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22 November 2018

Cryptocurrency and football: a “token” gesture, or worth the investment?

Jonathan Hyman and Nic Couchman explore how football is embracing blockchain technology and partnerships with cryptocurrencies.

Recently announced partnerships between football clubs and crypto platforms illustrate the ever-growing integration of football, cryptocurrency and financial technology (“Fintech”). It seems like a good fit; both industries are fast-moving, high-stakes, and provide a promise of riches. This article analyses where the two sectors can work together for the benefit of clubs, fans, and brands associated with cryptocurrency and blockchain, while pointing out a number of areas where the various stakeholders may need to exercise caution. We focus on:

  • Football clubs and cryptocurrency platforms combining to raise funds using the concept of “Fan Token Offerings”;
  • Sponsorship opportunities for cryptocurrency brands with football clubs;
  • Other uses for cryptocurrency and blockchain in football, and how the alignment of the industries is expanding.

Clubs’ Partnerships with Fundraising Platforms

How Fan Token Offerings differ from ICOs

Paris St Germain and Juventus have both this season announced partnership deals with the blockchain platform Socios.com. These partnerships will see clubs seek to monetise their fan base by launching Fan Token Offerings giving fans access to “PSG” or “Juve” Tokens, which will come with various rights for the fans such as certain voting rights and “VIP experiences”. The Socios.com tokens will also be tradeable on the Socios marketplace against the chiliZ native token.

How will these cryptocurrencies work in football? It is worth drawing the basic distinction between a “coin” and a “fan token”. Coins can act like money, essentially as a cash replacement, to denominate value in the exchange of goods or services. On the other hand, tokens may have tradeable value, but are not seen as being similar to money in the same way as coins, in that they only provide the means to access specific products (such as football tickets, VIP experiences etc.) and activate functions of a specific project (such as the possible voting rights given to token holders in relation to how certain aspects of a football club are managed). In certain situations equity tokens could be used, which represent legal or beneficial ownership of a share in a company (such as the football club). The specific characteristics of each token must be considered on a case-by-case basis as it is likely that where clubs issue equity tokens these will be regulated investments and will fall under the jurisdiction of the regulatory authorities, for example Financial Conduct Authority (“FCA”) in the UK. For example, the whitepaper published when Avaí FC launched their cryptocurrency earlier this year specifically rejects the idea of fans acquiring a “voting” share in the club to avoid this issue arising.

Fan Token Offerings differ from traditional ICOs in that in addition to the tradeable value of the token on an exchange, fans can also use the tokens to engage with their club.

A useful model for fan engagement?

Socios.com claims that it enables football teams to create a completely new economy that can be monetised, whilst building a new fan engagement ecosystem – and it is difficult to disagree. Using the rhetoric of “Fan Token Offerings” as opposed to traditional ICO terminology is a smart move. These ventures provide a unique opportunity for fans to engage with their football club (without acquiring a shareholding) by voting on certain club issues, potentially such as man of the match awards, or jersey design. The fan bases of some clubs are bigger than the population of small countries, with global communities straddling all international boundaries. Therefore, in some ways fan bases are the ideal ecosystems in which to incubate new methods of measuring and exchanging value. The allegiance of fans to their clubs is certainly stronger than that of the average citizen to his or her central bank. Appealing to the passion of fans will likely prove a successful selling point, but it is important not to ignore that a Fan Token Offering shares many characteristics with an ICO.

Investing in ICOs carries both known and unknown risks, not least due to the general lack of regulation. Recently the FCA has offered stern warnings to investors considering investing in ICOs, labelling them “very high-risk, speculative investments” and has highlighted the lack of regulation or investor protection and potential for fraud. In particular, they point out white papers can be “unbalanced, incomplete or misleading”. In addition to fraud, investors may be at risk due to misleading or false statements made in a white paper. The most obvious of these might be a promise of a certain level of return on an investment within a certain period of time, which in the case of a football club may mean the promise of achieving promotion or avoiding relegation off the back of the fund-raising process.

The trading value of a football club cryptocurrency will naturally depend largely on how the team fares on a competitive level; if fans of a football club feel that they have lost money due to the club’s poor performances, there is a risk of reputational damage, or even legal claims based on statements made in the white paper. However, where used responsibly in a manner that captivates fans while warning them sufficiently of the risks of investment, Fan Token Offerings have the potential for football clubs to reach new heights of fan engagement.

