In brief

  • Soccer clubs are using platforms such as Socios to engage fans around the world.
  • They could ultimately be used to broaden criteria around which fans are eligible to buy tickets for big games.
  • It could be as little as 18 months before soccer clubs pay transfer fees in Bitcoin.

What do Afghanistan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Cuba and North Korea all have in common?

Give up? They’re the only five countries out of the 193 recognized by the UN that had no TV coverage of the 2018/19 Premier League soccer season. 

Evidently the beautiful game has never been more popular, but for every fan in the stands at Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge, there are many more scattered around the globe. 

These fans might live thousands of miles from where their chosen teams play, but as significant contributors to the clubs’ coffers via the sale of overseas TV rights, shouldn’t their voices be heard too? Blockchain could be the solution.

A token gesture

Alex Dreyfus, CEO of Socios, certainly thinks so. Socios is a platform that sells a limited number of blockchain-based Fan Tokens to supporters in return for a voice at the clubs that sign up, with Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain among those already onboard. 

The Socios app lets fans vote on club decisions using Fan Tokens (Image: Socios)

Using the Socios app, PSG have asked token holders to select a slogan for the captain’s armband; Galatasaray supporters have had their say on what music the teams walk out to at the Türk Telekom Stadium; and Juventus have used the app to pick the song that plays when they score. (Fans of the perennial Italian champions went for Blur’s Song 2, which is an upgrade on Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis, but the correct choice is, of course, no goal music at all). 

It’s fairly frivolous stuff, with tokens currently costing between €1.52 and €2 at the initial point of sale depending on the club. As Dreyfus points out, though, even shareholders don’t get a say on the design of the shirt or which countries the first-team squad will visit on its money-spinning pre-season tours.

Socios also allows clubs to consult their supporters without worrying about rival fans hijacking the vote, which is exactly what happened when Tottenham used Twitter polls to select its team of the decade and journeyman striker Peter Crouch was picked ahead of Harry Kane—already the club’s third-highest goalscorer of all-time despite only being 26. You’d need a pretty committed and organised group of trolls to all buy tokens just to derail a poll about goal music.

Next-gen loyalty cards?

It’s been suggested that Socios is nothing more than a glorified loyalty card (and a revenue stream for the clubs). Gavin Brown, a senior economics lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University who specialises in fintech, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, sees it differently.

“People are used to using the loyalty system already with Air Miles or Nectar points—this just makes it a little bit more formal,” he tells Decrypt. “That reduces the barriers between a fan and their club, which improves their affinity.” 

That’s important, particularly for fans overseas, who are less likely to have a geographical or familial connection to the team they support, and backs up Dreyfus’s assertion that Socios is “first and foremost for the people that are not in the stadium,”—but it doesn’t mean match-going fans are left out. Socios encourages partner clubs to give free tokens to season ticket holders and Brown reckons they could be used to broaden the fairly crude attendance-based points systems that most clubs currently use to determine which fans are eligible to buy tickets for big games. 

It'd be really nice to have a portfolio of positive behaviors of what it meant to be a fan

Gavin Brown

“It'd be really nice to have a portfolio of positive behaviors of what it meant to be a fan,” he suggests. That could be through using an augmented reality app to collect a token from the club museum, or getting involved with a particular charity in the local area. “With Millennials and Generation Z coming through, you can only imagine that more of this is going to take place,” he adds.

Will clubs pay wages and transfer fees in Bitcoin?

With Watford’s shirt sleeves carrying the Bitcoin logo, and eToro using it to pay for its sponsorship of six English top-flight teams, cryptocurrencies have already started to infiltrate the Premier League. But how well do the clubs understand it—and will we soon see player wages and transfer fees paid in Bitcoin?

Iqbal Gandham is eToro’s UK MD, and it was his job to convince the clubs that paying them in Bitcoin was a good idea. “Understanding was limited, but we would’ve been rather surprised if they'd all said yes the moment we reached out to them,” he explains to Decrypt. “But with the amounts of money that football clubs are moving around, globally in some cases, when you start to explain what is possible, suddenly they understand.”

Gandham believes it’s only a matter of time before one club pays another in Bitcoin, perhaps even as soon as 18 months away. Brown is more skeptical, citing a lack of regulation and diversity in tax treatments, but agrees that there would be obvious benefits to doing so. Blockchain-based smart contracts would automatically handle the payment of sell-on fees and performance bonuses without any need to monitor, verify or chase them. They’d also prevent messy legal disputes like the one currently raging between Cardiff City and Nantes over the tragic plane crash that killed Emiliano Sala in January 2019.

Until a critical mass is reached, though, offering Bitcoin as payment is a bit like trying to make a phone call when nobody else owns a telephone. One option is for a league or a governing body, such as UEFA or FIFA, to mint a coin specific to soccer and pegged to a particular fiat currency. Not only would this facilitate faster, frictionless international transfers and smart contracts, it would prevent money from ‘leaking’ out to third parties.

Former Manchester United footballer Wes Brown has joined blockchain streaming platform Bolt Global (Image: Bolt Global)

In the meantime, blockchain looks likely to continue its burgeoning relationship with the beautiful game. Fans are playing trading card games like Football-Stars and Sorare. They're watching games on low-bandwidth streaming services like the one launched recently by Bolt Global. And clubs are fighting the sale of fraudulent match-worn shirts, as Serie A side Fiorentina have done with the help of Genuino’s decentralized certification protocol.

After all, if soccer’s good at one thing, it’s making sure that the money doesn’t stray too far from the game.