buy a football team one day with Mr. Brady. Bündchen also appeared at the conference as FTX’s head of environmental and social initiatives.
When FTX collapsed last November, the company’s valuation fell by $32 billion — including Mr. Brady and Ms. Bündchen’s shares of $48 million – to zero. The pair had also received a small amount of Ethereum, Bitcoin and Solana tokens for trading on the platform, said one of the people, who disappeared in FTX’s bankruptcy.
Mr. Brady has not commented publicly about FTX or his relationship with Mr. Bankman-Fried. After FTX’s crisis meeting in November, Nader called him back.
“He was concerned,” Mr. Nader said. “The very first thing he asked me was: ‘Sina, how are you? I know you put your heart and soul into this.'”
Bündchen said in a March interview with Vanity Fair that she had “trusted the hype” and felt “blindsided”.
Mr. Brady’s other crypto venture has also struggled. Autograph’s revenue dipped last year amid the crypto meltdown, said a person familiar with the financials. The startup has changed its strategy to focus more on helping celebrities find ways to foster fan loyalty and less on marketing crypto tokens to consumers, the person said. The firm has also removed some crypto language from its marketing, downplaying terms like NFT, another person with knowledge of the company said.
Autograph has also cut more than 50 employees in rounds of layoffs, a third person said. The reductions were reported earlier by Insider. A spokeswoman for Autograph declined to comment.
Mr. Brady has also faced legal problems. In December, attorney Adam Moskowitz and the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner filed a lawsuit in federal court in Florida, accusing him and Ms. Bündchen of misleading investors. Among the other defendants are comedian Larry David, NBA star Steph Curry and tennis player Naomi Osaka, all of whom supported FTX.
“None of these defendants performed any due diligence before marketing these FTX products to the public,” the lawsuit states.
Some celebrities narrowly escaped the crypto mess. Katy Perry, the pop star, held talks about a partnership with FTX that never came to fruition, three people familiar with the situation have said.
Last spring, Taylor Swift discussed a deal with FTX that could have paid as much as $100 million, two people familiar with the matter said. A tour sponsorship was on the table after Swift turned down other promotional options, a person with knowledge of the talks said. The size of the deal was previously reported by The Financial Times.
Mr. Moskowitz said on a podcast in April that Swift had done due diligence on FTX, asking the exchange to prove that its cryptocurrencies were not unregistered securities. His comments led to a flurry of headlines about Swift’s business acumen. But in an interview with The New York Times, Mr. Moskowitz said he had no inside information about the talks.
In reality, Swift’s side signed the sponsorship deal with FTX after more than six months of discussions, three people with knowledge of the deal said, and it was Mr. Bankman-Fried who pulled out. The last-minute reversal left Ms Swift’s team frustrated and disappointed, two of the people said.
A spokeswoman for Swift declined to comment.