Soccer teams turning to virtual ‘fan tokens’ to raise money

Barcelona's Lionel Messi, left, kicks the ball during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium on June 23.  — AP

Soccer clubs around Europe are increasingly turning to virtual fan tokens to raise money and enhance fan engagement.

And the money can pile up fast.

The latest club to enter the world of blockchain, Spanish champion Barcelona, generated 1.2 million euros ($1.3 million) in less than two hours on Monday.

The 600,000 Barcelona cryptocurrency-based tokens, which sold for 2 euros ($2.20) each, give fans exclusive voting rights in club specific polls and can give them a chance to win rewards that could include watching games as VIP guests or meeting with players.

What are blockchains?

Blockchains are blocks of information or transactions that are secure and transparent. They are stored on a network of computers around the world without the need of a centralised party or authority to control the data.

The information can’t be altered, and the blocks are chained together using cryptography to form a protected and public digital ledger.

“Thirty years ago, people thought that this internet thing was just about sending email, but today thanks to the internet you can do a million things,” said Alexandre Dreyfus, the CEO of the platform where fans can buy tokens and vote on club surveys.

“And it’s a bit the same with blockchain. We still don’t know how to use the technology to innovate and do something that not necessarily existed before.”

Barcelona joined Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, Roma, Atltico Madrid and others using blockchain.

Token buyers can also make money in return by trading the digital assets at a price determined by the markets supply and demand, and ultimately by the teams’ performances and actions.

A team signing Neymar, for instance, could see the price of its tokens go up. A club facing relegation could see the price of its virtual asset go down.

Another batch of Barcelona tokens will be put on sale on Wednesday, with the price still to be determined. Owners can sell and trade their tokens using Chiliz, one of the many cryptocurrencies based on blockchain technology.

For now, most clubs are highlighting fan engagement as the main advantage of their blockchain-based fan tokens.

“For the biggest clubs in the world, 99.9 per cent of sports fans are not actually in the stadiums, or even in the same city or country of the club that they are supporting,” Dreyfus told The Associated Press.

“There is a lack of engagement and monetisation towards this global fan base,” he added.

“All these fans have no significant way to have a voice and have an influence. By owning one of these fan tokens, suddenly you are being recognised, and more importantly, you have a voice and a right to vote on a decision that the club is asking you.”

Barcelona said the fan tokens are part of the club’s worldwide expansion strategy as it looks for new digital channels and formats to generate greater engagement with its international fan base.

They have been incorporated as the club tries to develop new streams for the generation of resources and to become a benchmark both on and off the field.

The first survey in which Barcelona token owners can vote on is related to the artwork of a mural that will decorate the dressing room at the Camp Nou.

A novel idea

Juventus was the first club to launch its fan tokens about six months ago, with its supporters choosing the celebration song that is now played when the team scores a goal.

The first PSG poll in February allowed fans to choose an inspirational message to go on the captain’s armband, and Galatasaray’s supporters picked the song played when the team enters the field.

Roma fans voted on the name of a field at the club’s training centre, and Atltico Madrid’s supporters chose player lvaro Morata to give exclusive insight into the club’s daily life.

The tokens became a more significant engagement tool during the coronavirus pandemic. PSG players Edison Cavani and Thiago Silva sent personal messages to fans, and Galatasaray token owners gained life-sized cardboard photos of themselves in the team’s stadium.

“The pandemic forced the clubs to look at the other 99pc of fans that can generate revenue,” Dreyfus said. “It forced them to reconsider and to try to monetise their global fan base.”

Other blockchain-based actions making their way into soccer include officially-licensed digital cards of players, which can be used in virtual fantasy games.

Platform Sorare has deals with several clubs and leagues, including the Serie A. It said it has more than 1,800 officially-licensed soccer players on the platform, with 3,000 active users who generated about $200,000 in sales in May.

Portuguese club Benfica last year was a pioneer in allowing the use of cryptocurrencies for the purchase of tickets and merchandising.

Some clubs also resorted to blockchain to track the authenticity of some of their official products.

There were announcements of clubs possibly using cryptocurrencies for salaries and other payments, though nothing has materialised so far.

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