Cryptocurrency sponsorship of football clubs

In addition to the partnerships detailed above for the launch of cryptocurrencies, there is a valuable and growing trend for existing cryptocurrencies to sponsor football clubs. For example, in January 2018 US cryptocurrency CashBet announced that it had signed a sponsorship deal with Arsenal to become the club’s “Official Cryptocurrency Partner”. Newly-promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers have cryptocurrency exchange platform CoinDeal as their first team shirt sleeve sponsor, and Sportyco (the cryptocurrency crowdfunding platform running the Avaí fundraiser) is the principal shirt sponsor of RCD Espanyol of La Liga. Trading platform eToro has partnered with at least seven Premier League clubs to set up digital wallets. Not only was a part of these partnerships paid for in Bitcoin by eToro into the clubs’ digital wallets, but they also provide the means for clubs to experiment in paying players in Bitcoin using the technology.

Such arrangements stand to reap significant benefits for both sides. For the cryptocurrency brand, football clubs offer a platform through which they can reach millions of target customers. Javier Paz of Forex Datasource believes that “the same 18 to 45 year old affluent or emerging affluent individuals who attend sporting events are the same people with interest or curiosity…for novel forms of investment.” The football clubs can sell advertising space and gain financially from engaging another commercial partner in a previously non-exploited category. Clubs may be hesitant to receive payments in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies given their current volatility; however, a possible solution to this could be a carefully drafted “top up” provision in the contract. Clubs might be able to ensure with such a clause that if the value of Bitcoin grows, they stand to benefit greatly; if the value of Bitcoin were to fall, they would not lose out as they would be due a “top up” to the original value of the deal.

“Official Cryptocurrency Partner” – correctly defining the sponsorship categories

The range of industries involved in the sponsorship of football clubs is extremely wide. From Taittinger Champagne (Fulham’s official champagne partner) to Nexen Tire (official tyre partner of Manchester City), there is significant value for brands to become “official partner” of clubs in respect of a particular sector. In return for significant financial reward, clubs generally grant the exclusive right for a brand to refer to itself as official partner in a specific category – Manchester United have roughly 50 official sponsors, many of whom are category or regionally exclusive.

Precision of language in contracts for crypto brand partnerships will increase in importance. Clubs will wish to draft agreements with a narrow sponsorship category definition so as to ensure that they are not precluded from seeking partners in alternative sectors. Brands, however, will prefer the sponsorship category to be drafted as widely and defensively as possible to maximise their brand exposure. For example, cryptocurrency brands may overlap with the “Financial Services” category, or the “Foreign Exchange Trading” category. Liverpool FC announced a partnership in September 2018 with TigerWit (a blockchain based trading platform and app) to become “Official Foreign Exchange Trading” partners. It is easy to see how a widely drafted definition of this category might preclude a club from partnering separately with a cryptocurrency brand. On the other hand, a narrow definition of “Foreign Exchange Trading” (for example, limiting the scope simply to the platform for trading), would allow further deals with cryptocurrency brands. Football clubs should review their drafting of agreements to gain maximum benefit from the emergence of cryptocurrency and FinTech. Clubs and brands who can exploit this opportunity while bearing in mind the inherent risks will continue to benefit from the rise of cryptocurrency in football, and more partnerships are likely in the near future. ChiliZ has recently raised US$66million in a private placement, a large proportion of which is earmarked to secure sports and eSports partnerships.

Reputational risks

Clubs should always bear in mind the reputational risks involved when they partner with brands; the greatest sustainable value will come from sponsors which align with the club’s values and fit with their fan base. This is a particularly important consideration when it comes to tie-ups with cryptocurrency brands. As mentioned above, watchdogs have repeatedly warned of the lack of regulation in the sector, and cryptocurrency values tend to fluctuate dramatically, meaning that investors could stand to lose lots of money. While football viewers may be the target market for cryptocurrency brands (on account of their “curiosity for novel forms of investment”), they are also “lacking in sophistication to tell fact from fiction in both investment or crypto matters” according to Javier Paz.

Given that various aspects of this market are unregulated, there will naturally be scepticism and a football club’s association with a brand operating in the sphere is likely to be something of a gamble. Clubs may attract criticism on ethical and governance grounds if there is a chance of them inadvertently endorsing an unsuccessful, misleading or non-compliant ICO. Many football fans have an unwavering loyalty to their team, so where fans have invested due to a football club’s apparent endorsement, that club stands to suffer huge reputational damage if the investments fail. The fear of such reputational harm to an organisation that relies so much on a close relationship with the fans should prompt clubs to carry out thorough due diligence before entering into any association in this sector.

Clubs should also be mindful of any advertising regulations that may come into force should they choose to enter into a partnership with a cryptocurrency brand or ICO. At various stages this year, Facebook and Google have implemented a ban on advertising of cryptocurrencies on the grounds that they are products “frequently associated with misleading or deceptive practices”. While the area remains largely unregulated as regulators seek to catch up, clubs should at least consider accompanying their endorsement of cryptocurrency brands or ICOs with a message about the risks of speculative investment. Placing the onus on the sponsor to comply with applicable regulations will not absolve a club of all legal responsibility.

