Crypto FC: How NFTs, digital assets are changing football

Daryl Morey, president of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, businessman Gary Vaynerchuk and YouTuber Bryce Hall are among those involved in the consortium, with co-founders Preston Johnson and Eben Smith taking the lead roles at the club.
Crypto FC: How NFTs, digital assets are changing football

Chennai: Barely visible behind the trees that line the exit road from the motorway, the People’s Pension Stadium in Crawley is not the obvious setting for a new frontier in the whirlwind romance between football and cryptocurrency.

But the fourth-tier English club that plays in the 6,000-capacity ground, Crawley Town, were bought out by US-based cryptocurrency group Wagmi United earlier this month. Daryl Morey, president of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, businessman Gary Vaynerchuk and YouTuber Bryce Hall are among those involved in the consortium, with co-founders Preston Johnson and Eben Smith taking the lead roles at the club.

“At Crawley Town, we’re going to shake up the status quo, try out some new ideas, and build a worldwide community of fans new and old that can be excited to cheer on the Red Devils together — stretching from West Sussex [the county that Crawley is in] to anywhere in the world with an internet connection,” said Johnson, a former sports betting analyst.

So, why Crawley? “That will be the first question I ask next time we speak,” Steve Leake, from the Crawley Town Supporters Alliance, told DW. Leake has been a fan of the club for 66 years and was the fan representative to previous owner, Turkish steel magnate Ziya Eren.

When the question was posed to Johnson in a fan Q&A on YouTube released on April 16, he said: “The club has a tonne of untapped potential that hasn’t been realised yet using the conventional ownership model. We think we can take it to the next level. It’s important though to us that Crawley Town is a community club, we’re committed to that.”

It’s not quite clear what is specific to Crawley about those factors. Leake said that the session answered some of the many questions fans had including: that the club was bought using cash rather than bitcoin, that it was not “tied to the volatility of bitcoin,” and that Wagmi will clear the club’s debts. But the fan representative feels “more clarity” is required, while noting that it’s early days in the takeover.

Wagmi United tried to buy Bradford City, also in League Two but with a more successful past, before Crawley. But the deal broke down at the last minute, largely due to fan concern over the perceived role NFTs (non-fungible tokens) would play in the club’s future. NFTs, essentially ‘unique’ digital assets such as videos or playing cards to be traded, and cryptocurrencies have quickly taken root at the top level of football. FIFA and UEFA both have crypto partners and clubs around the world have offered NFTs, some with fan experiences attached.

While some make the holders money upon sale, several have quickly lost up to 90% of their value in a volatile market. As such, there is a significant amount of skepticism about how quick an industry financially ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic has been to jump in to bed with a new, unregulated and decentralised currency. The support of clubs and players is often seen as endorsement and legitimization of an asset that is anything but safe.

“I know crypto is a scary word. NFTs, no one really knows what they are,” admitted Johnson in the Q&A. “Hopefully people understand that this is still pretty formal, we’ve done it in the traditional way. We’re just trying to bring some cool concepts and add them to the structure that already exists.”

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