Last month, Watford took an unusual decision. Not the one to sack Javi Gracia four matches into the season; that was kind of standard. Rather it had something to do with the sleeves on the kit that, the club said, would be sporting the logo of Bitcoin. Hoping to “educate the public on the benefits of using cryptocurrencies”, the sponsorship would form part of a “wider campaign to improve awareness”.
Another measure allowed supporters to pay with Bitcoin at the club’s online store. In doing so, Watford became one of the first football clubs in the world to accept digital currency. Suspicion remains they will not be turning over vast amounts of the stuff, however, when even Bitcoin’s cheerleaders – including the gambling company sportsbet.io, which is Watford’s main shirt sponsor and paid for the sleeve endorsement – accept a campaign is necessary to explain what Bitcoin is.
Cryptocurrency (crypto for short) cannot be readily reduced into a simple concept, but here’s an attempt: it describes a digital form of money created independently of any central bank that is encrypted and so is anonymous and verifiable. If that still seems impenetrable then be assured you are not alone. But for now it’s enough to recognise that a lot of people see crypto – and the blockchain, the technology that underpins it – as the future, even if they’re not quite sure how. These people are generally interested in making money off the back of it. That football should want to be involved is predictable and also revealing.
Watford are not alone in joining the crypto express. Bayern Munich have launched a series of blockchain “collectibles” that is a kind of crypto Top Trumps. Manchester City have done the same, except theirs is a crypto Tamagotchi (the game is called FC Superstars and is made in conjunction with a South Korean company called Superbloke).
Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Atlético Madrid, Roma, Galatasaray and West Ham have signed deals with Socios.com. The plan here is for fans to acquire club tokens, some for free, others bought using Socios’s own cryptocurrency, Chiliz (one of 3,000 cryptocurrencies being traded online). These tokens would confirm you as a supporter though what you do with them next is not clear.
“Our app aims to connect and bridge global fans of sports teams,” is how Alexandre Dreyfus explains it. He’s a crypto enthusiast, former poker entrepreneur and the man behind Socios.com. “99.9% of fans, especially fans of big teams, are not in the stadium,” he says. “Because of globalisation and digitalisation there are now hundreds of millions of fans elsewhere in the world. We feel there’s a gap of engagement with these supporters.
“There is currently no solution for clubs to say: ‘This is a fan and I connect with them.’ Tokens are a way of knowing these fans. There is also an activation play too. Clubs don’t have many things to sell to fans in Asia. They can buy shirts, but most of them are fake. [Fan tokens] are a way to engage and monetise globally.”
Dreyfus envisages a future where token holders have a say in the running of their club (perhaps helping to choose the next kit design, say). He says that this is a commitment shared by Socios.com’s partners . One of those partners, however, said they would not be countenancing such measures for fear of creating two tiers of support: those that had the tokens and those that didn’t.
As for the selling of stuff, that seems mainly to involve fan tokens themselves. Dreyfus’s Twitter feed features a mock-up of a talk show with people chatting about clubs and their tokens as an index of their value flashes alongside. It’s a cross between Soccer Saturday and a business channel and as baffling as that sounds.
Socios.com does not exist yet, either. The first sponsorship deals, with Juve and PSG, were announced a year ago but the company’s website still offers the chance only to “stay in the loop” about the product’s launch. Plans for a Pokemon Go-style token hunt this summer never materialised. Dreyfus said he expected a soft launch this month and on Twitter has suggested lift-off in “the next few weeks”.
Crypto went mainstream a couple of years ago thanks to an explosion in the value of Bitcoin. Despite falling back since (a single Bitcoin is still worth more than £6,500) the enthusiasm remains and while practical uses appear limited there are ways crypto and sport, particularly football, intertwine seductively.
First, shopping in crypto allows fans in Hong Kong to behave like fans in Harlow, Essex. Second, it allows them to gamble like them too (as Watford’s sponsors are no doubt well aware). Third, it is at least an attempt to create something like a stake in a club for fans who only ever follow the team on the screen. These fans, it should not need pointing out, outnumber the physical variety by orders of magnitude.
“We can compare it to the early days of the internet,” says Iqbal Gandham, managing director of digital investment company, eToro. “Currently they’re dabbling to see what the benefits are. One of those, I would say, is the ability to go global very quickly. But at this stage it’s probably not [built on] a business case, but more about getting involved in order to get a better understanding.”
Gandham believes the current offering remains unclear. “The companies that release these tokens have to have a long hard think and ask: ‘Are we really giving something back to the fans?’” he says. “Do they get ownership in the club? Do they get voting rights, and if so what do they entail? If it’s a real change it could become a useful thing for an individual to have. If it just gives you a discount on a shirt, I’m not sure fans will react in the way that the clubs and companies want them to.”
Scepticism about crypto is healthy and there have been a number of scams associated with digital currency, with the Financial Conduct Authority estimating Britons have lost £27m this year. Questions of utility remain, too, but people such as Dreyfus are plugged into a digital world still not well understood by professional sports clubs or their governing bodies.
“We are just one tool that clubs can have to compete with other entertainment products,” Dreyfus says. “Recently we had the CEO of Liverpool [Peter Moore] saying Fortnite is a competitor to a Liverpool match. Youngsters want more [from their entertainment] – they are used to being connected.”
Where, in his mind, might the crypto-fication of football end up? “My dream is that one day we would launch a Socios Cup, and the starting XIs would be decided entirely by fans,” Dreyfus says.
The question of who would get sacked if the team lost is a question for another day.
The Guardian Sport