Token gesture – WAGMI and Crawley

CRAWLEY TOWN have entered a hopeful new era, at least that’s what many people believe. On the day they welcomed AFC Barrow to the People’s Pension Stadium, the club was also opening its doors to new ownership in the form of WAGMI United, whose principal figures are a sports gambling analyst and a trader of non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“Hey, what’s up guys?”, said the heavily bearded Preston Johnson, WAGMI’s co-owner, in his introductory and chummy video message on social media. “Go Reds”. This, presumably, is part of the new type of leadership WAGMI (We’re all gonna make it) will bring to English football. “A conventional approach to ownership hasn’t worked,” claimed the new investors in one of the EFL’s most humble clubs. They are not wrong there.

Johnson is also known as Sports Cheetah and is a well known character in the gambling world, while his partner Eben Smith, is a trader of NFTs and was a derivatives expert. There is talk that Belorusian-American businessman Gary Vaynerchuk and YouTube personality Bryce Hall may also be involved. There’s something very “NOW” about this group of individuals.

Crawley struggle to get more than 2,500 people at their neat, functional and ultimately pleasant ground. The town has a population of 107,000 but it was identified as one of the most vulnerable during the height of the pandemic with an astonishing 56% of jobs at some sort of risk. To a certain degree, it is a miracle they have managed to sustain EFL football for 11 seasons, but they have incurred sizeable debts and support has tailed off from their early years in the league.

There’s more than a little unease about the introduction of this type of investment and let’s not forget this is their second attempt at taking over a club, Bradford City were in talks with them a few months ago. They have ticked all the right boxes (doesn’t everyone when they go through the due diligence process?), but NFTS, Crypto, blockchain – these are all part of an unregulated market that has the potential to cause chaos. Furthermore, just 14 years after the financial crisis of 2008, people are starting to dip their toes into murky waters once more. It may be innovative, but reading some of the types of asset being exchanged for NFTs, it does resemble a digital age Emperor’s New Clothes.

With football desperately trying to win credibility in all sorts of ways, attaching itself to good and sometimes debatable causes, virtue signalling at every opportunity, how does a football club really feel about an alignment with gambling and opportunism? And Crawley’s home ground, the People’s Pension Stadium –  how comfortable is the sponsor about backing a club owned by NFT advocates when trust, regulation and security are at the very heart of pension management?

The success of this venture does depend on how the public reacts. There’s no firm evidence that NFTs and football are a sure-fire winner. Liverpool, for example, failed to sell the vast majority of their LFC Heroes, and John Terry’s project saw a volatile drop in value. Dozens of clubs are now entering this field, including Paris Saint-Germain and Inter Milan as well as players like Tony Kroos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

One question surely has to be the market position of Crawley Town. This is a club with low levels of support (151,000 followers across the three main social media channels) and their attendances rank 91 out of 92. Only Salford City get lower crowds.

That is not to say there are genuine prospects for growth – 107,000 is a sizeable population and being just 28 miles from London and close to Gatwick Airport makes Crawley a significant town. Moreover, they have a relatively young population that may be open to new, untried methods of club ownership. But some fans are wary of their club being used as an experiment that is by no means certain to succeed. Fans will get the chance to purchase NFTs which can be interpreted as giving them some sort of stake in the club. The proceeds can be used to help fund the progress of Crawley Town. That’s a rather simplistic view, of course, but have Crawley got enough fans and enough cachet to make a real difference?

On the evidence of the game with Barrow, there’s a lot of work to be done on the field. Crawley beat a poor visiting side who were desperate for points in their relegation struggle by a single goal. The crowd was just under 2,081 – the new era hasn’t caught the imagination just yet.

Supporter-ownership is a good thing, but will this scheme genuinely lead Crawley down that path? In a market that is generally run inefficiently, there could be a danger Crawley will find their methods will be at a disadvantage compared to the accepted hand-to-mouth system most lower league clubs seem to exist by. WAGMI are looking to challenge the status quo – not a bad thing at all – so it may be a long haul. Have they got the patience given they are looking for promotion in their second season in charge?

