Cryptocurrency markets are tanking around the world.
Bitcoin, for example, is down 70 per cent from its all-time peak in November. Many ordinary investors who got in at the height of the hype have lost a lot of money.
But what does this have to do with football? Actually quite a lot, it turns out.
Over the past couple of years as digital assets have become more and more popular, lots of sports teams have signed up for lucrative sponsorship deals in the sector.
According to one highly experienced club takeover expert, cryptocurrency companies love sponsoring football clubs because they have worked out that it is the cheapest way to find new customers — especially young men.
Of last season’s 20 Premier League clubs, all of them but one — we’ll get to that — have at least one cryptocurrency sponsor and some have several.
This list builds on several original investigations by The Athletic into the relationship between cryptocurrency and football and analyses the 2021-22 season rather than the upcoming one because many sponsorship deals have not been signed or announced yet.
Oh yes, despite the plummeting value of cryptocurrency, there is no sign yet that Premier League clubs’ love affair with it is slowing down.
Just about every club in last season’s top flight played some part in promoting volatile unregulated financial assets to its fans, virtually all of which have crashed on a spectacular scale in recent weeks.
English clubs are desperate for cash as the cost of running a competitive team constantly spirals upwards.
Cryptocurrency sponsorship is certainly a lucrative, and entirely legal, way of generating cash right now. Yet it remains to be seen whether that can continue in the light of the huge crash.
It’s not often that the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority takes aim at a football club, but in December the watchdog deemed that Arsenal “trivialised investment in cryptoassets and took advantage of consumers’ inexperience or credulity” in a promotion featuring three first-team players. The club said it would seek a review of the ruling.
The promotion was for Arsenal’s official “fan token” issued by Socios. The cryptocurrency tokens offer votes and polls on club matters, and can also be traded as a speculative digital asset.
Since initially surging amid hype, the Arsenal token has cratered in value and is down more than 80 per cent from its peak, meaning fans who bought the token late last year and have sold them will be hugely out of pocket.
The tokens were initially “minted” (launched) at a price of £2 ($2.45), meaning users who flipped their tokens quickly banked a quick profit while those who bought later are sitting on losses.
“We want our fans around the globe to be able to engage with the club in different ways. In the digital age, we try to find multiple ways for our supporters to engage with the team and feel part of the club – this is part of that,” an Arsenal spokesperson told The Athletic earlier this year.
“We are not promoting this as a financial investment, and we are clear it’s about engaging with the club by taking part in polls and competitions.”
A free Socios non-tradeable token was given to some existing supporters such as season-ticket holders.
Aston Villa are another one of Socios’ six Premier League clubs.
Villa renamed a road at the training ground based on a Socios poll but social media posts about the firm are greeted with outrage by many fans and the deal has been condemned as “wholly inappropriate” by the Aston Villa Supporters’ Trust.
🟣 Withe Way?
🟣 Mortimer Avenue?
🟣 Rotterdam Lane?
Ahead of the 𝟰𝟬𝘁𝗵 anniversary of our 𝟭𝟵𝟴𝟮 European Cup victory, we are dedicating a road at Bodymoor Heath to permanently commemorate the triumph. $AVL token holders can vote now on the @Socios app. 🏆
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) September 28, 2021
As with Arsenal, the Midlands club’s official fan token has nosedived in value, leaving many fans who bought them as an investment seriously out of pocket — especially as it can be tricky to withdraw cryptocurrency tokens and turn them into cash.
Brentford exceeded almost everyone’s expectations by coming 13th in their first Premier League season.
The west London club has a sponsorship deal with an Australian company called Coinjar, an app that enables people to buy and trade cryptocurrencies and partners with such companies as MasterCard and Apple Pay.
The website’s homepage shows a virtual cryptocurrency wallet that displays the price of Bitcoin as £30,820.70.
But Bitcoin has not been worth that much since the end of April. At the time of writing, is worth about £16,500 — just over half the value displayed on the CoinJar homepage.
