Sam Bankman-Fried had a plan to save humanity and he needed celebrities to make it happen. In go to infinity, Michael Lewis’ newly published account of Bankman-Fried’s dizzying rise and fall, The Big Short and Moneyball The author explains how the disgraced crypto tycoon – now in prison awaiting trial on fraud charges – claims to have been motivated by the principles of effective altruism to make billions in order to give away his wealth to avoid existential risks such as to stave off an AI apocalypse. Hyperanalytical, socially challenged and defiantly disheveled with his cloud of black hair and his uniform of T-shirt and cargo shorts, Bankman-Fried awkwardly fit in with the glamorous, boldface names drawn to his sudden fame and phenomenal wealth. Still, he assumed he needed them to attract users to his crypto exchange FTX.
Lewis describes Bankman-Fried’s celebrity-driven marketing strategy as haphazard – he essentially fueled it – and strangely dispassionate: “[He] had no idea how to build a brand and, as always, no interest in expert opinions on how to do it.”
To reach crypto enthusiasts – a predominantly young and male demographic – Bankman-Fried first turned to the sports world. It came to attention after FTX acquired the naming rights to the Miami Heat arena for $155 million (after unsuccessfully trying to secure the rights to NFL stadiums in New Orleans and Kansas City). FTX even managed to put its name on the uniforms of every Major League Baseball umpire for $162.5 million, Lewis reports. FTX then signed deals with such legendary athletes as Shaquille O’Neal and Shohei Ohtani. But the real coup was getting Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady for $55 million worth of FTX shares.
“Everywhere Sam went,” Lewis writes, “people mentioned that they had heard about FTX because of Brady. Hardly anyone mentioned any of the other supporters.”
A “CRINGE” FASHION PURSUIT
The partnership with Brady was doubly effective because it was tied to a $19.8 million deal with Brady’s then-wife, Gisele Bündchen. According to Lewis, becoming a supermodel was Bankman-Fried’s introduction to the wide world of fashion and celebrity. He met him through her Fashion Editor and Met Gala chairwoman Anna Wintour, with whom Lewis writes that Bankman-Fried was barely familiar.
The Zoom meeting between the two was, in Lewis’ detailed description, a surreal collision of worlds. Wintour, perhaps hoping that Bankman-Fried would bankroll the celebrity-heavy Met Gala, patiently explained what the event was about while the sloppy crypto tycoon pretended to listen and focused more on the video game , which he played in the background. According to Lewis (as if his wardrobe wasn’t proof enough), Bankman-Fried completely despised the fashion world, which he considered superficial. However, he also believed that penetrating fashion circles was the key to attracting female users to his exchange. “It was all part of the celebrity deal with Gisele,” former FTX PR head Natalie Tien said, according to Lewis. “Very frightening. No one at FTX liked the idea, including Sam himself.”
He ended up reneging on his commitments to attend and potentially finance the Met Gala, to the dismay of Wintour’s team. “They called and screamed and said that Sam would never set foot in fashion again!” Tien tells Lewis.
SWIFT WAS INTERESTED
Still, Bankman-Fried was not intimidated into attracting prominent speakers. According to FTX’s own calculations, the exchange has paid out $500 million in endorsement deals since its inception. Lewis reports that FTX paid comedian Larry David $10 million for his well-reviewed Super Bowl anti-advocacy. Only a few stars rejected the money from FTX. NBA star Steph Curry initially rejected an offer, but later changed his mind, writes Lewis. And while Taylor Swift made headlines for refusing FTX’s money, Lewis reports the story was more complicated:
“FTX had an agreement with Swift to pay her between $25 million and $30 million a year,” Lewis writes, “but Sam was reluctant to close the deal.” “She wanted to do it,” she said [former FTX employee] Natalie Tien, “but Sam kept putting off responding to her team.” Another person closely involved in the negotiations between Swift and FTX said, “Taylor didn’t reject it.” They were waiting for Sam to sign it ‘when he didn’t.'”
FTX’s celebrity deals weren’t just limited to megastars like Brady and Swift. Lewis learns that the exchange paid $15.7 million Shark tankis Kevin O’Leary – who the author describes as “perhaps not even the second most famous”. Shark tank Person” – for “20 hours of service, 20 social media posts, a virtual lunch and 50 autographs.”
THE SUPER CONNECTOR TO THE A-LIST
According to the book, Bankman-Fried frequently made investment decisions at Alameda Research, the sister company of FTX — the cryptocurrency trading firm he founded and to which he allegedly funneled FTX client funds in violation of regulations — without consulting anyone at the company. Among those decisions, Lewis said, was a promise to invest $5 billion in K5 Global, a financial advisory firm founded by former CAA agent and renowned super-connector Michael Kives. (Bankman-Fried’s colleagues and FTX lawyers eventually negotiated the sum down to $500.)
During a trip to LA, Bankman-Fried was invited to a star-studded dinner party hosted by Kives. The invitation came out of the blue – neither Bankman-Fried nor his colleagues knew much about Kives, not even how to pronounce his name (KEE-vus), and some employees feared the invitation was a plot to kidnap Bankman-Fried. Yet he attended anyway, mingling (presumably awkwardly) with Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Rock, Katy Perry, Kate Hudson, Orlando Bloom, Jeff Bezos, Doug Emhoff “and at least four Kardashians.”
Bankman-Fried must have made an impression. The next day, Katy Perry (a former customer of Kives) posted on Instagram:
“I’m giving up music and becoming an intern at @ftx_official, ok .”