It’s a brave move by Crawley Town, but for all the fascination with new forms of finance, there is one big nagging doubt – do we know enough about NFTs and does the football world trust an unregulated product? Football better hope this doesn’t go horribly wrong, the finances of so many clubs are very vulnerable right now and there’s little scope for error.

Stevenage v Barrow: Football’s back and people are smiling in the sun

IT WAS fitting that the sun shone on the opening day of the football season as clubs up and down the country welcomed fans back to their grounds. The familiar rituals of matchday may have been disrupted over the past 18 months, but the spectators soon slipped back into old habits – abusing the opposition, berating the referee, celebrating with gay abandon. In Stevenage, a club that has now shed almost all of the remnants of its non-league past, they played host to Barrow, whose followers had a 530-mile round trip to see their heroes.

Stevenage have now been members of the English Football League since 2010, the 2021-22 season will be their 12th at that level. Towns like Stevenage are tailor-made for league football, but they have to overcome the hurdle of being close to London and the even more significant obstacle of legacy. When the new towns were built after the second world war, they acted as a filtering system of the inner-city population. Londoners moved to Basildon, Harlow and Stevenage and they took with them family links to the likes of West Ham, Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal, among other clubs. Establishing a new generation of supporters takes time but Stevenage seem to have achieved that. When you see fans with their colours on neighbouring railway stations, you know you’ve made progress.

The presence of EFL football in a town means something, not just in footballing terms, but in putting a pointer on the map. For example, who would have heard of Scunthorpe, Mansfield, Sutton or Walsall if it were not for their football clubs? Stevenage is well known because of three things – it’s a stopping point for what we used to call Inter-City trains, it’s a new town and they have a football team. Of course, there’s plenty of other reasons for knowing about Stevenage, but for most people, these are the dominant indicators.

Since becoming an EFL club, Stevenage have rubbed shoulders with some big names. They achieved infamy in 1998 as a Conference club when they faced Kenny Dalglish’s Newcastle United, but since then, they have met the Geordies again and beaten them, and also come up against Tottenham, Everton, Stoke, Millwall, Norwich, Southampton, Swansea, Hull and Reading.

It is fair to say Stevenage are now an established EFL club, but life can be a bit of a struggle. The pond they paddle in is far bigger than non-league, so their attendances are always at the bottom end of League Two. In fact, Stevenage could attract more people in their non-league heyday, although today, crowds are about the same as they were in 1996-97. Their stadium is an excellent example of a small, neat and uniform ground, with a modest but adequate capacity. The latest development, the north stand, offers a comfortable view of the action.

The Stevenage public have missed live action and there was something of a big reunion going on around the ground. “We all look older,” one woman declared when reacquainting herself with other Lamex regulars who had put their Stevenage shirts in cold storage for the best part of 18 months. 

With player turnover high at the lower end of the EFL, there were a number of new faces in the Stevenage line-up. Jake Reeves (Notts County), Jake Taylor (Exeter City) and Jamie Reid (Mansfield) were all snapped-up on free transfers, while goalkeeper Joseph Anang, arrived on a season-long loan from West Ham. Barrow, who had finished just five points clear of relegation in 2020-21, also had a cluster of new faces, including goalkeeper Paul Farman (Carlisle), Joe Grayson (Blackburn), Mark Ellis (Tranmere), Josh Gordon (Walsall) and Remeao Hutton (Birmingham). 

The game itself was lively, rarely dull, but short on real quality and long on yellow cards (10 in total). Stevenage did enough to deserve the points, scoring a well-crafted goal in the 48th minute, Reid dashing to the byline, crossing low and Reeves arrived to sweep the ball into the net. Reid almost added a second later but Farman, who played for Stevenage between 2018 and 2020, pulled off a good save.

Victory, however narrow, was a satisfactory start for Stevenage, but for Barrow, it was a long way to come for no reward. For the interested observer, it was good – and a little strange – to see a stadium with fans enjoying themselves in the right way. It’s back!

Note to Stevenage: Turn down the PA please  – if football is a human league, let’s hear the sound of the crowd, that’s what we’ve been longing for.