When Manchester United listed on the stock exchange, it gave fans the opportunity to invest and own a part of their favourite team, something every person who supports a sports club dreams of being able to do. Buying your favourite club is possibly one of the most popular ideas for what you would do if you won the lottery. For Manchester United fans though, the joy of owning a share of their boyhood club was rewarded only with financial dividends, rather than the other benefits of owning a club that fans dream of. As clubs across the country face a financial shortfall, there is added incentive for clubs to open investment to loyal fans but how can this be done in way that provides significant value to said fans?
Through the use of blockchain technology, sports clubs offer fans a new way to interact with their clubs and raise cash during a time of economic downturn. Their current options are to offer shares or bonds to investors which take significant amount of time and involves a lot of extra fees. However, a new option for a sports club would be to set up an ICO (initial coin offering) with each owner of a token either offering voting rights, dividends or perhaps access to fan loyalty programmes.
An ICO works in a similar way to a crowdfund but by using blockchain, it enables something called tokens which are built by using smart contracts that can automate transactions across a peer to peer network making it almost impossible to hack and validates authenticity of ownership. Similar to the currency you used to find in your wallet before debit cards, tokens can be exchanged between people, fans who own tokens can cash in/out without any delay and it provides immediate cash liquidity to clubs. Sports fans are very passionate, loyal and would happily invest their money to own a small part of their club. Ebbsfleet United was purchased through a crowdfunding model with each person paying £35 for voting rights on team selection for each game. Although it wasn’t the most sustainable model of club ownership and most football coaches would refuse to give up team selection to a popular vote, it showed that people were willing to invest their money into a club without seeking financial returns.
Another way the ICO could work is through crowdfunding for transfers. There are regular instances in lower league football of clubs doing a fundraise to create a transfer budget to buy players. Tokenising this process could give token owners a dividend should the player hit a particular milestone or is sold in the future. Had this model been in place when Fleetwood Town signed Jamie Vardy in 2011, a smart contract could have been written to pay a token holder £1 per share if he scored 25 goals, £1 per share if he plays 50 club games and 10% of profit on a future transfer being split equally amongst the token holders. If a fan owns a token earlier in the season and did not believe Jamie Vardy would hit those milestones, they could trade the token to the highest bidder similar to how stocks and shares are traded. For those who held onto the tokens for the remainder of the season, they would have seen a high return on their original investment in just 12 months as Jamie Vardy scored 31 goals that season and then moved to Leicester for over £1m.
There is not just financial benefits for fans using this model however. Using blockchain, it is possible to programme different types of tokens with some tokens offering voting rights, others offering dividend rights and others offering fan rewards. Blockchain opens the opportunity to build upon the fan experience and engage with fans in different ways. Tokens from the ICO could offer fans first rights on certain tickets, discounts on official merchandise, access to private training sessions or meet and greets with players. This is possible through how the tokens are stored which is typically on a phone using a mobile app that works as a digital wallet. If fans have certain tokens on the wallet, it could be used within the stadium to give fans a greater matchday experience. It can also make ticketing sales much more streamlined and reduce the chance of forgery, something Lancashire Cricket Club has already implemented and proven to be successful. Fans can buy tickets, store them in their wallet and then when they get to the turnstile they scan a QR code and they are allowed in. If fans can no longer attend games they could trade tickets with one another in exchange for cash in their digital wallet and this would remove all types of counterfeit tickets from circulation. This also allows clubs a better insight into crowd attendance and may offer ways to reward fans who attend X games during the season through digital rewards, perhaps a badge they can share on their social media platform proving they are a true fan, or extra discount at the club store. This can provide extra motivation for fans to attend a mid week game rather than watching on the TV.
A famous example of digital collectables is crypto kitties, where people brought and traded different tokens that represented kittens. This concept could be replicated in a similar way to digitalise sticker collections with clubs offering digital stickers of new signings, creating rare stickers that are tough to find and generating a marketplace for them. Football programme collections can now become digital reads through the purchase of a token and people could even bid for exclusive merchandise such as shirts worn by players and receive their certificate of authenticity digitally, removing any risk of counterfeit merchandise or losing a paper certificate.
As clubs continue to identify new revenue streams to fill the gap of cash shortfall, the use of blockchain can offer new ways to increase revenue while offering more value to fans. Fans want to support their club in every way possible but they also are facing financial pressure so being rewarded in various ways for how they engage and interact with the club provides a win-win for both clubs and fans.
Adam Butler is an MBA graduate from Imperial College Business School. His focus is designing innovative solutions for businesses by blending new technology with behavioural science. Please feel free to connect on