When the partnership was announced in August 2021, Brentford chief executive Jon Varney said: “The success of both CoinJar and Brentford is a result of rigorous data-analysis, thinking differently and strategic planning. For many, cryptocurrency remains a complex area, so we look forward to working with CoinJar as part of the partnership to help educate our fanbase as both parties continue their rise in our respective industries.”
Brighton and Hove Albion
You were told there would be an odd one out — and here it is.
Brighton are owned by Tony Bloom who — as well as Brentford owner Matthew Benham — made his fortune in sports betting, using sophisticated models to predict the outcome of sporting events and win bets in the big Asian markets.
It is understood this has a counter-intuitive impact on sponsorship deals because Brighton tend to steer clear of involvement in activities that could leave them open to criticism.
Furthermore, the club have a bumper sponsorship deal with credit card company American Express, a “traditional finance” company often pitted against new digital assets like cryptocurrencies.
The club did until recently have a deal with financial trading app eToro, which offers the sale of cryptocurrencies.
AstroPay adorned the billboards at Turf Moor in the Premier League last season.
The company, which has just signed a front-of-shirt deal with Wolverhampton Wanderers for the upcoming campaign, is billed on Burnley’s website as “the global leader in online payment solutions”.
The website makes clear that a key part of this is buying cryptocurrency and offering an “easy and secure” way of doing so.
The AstroPay website has a section called “learn about crypto”, offering advice about the digital tokens. There are some disclaimers to highlight risk and volatility but one page talks up a cryptocurrency token called Ripple, or XRP, “an open-source system that encourages transactions that are speedy and inexpensive”.
“Ripple has one of the biggest price potentials of any cryptocurrency due to its enormous potential of becoming the new standard in many industries,” the site says. “Keep in mind that the short and long-term prices of any cryptocurrency might be difficult to anticipate. However, as more institutions use Ripple’s transfer method, its price is likely to rise.”
But like virtually all other cryptocurrencies, the price of Ripple has fallen over the past few months.
AstroPay did not respond to an inquiry from The Athletic.
One of the biggest cryptocurrency sponsorship deals in world football is Chelsea’s £20 million-a-year deal with an app called WhaleFin as a sleeve sponsor for the upcoming season.
The app, which also sponsors Atletico Madrid, is powered by a Singapore-based company called Amber Group which has offices around the world.
Cryptocurrency is often criticised by environmentalists because many tokens, including Bitcoin, require powerful computational calculations to function, which involve running huge computer servers which burns carbon.
WhaleFin leans heavily on claims of “sustainability” and pledges to support ocean life, including the whale in the company’s name.
The app recently announced it is introducing the ability to transfer NFTs — non-fungible tokens, another type of digital asset.
One example of an NFT is the Ape Kids Football Club, established by John Terry, who still works in a coaching role at Chelsea.
After he and several other well-known players promoted the NFTs, they cratered in value and have now lost about 99 per cent of their initial price.
Terry has since endorsed a rebranded scheme called Inter Meta FC.
Crystal Palace’s $CPFC Socios tokens launched a while after those associated with the five other Premier League clubs, some time after there had been significant negative media coverage surrounding fan tokens.
According to data provided by the website RocketFan, Palace’s fan token offering in February was far from a success, with just 64,000 of a possible 200,000 tokens being sold to 6,987 holders, netting $174,000 (£140,000) to be split between club and company.
Unlike every other club, the tokens have not appeared available for trading with no date yet announced. Previous tokens were unlocked for trading within days.
There is no graph for Crystal Palace tokens because they have not been made available for trading.
A Socios spokesperson said: “The Crystal Palace token is live and, since its launch, more and more Eagles fans have enjoyed the benefits and rewards it offers — for example, it gives them the opportunity to win VIP experiences for each Crystal Palace home match or the chance to go to the training ground to meet the players.”
Everton is another Socios club and the $EFC token has also tanked.
The Merseyside club has another intriguing cryptocurrency sponsor in Stake.com, a betting site that will be on the front of shirts next season and also sponsors Watford in the Championship.
