You may have heard recently about Socios 'Fan Tokens'. But what actually are they? And is it something Norwich will get involved with? Matthew McGregor investigates...
A finance expert, writing on Twitter last week, said that after much study and open-minded consideration, he’d come to the conclusion that the only rationale for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin was either mindless financial speculation, or for criminality.
Apropos of nothing, I have recently been looking into the launch by several clubs of their own ‘Fan Token’ projects, which use a cryptocurrency-like approach to giving fans a stake in, uh, something, and the chance to use that stake to, uh, do something engagement-y.
If you’ve been confused by announcements from the likes of historically big teams like Leeds United, Aston Villa, and even relegation battlers Arsenal, you’d be well within your rights. I have been trying to get my head around it for a few days now and I am still not all that wiser.
Almost fifty sports clubs around the world have now signed up to Socios, the company that provides these fan tokens, including five Premier League clubs. (West Ham also signed up but scrapped the deal after protests from fan groups.) Barcelona, PSG and Inter are the big football names involved, but some American sports teams have (naturally) got involved, as well as the Caribbean Premier League in cricket.
The basic premise is sort of straight forward: you buy fan tokens (with some clubs giving members one of these tokens ‘for free’), then your token can be used to vote in polls (for example, on the colour of the nets used at the club), enter prize draws (to meet a player – for example, spend the afternoon fishing with Jerry Goss), and you can trade your tokens away for cash if the price of them goes up. “Be more than a fan”, the website’s meta-title claims, as if spending £500 on a season ticket is as pathetic as buying a half-and-half scarf in how we measure who is and isn’t a ‘real fan’.
What this essentially constitutes is monetising basic interactions between fans and club, giving access to basic levels of fandom to only those with money, and creating a cryptocurrency trading frenzy where none existed before.
The clubs that have launched these partnerships have been at pains to say that up is down, the Pope isn’t Catholic and Ipswich aren’t crap. Asked about it on The Square Ball Podcast, Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear said: “It is categorically not about monetising fan influence,” adding, “Socios has nothing to do with supporter influence.” He went on, “It’s not positioned as a cryptocurrency investment.”
Yet here’s what the Socios website itself says: “Own a share of influence of your team.” “Teams will launch official polls and they will abide by the popular vote.” “Earn once-in-a-lifetime rewards”. “Fan Token value can go either up or down & they are yours to trade.”
But Kinnear reckons it isn’t an investment or about supporter influence…
Let’s take it as face value for a moment. Alexander Dreyfus, the Socios’ CEO says the company is based on “a belief that the sports industry will move from a passive fan to an active fan industry, where fans will have more influence. […] and that influence can be monetised.”
Should clubs take decisions with input from fans? Obviously yes. Should only fans who have paid into a cryptocurrency be able to influence those decisions based on how much money they have paid out? Obviously no.
I have read a lot about these fan tokens. I’ve been looking for three things: 1. who benefits from the “‘increased engagement’ 2. who makes the cash and 3. who’ll pay for it. Like all cryptocurrency, it remains very, very unclear who will benefit. The offer is thin, pretty plastic, and – with most of the clubs – pretty vague. It is also very unclear who will pay, and in this industry, in the year of our Lord 2021, the less clear it is, the more likely it is us, the fans. As for who makes the cash? Well who knows, but someone is making it – and a lot of it.
Could this come to Norwich City? It feels very unNorwich. But one of the reasons we have this feeling of “unNorwichness” is that we supporters maintain a healthy dose of scepticism and readiness whenever something like this comes up, so we must continue to be vigilant.
I asked the club if they’d considered the fan tokens, and whether they’ve had any meetings or discussions with Socios. I haven’t had a response yet, and will update the piece if we get one, but here’s hoping they don’t give it a second look.
The whole thing has the makings of – at best – a damp squib that will fizzle out from a lack of interest. But at worst, it creates the infrastructure to allows clubs to monetise every single interaction we have with the club, with the players, with the stadium, with everything. It brings to mind the Bill Hicks bit about people in marketing seeing a dollar behind every aspect of life. Hicks’ solution was to kill marketing.
It feels a lot like that is the best course of action for ‘fan tokens’.
An early-season game away at Arsenal can only bring back memories of one very special game, as Terri Westgate muses