Outside the realm of sponsorship – the other uses for cryptos and blockchain in football

The relationship between the sport and emerging FinTech is not stopping at sponsorships and brand alignment.

Much like the telecoms sector in Formula 1, where brands can not only sponsor teams but also contribute to their success on the track by providing technology, there is scope for a closer alignment between cryptocurrencies, blockchain technology, and football. There are a number of areas where this technology could provide much needed transparency, such as ticketing, and player ownership, as well as scope for new heights of fan engagement.

Footballers as currency – a new fantasy football?

The Belgian Pro League (representing the top 24 clubs in Belgium) announced on 23 October 2018 a partnership with cryptocurrency platform Sorare. Sorare will issue “crypto-digital” cards representing the players, which can be traded via an auction system and used within Sorare’s games platform to earn rewards, with future partnerships envisaged to allow the cards to be redeemed on third party platforms also. The value of the “crypto assets” will evolve according to the players’ performance in real life. This has the potential to evolve into a real time trading system where fans can speculate on the value of a player’s card which will oscillate over time according to that player’s form. It is easy to see how such a model could appeal to football fans, providing a tangible benefit to those fans who can identify a hot prospect and giving them the chance to ‘put their money where their mouth is’.

Blockchain ticketing

The 2018 UEFA Super Cup saw the use of blockchain powered mobile ticketing for every spectator of the match in Tallinn. Using the blockchain ledger system, which keeps a record of every transaction on the platform, the validity of tickets can be easily checked. Black market resale and counterfeiting provide legal and reputational problems for clubs, and ruin the experience for many fans; this can be avoided by the security and transparency of having to record the transfer of any ticket on the blockchain. Aside from security considerations, blockchain ticketing could increase fan engagement for clubs; by confirming to a club who used the specific ticket, blockchain allows the clubs to know where to target marketing and reach their fans.

Media rights

The record-keeping mechanism offered by the blockchain could be applied in the area of media rights. By tracking how and where broadcast rights are licensed and utilised, blockchain could allow the full range of rights to be exploited to optimise value for rights holders.

Buying clubs

In August 2018, Italian Serie C club Rimini FC participated in the ICO for Quantocoin in exchange for 25% of its shares to Heritage Sports Holdings (who were launching the cryptocurrency). The payment for a club (or a share of a club) in cryptocurrency will allow the club to benefit from the increased transparency and payment tracing that cryptocurrency allows. For example, clubs can use cryptocurrency record-keeping to more easily comply with their obligations to report the amount spent on player wages and agent fees.

Buying players

Turkish side Harunustaspor claimed in January 2018 to be the first club to have paid for a player using cryptocurrency. The club’s owner stated that he used this arrangement to make a name for the club; however, blockchain could be implemented in a more sophisticated way in future to draw up “smart contracts” for the purchase of football players, and to create a record of all relevant details for a player being bought or sold by a club. A transfer conducted on the blockchain would make transparent a player’s transfer history (for example past transfer fees, agent fees, fitness test results), as well as co-ownership details and economic rights all from the day he first signed a professional contract. Certainly some of the entrepreneurs behind cryptocurrencies are championing their ability to address corruption in football.

Conclusion

Cryptocurrencies offer the possibility for clubs to take fan engagement to a further level by using Fan Token Offerings. Such arrangements raise funds and offer supporters the chance to be involved in club matters in a way which past public listings or collective fan ownership models for clubs have arguably not successfully achieved.

Cryptocurrency related brands are increasingly becoming “official partners” of football clubs. This provides a great opportunity for brands and clubs to benefit provided that precise language is used in the necessary agreements to ensure that the cryptocurrency brand does not overlap with the exclusivity granted to partners in other current or future sponsorship categories. Furthermore, there is the risk of clubs suffering severe reputational damage if one of their partners fails in a fast growing and uncertain industry.

The football and FinTech industries share common traits and it is clear that the blockchain and FinTech underpinning cryptocurrencies could benefit football beyond mere sponsorship deals. The alignment of the football and cryptocurrency sectors is still in its infancy, but it provides an exciting opportunity for brands and clubs alike.

Part of this article has been published by SportsPro magazine. Click here to read.


The sports team at Charles Russell Speechlys has substantial experience in sponsorship deals, blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and Initial Coin/Token Offerings. For more information, contact Nic Couchman at nic.couchman@crsblaw.com.

Charles Russell Speechlys are proud partners of the Sports Technology Awards.

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