A club press release announcing the record deal made no mention of cryptocurrency, yet betting in Bitcoin and other tokens is integral to the company’s business model as The Athletic reported earlier this month.
You can probably guess by now how things are going for those fans who bought up Leeds’ Socios tokens as an investment opportunity, even if Socios says this is not the use for which they are intended.
The Leeds plunge has been particularly bad, though. A token is worth barely a dollar, down from $7 around Christmas.
Last month, Leeds announced a fundraising effort for the Ukraine humanitarian appeal with an unusual twist.
Instead of accepting donations or raising money via conventional methods, the club released a series of 11 NFTs with the website MakersPlace.
“Entering into a new NFT campaign and the linking to a current war conflict feels inappropriate and ill-timed,” a spokesperson for the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust told the Yorkshire Evening Post. “The club could have used the same assets and mechanics as their recent fundraisers that raised over £80,000 for local charities.”
“Shirts For Ukraine NFTs have been issued as collectable items and not as an investment,” the club said on their website. “The decision to purchase NFTs requires careful consideration.”
Goodbye, Walkers crisps.
Last season, the 2015-16 champions announced a new main sponsor in FBS, an online trading website based in Cyprus which has cryptocurrency at its core.
The app offers retail customers the ability to trade in contracts-for-difference (CFDs), complex products which “come with a high risk of losing money rapidly”, according to a legally mandated disclaimer on the site.
The crypto tab on the FBS website offers the opportunity to make “leveraged” trades on cryptocurrency. This effectively means that customers can lose (or gain) more money than they put in, unlike in conventional gambling or when buying stocks.
We have launched a brand campaign, Always By Your Side, to inspire you.
FBS keeps up with the times and makes trading possible for anyone. You set your goals, and we help you go for it!
Enjoy our joint video with @LCFC. 💚
👉 https://t.co/OqQJ2G87xE pic.twitter.com/ebNIe2OnLd
— FBS (@FBS_news) March 17, 2022
Combining these risky products generates “crypto derivatives”, a type of financial product which have been banned from sale to UK retail consumers since January 2021.
After a lengthy consultation, the Financial Conduct Authority concluded that “retail consumers might suffer harm from sudden and unexpected losses if they invest in these products”, going on to outline concerns over crime and fraud in the secondary market.
FBS offers leveraged trading on crypto, easily viewable when accessing the site from a computer overseas.
There is no suggestion FBS is selling these products to UK consumers or breaking UK law in any way.
Leicester and FBS declined to comment.
Liverpool unveiled a controversial NFT scheme at the end of March.
In an announcement that attracted scorn on social media, the club said its “LFC Heroes Club will give fans the opportunity to purchase animated, cartoon-style digital artwork of 23 players and manager Jurgen Klopp”.
If Liverpool had managed to sell all 171,072 “unique images” on offer, they could have brought in £8.5 million. But the sale has been a flop, with only around six per cent sold.
The Liverpool NFTs can now be traded on the marketplace OpenSea.
While they were initially sold for $75 (roughly £57) each, most are now being sold for less than this, meaning fans have lost money on their initial investment. Some are being sold for as little as $11 (£8.96).
There was a big spike in early June but many LFC Heroes NFTs are trading for far less than they were “minted” for and far less than they were a couple of months ago.
Before the NFTs launch, a statement from Liverpool attempted “to make clear to supporters that its NFTs are digital works of art and should not be considered investments”.
City have been at the forefront of football’s crypto sponsorship revolution.
When the club recently won the Premier League after a dramatic final-day comeback against Aston Villa, the Etihad Stadium was plastered with adverts for OKX.
A look at this company’s website shows that it deals heavily in crypto derivatives, which are banned from sale to UK consumers because they are deemed too risky for retail investors. There is no suggestion club or company is breaking UK law and the company itself is free to advertise here.
City were also one of the first to sign up with Socios.
Their tokens spiked at more than $30 (£24.40) last year, far higher than other Premier League clubs, before crashing in the last few months. And the City token has particularly high trading volumes — in part perhaps because it is trading on major cryptocurrency exchanges like Binance.
