The rapid introduction of cryptocurrencies into football is causing alarm among English fans who fear the relationship with their club will be hijacked by speculators or that they’ll be left vulnerable to scams.
Critics say clubs and the crypto players they’re teaming up with are helping to open a door to an as-yet unregulated alternative financial world while offering little guidance or warnings on the risks involved.
Many of these concerns centre around a company called Socios, which issues fan tokens that rise and fall in value and allow their holders to vote on club issues. The Marseilles-based platform, which claims its tokens have generated close to $200m in revenue this year, has signed deals with a clutch of top football clubs to promote what it calls its “fan engagement” tool — something that allows supporters to “influence decision-making processes” at their club.
Socios does not market itself primarily as a cryptocurrency trading app, but you have to trade a cryptocurrency (called Chiliz, usually written as $CHZ) to use the site.
Socios's growing clout within the game was highlighted in summer 2021 when it was reported that Lionel Messi’s deal with Paris Saint-Germain would include something unusual: a signing-on fee partly paid in crypto tokens.
I worry fans using this site are easy marks for sophisticated traders
Socios’s presence in the game has only grown since. Its logo is on the front of the Inter Milan jersey. One of the biggest names in football journalism, Fabrizio Romano, has a podcast “powered by Socios”.
But supporters of the English Premier League clubs that have partnered with the platform — Aston Villa, Leeds United, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City — have voiced their concerns about the platform.
"This is qualitatively different from other partnership deals clubs do," says Martin Calladine, a writer who covers the commercial side of football.
"They’re not straightforward about what they are. This is a crypto-recruitment business which uses football to legitimise a cryptocurrency, and I worry fans using this site are easy marks for sophisticated traders."
In a statement, Socios told Sifted: “We never ever promote or will promote trading.”
Cryptocurrency remains unregulated in the UK and many other countries, and some have been used as scams.
Crypto gold rush
But that isn’t stopping football’s suddenly fervent pursuit of crypto opportunities.
Watford, an English team promoted to the top division this year, has a sleeve sponsorship deal with Dogecoin, the cryptocurrency that started in 2013 as a joke.
Southampton, another English top division club, recently announced it was creating a bitcoin fund to "improve the matchday experience at St Mary's [the club’s stadium]". The fund, underwritten by gambling firm Sportsbet.io, which is seeding the pot with two bitcoins, will invest in “fan-led initiatives”.
“We firmly believe the hype is real... and are excited to see how the value of the fund could continue to rise,” Helen Edwards, Sportsbet.io’s head of responsible gambling, said at the time. Not mentioned in the press release: if bitcoin’s value drops, so will the fund’s.
Rising scrutiny has already forced clubs to back out of a number of crypto deals.
Socios says it has built a roster of over 100 sporting brands and 1.3m users in 167 countries
Most recently, football giant Manchester City — owned by Abu Dhabi's royal family — signed a partnership with a mysterious company called 3KEY "to raise awareness of the DeFi [decentralised finance] industry". The deal was then scrapped a week later after it raised several red flags, according to Calladine. "The company has only existed since the end of July. It has no address or contact details," he added.
The 3KEY employees named in the initial Man City press release did not have readily identifiable LinkedIn or other web presences. "I can't stress how unusual this is for a tech project," Calladine says. The club did not respond to a request for comment.
City is not the only club to pull back from a crypto deal. Barcelona recently cancelled a two-week-old partnership with non-fungible token marketplace Ownix, following the arrest of alleged crypto fraudster and Beitar Jerusalem football club owner Moshe Hogeg, who worked as a consultant on the project.
How Socios works
Buying tokens from Socios lets you vote in special polls that translate into fairly minor changes to the way a team is run. Every club is running the same sort of polls — choosing the music that plays after a goal is scored or picking what colour gloves the goalkeeper wears in training. Socios says it runs about 30 polls a month.
Socios users can also play games and quizzes, trade tokens or keep them to gain loyalty points that could eventually convert into rewards that include VIP access during teams’ home games and signed merch.
If lots of people want a token for a particular team, its value will go up. One $PSG token, for example, is currently worth around €15. A fan token’s value might go up when your team wins, or its value might go down with overall cryptocurrency trends, or vice versa.
Besides football, Socios has also struck deals with basketball and American football teams. In all, the company says it has built a roster of over 100 sporting brands and 1.3m users in 167 countries.
Fans push back
Calladine has strong views on how money is transforming football for the worse (the tagline on his blog: “Driving the money changers from football's temple”). But he’s not alone in his unease over how crypto is charging into the game.
Days after Leeds United announced its commercial partnership with Socios, the club’s Supporters' Trust released a statement outlining concerns that tokens would create a new privileged class of fan, while also subjecting them to risk.
Non-Leeds United fans will also be able to buy and sell them, potentially profiting financially while many Leeds fans lose out
"Using cryptocurrency, fans will be able to purchase $LUFC tokens which will enable them to vote and interact with the club in ways that those without these tokens can’t," the statement read. "Not only will the value of these tokens fluctuate, but non-Leeds United fans will also be able to buy and sell them, potentially profiting financially while many Leeds fans lose out."
West Ham supporters were up in arms when the London club announced a deal with Socios in 2019, with one fan group labelling it an “exploitation system”. The opposition from fans saw the club end the partnership a year later without a single token ever being issued.
Socios says it has “made huge efforts to educate the sports community in the use of our product” but accepts “there is still a lot of education to be done, especially as new brands try to capitalise on the success of the product we created to attract people to platforms that have little to do with sports”.
The ‘demoralising’ crypto future
The problem with Socios, says Adam Willerton, secretary of the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, apart from its link with cryptocurrency, is that clubs have found another way to “commodify the fan experience”.
“Fan engagement locked behind a fan token is not something we could ever support. We were quite angry we hadn’t been consulted on it," he explains. "Our main reservation is how it draws fans into an unknown crypto ecosystem."
Regulators are beginning to look into football’s crypto connection. In the UK, the Gambling Commission is assessing whether French platform Sorare — where users play with encrypted digital soccer tokens they can buy and sell in cryptocurrency — amounts to gambling. A $680m investment from Japan’s SoftBank values the fantasy soccer startup at $4bn.
If you buy a product for €2 and suddenly its market value rises [to] €40, the temptation to sell will surely exist
Willerton says he finds the looming crypto horizon "quite demoralising. Football is already entrenched in commercialism, but this is another level.
"I don’t agree that you can equate buying a fan token with the regular buying of football goods. If I give you £50 for a shirt or £5 for a pint, well I know what I’m getting. When I buy a fan token, I don’t know whether its price will go up or down or what I’m going to be able to do with the token."
Fan groups point to the price behaviour of the PSG token as a sign that there is speculative buying and selling on Socios. After Messi signed for PSG on August 10, the value of the PSG token plummeted.
”Why would you sell those tokens then, after signing the greatest player in the world? It’s an indicator that a lot of investors are looking to buy up tokens and make money on them," Willerton explains.
Socios said in a statement: “If you buy a product for €2 and suddenly its market value rises [to] €40, the temptation to sell will surely exist. Many people who owned jerseys worn by Diego Maradona have decided to sell them since he passed away. Did these fans buy those jerseys as an investment tool?
"The vast majority of our users own less than 25 fan tokens, and trading represents under 5% of our revenue.”