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.

Football Media Watch: WAGMI oh my… football feels the wind of change

THERE was something predictable about the speed of the collapse of the bid to buy Bradford City by a group of investors going by the name of WAGMI United. This bid, some might say audacious attempt, was from a group that aimed to use the latest financial miracle cure, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT), in order to transform a club currently languishing in League Two. 

The cynics had a field day and iNews captured the mood perfectly: “The make up of this group is vaguely generic, if emphatically modern. There’s a sports gambling analyst, the president of a US sports team, the chairman of a communications agency and a TikTok sensation.” No surprise the report was headed: “The thought of Bradford City being bought by this clueless crypto crew fills me with horror.”

Certainly, some of the comments made and soundbites suggest there is little knowledge or sensitivity being displayed. For a start, they initially referred to the club as “Bradford” which of course is not Bradford City but non-league Park Avenue. Secondly, they talked of restoring the club to its “rightful glory”. Did they look into City’s history? One FA Cup win in 1911 and a total of 12 seasons in English football’s top flight. With the greatest respect to a fine and much-loved club, rightful glory is probably League One. Furthermore, they talked of not wanting to “start fires”, which given the events of 1985 when fans died in the horrific blaze at the stadium, is not really the most appropriate way to describe a shake-up at the club. It might not seem important to some, but football is a game of emotions.

Most people don’t know what NFTs really are and how they work. Basically, they are a non- interchangeable unit of data stored on blockchain (distributed ledger technology). As The Athletic pointed out, there is some nervousness about such instruments given their price volatility – PSG and Manchester City’s NFTs lost 75% of their value in a very short space of time. NFTs are also unregulated, so the market is a little like the wild west at the moment. No wonder some critics call them “magic beans” and dismiss them as a fad.

WAGMI conceded that they know little about the intricacies of English football, which should have worried Bradford City’s fans.  The Guardian was told early on that a transaction was a long way from completion and there were serious doubts whether it would go through. Chairman Stefan Rupp hinted it was no deal, insisting his objective was to protect the club and safeguard its long-term future. While many fans were not impressed by the WAGMI bid, there was a lot of enthusiasm from those who wanted to see the end of the Rupp era at Bradford City.

The local media were more on the side of the doubters. The Telegraph & Argus asked how long would it take for WAGMI to get bored. “What happens a couple of years down the line when the novelty has long lost its shine and they are seeking the next crypto high in a totally different business? What then for Bradford City and the people that would be left behind?”.

One fan, who claimed to have a big interest in crypto, said on twitter: “Sport teams and crypto are diametrically opposed. If you want to build, go start your own club.”

The latest twist is that following WAGMI’s announcement that claimed an agreement in principle had been struck, Stefan Rupp is considering legal action. He told the Telegraph & Argus: “Sadly, the actions of WAGMI United LLC have detrimentally brought both my integrity and the club’s reputation into question.”

The case may go on, but the transaction looks dead – if indeed it was ever really alive. This won’t be the last time that such an organisation attempts to buy a club, but owners, fans and governing bodies will need to be wary.

Sources: The Athletic, Telegraph & Argus, Daily Mirror, Guardian, iNews, Coinmarketcap.

Football has to beware of Crypto-mania

WE’VE ALL seen the advertisement on TV; the honest retired worker, sitting on a 40-year pension pot, exploited by a crooked “advisor” who promised huge returns on his savings. “He took the lot,” says the heartbroken pensioner. 

There are many other examples, such as the whizz-kid trader selling FX derivatives to honest working class people and promising unrealistic returns from what turned out to be a “Ponzi fund”. The buyers didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. It’s hard enough for City professionals immersed in the markets to keep up with the developments and mechanics of modern finance, let alone the earnest folk who drive taxis, install boilers or lay bricks.

The football industry has an insatiable obsession with money and get-rich-quick schemes. Just as clubs and leagues are happy to take money from the gambling industry, which has questionable values, the new snake oil in town is crypto currency. 

For years, financial technology (fintech) has been disrupting the status quo, trying to make banking and other services cheaper, more accessible and, ultimately, more nimble. There have been good and bad aspects of this sea change but the initial noise seems to have subsided. Take it a stage further and you have the creation of new forms of currency. Unregulated, virtual currencies that exist in the clouds. Given the value of these currencies can soar and plummet in a short space of time, they cannot possible be classified as “stable”. And in the age of high regulation and compliance demands, the fact that many products seem to be part of “the Wild West of Crypto”, investors should tread with extreme care.

Football clubs have been hit hard by the pandemic with more than £ 1 billion of losses incurred. They are always looking at new revenue streams and hence, they take money from the gambling sector and find owners from the most dubious corners of the globe. And no matter how many clubs become victims of irresponsible owners with shady back stories, the game doesn’t seem to learn very easily. Like the hapless and trusting investor, clubs will often bite the hand off anyone that promises riches with all the precision of Spielberg’s latex shark.

Clubs and players are lining-up to make friends with the travelling salesperson peddling crypto as the latest wonder elixir. The attraction for a crypto company is obvious; football is a global game, followed by hordes of people with little knowledge of blockchain, Crypto or distributive ledgers. They don’t always understand risk or that the genial salesperson, calling his clients “guys” and other examples of fake bonhomie, is not interested in the punter, selling is the game they are playing. How many people on the Clapham omnibus would understand what a “Decentralised finance trading analysis and advisory technology company” actually does?

Many clubs have already dipped their toes into this somewhat murky world. Issuing instruments like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is a way for them to raise money without tampering with their corporate model through share issues or the creation of special purpose vehicles. Inter Milan, the Italian champions, have been so entranced they ended a 30-year relationship with Pirelli to put Crypto firm Socios on their famous blue and black shirts.

Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have all taken the plunge, although City have suspended their partnership with 3Key after discovering that the company had no credible digital presence. Similarly, Barca ended their NFT agreement with Ownix less than a month after announcing the tie-up after so-called Crypto mogul Moshe Hagog, was arrested for alleged fraud and sex crimes.

Supporters groups, naturally, are concerned that fans who “invest” in these products will be the people that get will their fingers burned. Leeds United’s Supporters Trust believes fans will be forced to enter a cryptocurrency eco-system, something they have little, if any, knowledge of. Meanwhile, fan representatives of both West Ham and Arsenal have expressed their disapproval and lack of trust in Crypto tokens.

Yet in the first half of 2021, crypto brands have spent over US$ 100 million on sports sponsorship and 17 of the 20 Premier League clubs have already sealed some form of partnership. Since early 2020, Crypto assets have grown to around US$ 2 trillion. 

When will people learn that when something sounds too good to be true, it often is just that? The financial crisis of 2008-2009 demonstrated that, without due diligence and appropriate regulation, the system can cause ordinary people huge problems. This new form of finance may seem exciting, may be cutting edge, but it largely comes without the assurance of strong policing. The International Monetary Fund has warned of the possibility of financial instability caused by Crypto and there’s a good reasons why compliance professionals are among the most sought-after individuals in financial services these days. Never has the term, caveat emptor been more appropriate.