City also signed a firm up as the club’s new “official regional partner in decentralised finance trading analysis” but soon severed the deal after enquiries by multiple news outlets revealed the firm had virtually no digital footprint or named employees.
The club also has a bumper deal with online broker Axi, which offers cryptocurrency trading.
In February, The Athletic revealed a new name would adorn the club’s training kit in a deal worth in excess of £20 million per year.
Tezos — which is underpinned by the Tezos Foundation — is a blockchain, or a type of decentralised computer network like Bitcoin or Ethereum.
To advocates, blockchains like Tezos could be a way to carry out computerised transactions more efficiently than current technology and help to remove expensive middlemen from the process.
Detractors highlight the fact that blockchain transactions require huge computing power which emits carbon, though Tezos presents itself as a more energy-efficient platform.
Tezos also has an associated cryptocurrency token, which has plummeted in value, losing around two-thirds of what it was worth when United announced the deal four months ago.
Newcastle — newly wealthy after the takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund last October — are one of several clubs to have a sponsorship deal with eToro.
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) December 12, 2018
The Cyprus-based company offers a controversial cryptocurrency product called “staking”.
This “allows users who own and hold supported cryptoassets to earn rewards just for holding them”, says the firm’s website.
This works in a similar way to how a conventional bank account accumulates interest but there is virtually no regulation governing this in the UK. As a legally mandated disclaimer says on the eToro website, “your capital is at risk”.
In January, when crypto markets were not far off their peak and Norwich City still had a faint dream of retaining Premier League status, the club announced a new deal with an “innovative fintech ecosystem” called Scallop.
Fintech stands for financial technology and cryptocurrency is at the heart of the product, but it is hard to determine exactly what the company does.
The website describes itself as “the simplest way to manage digital money” as well as “enhance and simplify your crypto journey”.
A banner on the company website says it has been “featured in” various esteemed publications like Forbes, Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance. However, these articles appear to be paid-for press releases hosted on these sites.
As is so often the case with bewildering new crypto companies, Scallop also has its own volatile unregulated cryptocurrency token, Scallop Coin (SCLP).
A Scallop Coin was worth $1.97 (£1.60) when Norwich announced the deal and 20 cents (20p) now, while the longer-term trend shows an even more dramatic nosedive.
Southampton are in the middle of a three-year front-of-shirt deal with Sportsbet, an online casino which also sponsors billboards at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.
Rather like Stake.com, for those accessing its website from outside of the UK, the firm accepts payment in cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, something no UK-based bookmakers tend to do. However, its “white-label” website — the UK-facing site — makes no mention of cryptocurrency.
Last year, several Southampton players including Danny Ings and James Ward-Prowse appeared in a “crypto education” sponsorship video, available on YouTube, in which the players repeated cryptocurrency memes such as ‘HODL’.
This term is based on a misspelling of the word “hold” on a forum in the early days of cryptocurrency, and is used to encourage users not to sell their tokens when prices are falling.
In November last year, Sportsbet and Southampton announced a “first-of-its-kind Crypto Fan Fund, donating two Bitcoin to be used to deliver a series of fan-led initiatives across the 2021-22 season and beyond”. The club’s supporters panel would decide the good causes to which the money would go.
Introducing the Crypto Fan Fund 😇
— Southampton FC (@SouthamptonFC) November 10, 2021
Sportsbet said it would underwrite the fund “for the value of two Bitcoin at the point of donation, guaranteeing the club access to at least the minimum value of the fund”.
That announcement almost exactly marked the top of the market for Bitcoin, which has gone down, down and down some more since the Crypto Fan Fund was announced in November.
The north London club has a sponsorship deal with trading app Libertex, which is operated by companies in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Mauritius, and accepts payments via a firm in Cyprus.
The website has a list of “restricted countries” including the United States and all 27 member states of the European Union.
A page on the company’s website offers a “crypto mining” service directly beneath the Spurs logo, which features on every page of the website as part of the sponsorship tie-in.
