After the best part of two years away from live soccer matches, football fans deserve better (by football, I mean the older, actual kind.)
Instead, fans are being offered non-fungible tokens (NFT). The English Premier League, the most popular league in the world, has 20 different clubs; 17 of these clubs have signed deals with “fan token” firms (like Socios, for example). Under such deals, according to The Daily Mail U.K., “clubs now sell digital, tradable club-specific tokens that allow the holders to vote on minor club matters such as the color of the manager's scarf.” Yes, the color of the manager's scarf. A matter that occupies the minds of very few, if any, actual football fans. A spokesperson for the Football Supporters Association told the Mail that crypto-based “fan token partnerships are either trying to monetize trivial matters that could easily be solved with online polls of season ticket holders, or inserting financial barriers into genuine supporter engagement.” “Neither,” he believes, “is a good look.” Is he right?
First off, for the uninitiated, NFTs are “non-fungible tokens.” Each “token” represents a digital certificate of authenticity. These digital certificates verify ownership ( a slippery term that we will come to in a bit) of an asset. The tokens, meanwhile, are stored on a digital ledger called a blockchain, meaning records of ownership can't be forged. NFTs are closely tied to cryptocurrencies.
To say that the world of NFTs is a niche one is to understate how much NFTs actually mean to the average individual. Of course, this is not to say that NFTs don’t have the potential to change the digital landscape. They might. In this time of viruses, social distancing, new strains and general anxiety, there is high demand for digital ticketing. Or, to be more exact, contactless ticketing, which significantly reduces the risk of individuals getting sick (no more passing documents between staff and concert goers, football fans, etc.). In March of last year, Burnley FC, a club situated in North West England, partnered with YellowHeart, a made-in-NYC, NFT live event ticketing platform. The introduction of ticket sales through NFTs was the first example of a Premiership football club using blockchain technology to offer alternative ticketing options.
Read more: Jeff Wilser - In Europe, Football NFTs and Tokens Are No Fantasy
Although NFTs may very well be the future of contactless ticketing, those in the know are preparing themselves for a cataclysmic market crash. Contactless ticketing is perfectly possible without NFTs. Football fans deserve better; they deserve something tangible. Sadly, NFTs appear to be just a play thing for the already well off. A luxury that many cash-strapped football fans can ill-afford to engage in.
A number of English clubs and football stars are busy promoting Ape Kids Club, “a magical world” where apes, we’re told, rule the metaverse, a mysterious place I have discussed elsewhere. These “cute baby apes” are offshoots of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs. You know, the things people like Eminem, Logan Paul and Jimmy Fallon have spent hundreds of thousands on. In the U.K., John Terry and Ashley Cole, two ex-Chelsea players, have promoted the “baby apes,” as has Reece James, Chelsea’s current left back. These athletes are prepared to spend thousands of pounds on highly controversial cartoon monkeys. Now, it seems, they want fans to do the same. Should they? Ultimately, that's up to the fans.
Last year, to celebrate winning the league, Manchester City launched the “1” collection, a series of commemorative digital artworks that were available for purchase as NFTs. This was the first ever time a Premier League winning club had dropped an NFT to celebrate a title win. While some lauded the club’s attempts to digitally engage the fans, others were quick to bemoan the fact that Manchester City charge the highest ticket prices in the league. Perhaps a better form of fan engagement would involve lower ticket prices, especially for kids. West Ham, a London-based club, also offers fans the chance to purchase NFTs. Last year, renowned artists Canning Town Len created 50 animated portraits of West Ham United players – past and present. The NFTs were auctioned on OpenSea, the peer-to-peer marketplace for NFTs, rare digital items and crypto collectibles. The creation of these collectibles came shortly after the price of regular adult season tickets rose “by more than four times the current rate of inflation,” according to KUMB.com. The biggest increase, we’re told, was reserved for under-16 season tickets. Again, most fans want easier access to games, including more affordable ticket prices.
Of course, among football fans, there is some demand for NFTs. However, before purchasing one, fans should familiarize themselves with the risks involved, because buying an NFT is not without a considerable degree of risk. In this brave new world, where the wild wild west meets digitally distributed, decentralized networks, rules don’t really exist. Purchasing “baby ape,” for example, doesn’t entitle you to the copyright of the work. As the world of NFTs is very much in its infancy, issues such as piracy and other forms of intellectual property violations are quite common.
And what happens if a buyer gets hacked and the NFT gets stolen? What protection is there for the football fan who gets scammed? What protection is there for the parent who purchases their child a “baby ape”? None.
In the words of Nathan J. Robinson, “You can’t call the police and have them prevent someone from copying or using your NFT. Is the right to have your name listed as the “owner” of an easily reproduced digital thing, without that listing conferring any rights on you, worth paying money for? What do the people who buy these things think they are getting?” Although Robinson is a notorious crypto skeptic, a man who sees the glass as completely empty, these are fair questions to ask.
The so-called beautiful game is fast becoming an ugly one. Football, supposedly the sport of the working class, appears to have lost its soul. As The Atlantic recently reported, when the aforementioned “fan token” platform Socios collaborated with Crystal Palace F.C., a London-based Premier league club, “Fans showed up to a game with a banner reading, MORALLY BANKRUPT PARASITES SOCIOS NOT WELCOME.” The corporatization of football is real and it’s alienating the fans, the lifeblood of any respectable football club. A "let them eat cake" mentality now reigns supreme. What the average fan needs is something a little more substantial than pixelated apes and esoteric identification codes. In short, they need more than literal token gestures.