Web3 in League Two? Crawley Town and the ‘crypto bros’

The turf at the People’s Pension Stadium was relaid at the end of the season but was struggling to bed in. Then came the Jubilee weekend and, as one club official put it, “boom, it just sprang up”. The green shoots timed their arrival well. Crawley Town’s new American owners followed this week, making their first public appearance and rolling out their pitch for a different way of running a football club.

Preston Johnson and Eben Smith are the founders of Wagmi United, the “crypto bro consortium” (not their term) who made their money in cryptocurrency and used it to buy Crawley in April. They got a lot of coverage – equal parts confusion and consternation in the main – and then got some more as the scandal of the manager John Yems’s alleged racist behaviour became public.

Yems left the club soon after, and Johnson and Smith were in Sussex on Wednesday to reveal their own hire, former Arsenal Under-23 coach Kevin Betsy. But the question of quite how the owners plan to use the power of “Web3” to turn Crawley into a global football player was not far behind.

“A lot of the world whether it be football, sport crypto or whatever is living a more digitally native life,” says Johnson. “We think there’s an opportunity for the remote fan to attach themselves to a club as a result. We want to offer unprecedented access to local as well as remote fans and technology gives us that ability to do it in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s the macro vision.”

Johnson is a large 30-something man with a bushy blond beard and, on this day, a pair of designer slip-on shoes with a big picture of a water tower on them. He’s a professional gambler turned crypto investor and he is confident in his idea for Crawley.

The club will soon offer for sale a number of digital tokens which will give purchasers the opportunity to watch and take part in decision-making. This, Johnson insists, will go well beyond the offerings made by companies such as Socios who run schemes for a number of leading European teams where tokens allow users to vote in polls on club matters.

Crawley Town Football Club’s new manager Kevin Betsy at the Broadfield Stadium.
Crawley Town Football Club’s new manager Kevin Betsy at the Broadfield Stadium. Photograph: James Boardman/Alamy Live News

“Socios … they’re on the right track but I’m not sure whether fans care if it’s Coca-Cola or Pepsi that’s for sale in the stands,” Johnson says. “Probably not. But how much of our wage budget in the transfer window goes towards offence or midfield or defence, that might be really intriguing, right? Being able to actually take part in the decision-making is absolutely on the table and those are the things we need to weigh: what fans care about where the actual ability to have governance and have a say is worthwhile. It makes that NFT have some actual tangible value.”

Concerns over the spectacular spread of cryptocurrency across football cover a number of different angles: from their basic utility to the prospect of manipulation of secondary markets, where fan investors end up buying high only to see their asset crash in value. Crawley’s tokens, Johnson says, will be able to be resold and the fact of NFTs currently taking a battering across the piece does not bother him unduly.

“We acquired the club completely in fiat [currency], in pounds, we have reserves for multiple seasons and within the ownership group to preserve the club even if we had zero pounds in revenues for years,” he says. “Whether it’s a bear market for NFTs or not, we’re still really confident that we will be able to establish something that’s going to generate revenue for the club and be a positive.”

Johnson envisions a plugged-in, digitally enabled audience paying to stream Crawley matches from all over the world because they feel they have a stake in what’s going on. They will also be able to take confidence, he says, that the team will play “a beautiful style that’s actually easier on the eye”. This is one of the criteria the club set for any managerial candidate, another being a willingness to integrate data analysis at the heart of what they do. In hiring Betsy they believe they’ve found someone consistent with their plans.

The former England youth coach impressed Johnson and Smith with an hour-long presentation on his approach to analytics. The 44-year-old promises football that will be “attacking, adaptable and aggressive with and without the ball”. He is also a young black coach, still a striking rarity in English football and an appointment that draws a sharp contrast with what had gone before him.

With a quietly spoken eloquence, Betsy made a positive first impression at his first press conference as Crawley manager, as did his bosses. But as Betsy put it, “talk is cheap”, and the outcome of Crawley’s bold plans will remain the subject of great curiosity for some time to come.

Read More: Web3 in League Two? Crawley Town and the ‘crypto bros’

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