Its “Bitcoin cloud mining” offers a way to rent computing power to generate Bitcoin, via complex computational transactions, which can earn the user money.
“Earn free Bitcoin daily with one click. Trade mined rewards profit anytime. No hidden fees or charges,” the site says.
Though various crypto projects make hard-to-verify claims about being environmentally sustainable, Bitcoin requires powerful computers which involve burning fossil fuels and a huge carbon footprint.
On its website, Tottenham say they have “proudly joined the UN Race to Zero, committing to halve its carbon emissions by 2030 and become net zero carbon by 2040”.
The club has also finished top of the Premier League sustainability table for three years in a row.
A spokesperson for Libertex said the product, which will not be made available in Europe, is “virtual” and does not actually involve the mining of Bitcoins, though this is not made clear on the website.
“Any crypto that is paid out to our users is purchased by the company in advance from digital assets that are already in circulation and then distributed to the users based on what they ‘mine’ via our Virtual Bitcoin Miner,” a spokesperson said, emphasising the scheme will not harm the environment.
“That way the users get the experience and reward of mining but without any of the inconvenience.”
Watford, like Everton, are sponsored by Stake.com but last season had Dogecoin on their players’ shirt sleeves too.
Dogecoin was originally devised in 2013 as a joke to poke fun at the speculative rise and fall of the new wave of digital currencies. The word “doge” (a slang term for dog) comes from an internet meme of a picture of a Shiba Inu dog surrounded by multi-coloured words representing its imaginary thoughts.
From satirical beginnings, it has risen in prominence and received the backing of tech billionaire investor Elon Musk. Last April one Dogecoin surged to 74 cents (60p). It was 34 cents (28p) the day after the Watford deal was announced and it is now worth less than seven cents (less than 6p). A Watford fan who invested in their team’s new sponsor originally will have lost 80 per cent of their cash, not including transaction fees.
The Hertfordshire club is somewhat of a pioneer in the world of cryptocurrency and football, having had Bitcoin as a sleeve sponsor for the 2019-20 season when Sportsbet, current sponsor of Southampton, was on the front of the yellow-and-black shirts.
As part of that deal, Vicarage Road was set to hold a ‘Crypto Cup’ in March 2020, although it never took place because of the pandemic.
West Ham United
West Ham United has an “official decentralised asset management partner” called PeakDeFi. (DeFi is short for Decentralised Finance.)
There is no contact address, company name or named individuals listed on the website, though there is an unnamed “data controller” based in Dubai. There does not even appear to be an email address.
PeakDeFi calls itself a “decentralized asset management fund” where investors pool their resources and generate returns.
The scheme also has an associated cryptocurrency token called PEAK — and you can probably predict the next bit already.
Since the partnership was announced by West Ham on May 9, the token has lost three-quarters of its value.
Looking further back, the token has lost almost 99 per cent of its value since it surged to a peak last August.
West Ham and PeakDeFi declined to comment.
Wolves recently replaced controversial Asian gambling sponsor ManBetX on the front of its shirts with AstroPay, the payment app enabling cryptocurrency purchases which also has a deal with Burnley.
In the Premier League last season, Wolves had Bitci as its sleeve partner as “official cryptocurrency trading and fan token partner”.
Wolves X @bitcicom
Welcoming our new official sleeve sponsor.
— Wolves (@Wolves) June 1, 2021
The Turkish company has had a turbulent few months, with Formula One team McLaren Racing and football clubs Sporting Lisbon in Portugal and Spezia in Italy dropping it as a sponsor.
Bitci was initially a cryptocurrency exchange but now seems to be pitching itself in the fan token market, somewhat similar to Socios. Scottish club Rangers also had a deal with Bitci.
Wolves announced earlier this month that Bitci would be replaced as a sleeve sponsor by 12Bet, an online gambling firm.
Bitci’s deal with Wolves expired at the end of the 2021-22 season, and it is understood there are no outstanding payments and no legal action will take place.
(Design: Sam Richardson)