It wasn’t so long ago that elite football was in the middle of a love affair with NFTs (non-fungible tokens) — “digital assets” based on the blockchain technology which underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.
While club commercial officers and sports consultants earnestly tried to convince people this was all about “utility” and “fan engagement”, to others it looked like financial speculation designed to enrich the already rich at the expense of gullible fans.
A year later, pretty much everything in the sector has turned to rubble.
A recent report by dappGambl, a crypto and online gambling website, said that tens of thousands of high-profile NFT projects promoted by athletes and celebrities are now virtually worthless — around 95 per cent of all NFTs analysed in its sample.
So which football clubs and players promoted NFTs — and what has happened to those projects since?
What follows is specifically about NFTs, though last year The Athletic found almost every Premier League club had promoted a cryptocurrency project that had crashed in value.
Explained: How the crypto crash has impacted each Premier League club
LFC Heroes Club
Liverpool launched an NFT scheme last March saying the LFC Heroes Club “will give fans the opportunity to purchase animated, cartoon-style digital artwork of 23 players and manager Jurgen Klopp”.
The move attracted derision from supporters, with limited enthusiasm to say the least — around 170,000 “unique images” were on offer, which it was said could have brought in £8.5million (a tenth of which would go to the LFC Foundation, the club’s official charity). Liverpool say the scheme raised about £280,000 for the LFC Foundation and contributed to work on “education and employability programmes, inclusion and special educational needs and disability support”.
But their venture into NFTs has been a flop, with only about six per cent sold. The tokens have slumped in value.
At the time, the club said the scheme was not about investment but about creating “an online community where fans can connect and engage with like-minded people and enjoy access to a range of ongoing benefits”. During the height of the NFT wave, it was a common refrain that this new technology was not about finance or investment but instead about creating “communities” and new ways for supporters to engage in their clubs.
But the official Twitter account dedicated to the scheme last tweeted over a year ago. The server on Discord — a social media app popular among gaming and cryptocurrency fans — still exists but is virtually dormant, with no official input.
The below graphic demonstrates just how inactive the market for LFC Heroes is.
The weekly trading volume shows the total value of NFTs being bought and sold each week, a good measure of how active the market is.
It is not a measure of the sale price of NFTs, which has fallen significantly in the case of LFC Heroes.
Manchester United’s NFT scheme, carried out in conjunction with blockchain firm Tezos, is rather more active than Liverpool’s — it is part of a big partnership with Tezos, which sponsors the club’s training gear.
The Tezos token has lost about 85 per cent of its value since the United deal was announced in February 2022.
It is hard to work out the exact purpose of the scheme, but the club haven’t abandoned ship — one of the world’s biggest clubs, they are still regularly promoting ‘Manchester United Digital Collectibles’.
United say their scheme is different to others because there are lots of free NFTs available as part of it. These give access to genuine rewards, including matchday experiences and access to “Ask me anything” talks with players. They say take-up has been high and the scheme is still very much alive.
One of the points at which the NFT link with football became a subject of mainstream curiosity was when French midfielder Paul Pogba posted a video endorsing a scheme called ‘Cryptodragons’.
Father of Dragons is here! I am happy to announce our partnership with @cryptodragons – the NFT champion. Can’t wait to get my first ever NFT – an Egg with a Dragon inside.#cryptodragons #NFT #dragons #ad pic.twitter.com/31cxXi8Wog
— Paul Pogba (@paulpogba) November 15, 2021
The scheme is now virtually worthless, and anybody who put money into it will have lost almost all of however much they invested.
The Athletic spoke to Berat Kurnaz, a motorcycle courier in the Turkish city of Istanbul who borrowed $2,000 (£1,650) from a bank to invest in Cryptodragons and has now lost the vast majority of that money.
‘The main reason we invested was him’: Losing three months’ wages in Pogba crypto scheme
Others lost tens of thousands.
“The main reason we invested was Pogba,” Kurnaz said. “It wasn’t like someone was impersonating him online, he actually did videos for it. We thought, ‘He must know the people doing this, this must be legit’.”
The project’s founders have taken about $2million out of the project. The Cryptodragons website no longer exists.
Like LFC Heroes, the following graphic demonstrates just how inactive the market for Cryptodragons NFTs is.
Terry, and other top footballers, promoted a scheme with a storyline that said “in a magical world where apes ruled the metaverse, a magical thousand-year-old tree sprouted cute baby apes”.
The scheme started out by selling “apes” for around $200. These are now all worthless. The AKFC claimed to have “utility” and not just be about speculative financial investment (and therefore, by implication, it becoming worth nothing does not matter).
Holding these apes was supposed to bring benefits, such as participating in an ‘AKFC World Cup’ game. That did not happen.
Sorry to keep you all waiting but very excited to announce my signing with the AKFC!
Time to get to work! The project launches in 15 days!!
— John Terry (@JohnTerry26) January 19, 2022
Crawley Town, who play in League Two, England’s fourth tier, have been subject to a baffling ownership saga over the past 18 months. The club were taken over by WAGMI United — a group of American NFT investors — in April last year, with the new owners promising to take Crawley up the divisions via use of innovations such as selling NFTs.
The time since has been tumultuous to say the least, with Crawley having five managers in 10 months at one point, and only narrowly avoiding relegation to non-League football last season.
NFTs, YouTubers and five managers in 10 months – the ‘craziness’ of Crawley
The club are now reportedly for sale again, although this season is going better on the pitch — Crawley are joint top of League Two with 10 of the 46 matches played having rattled off four successive wins.
As for the NFTs, interest appears to have dried up, with prices crashing and sales slowing to a trickle.
In August, WAGMI put out a statement denying that the group “is abandoning Web3 and ‘rugging’ our community,” using cryptocurrency lingo for a project that takes people’s money and runs.
The group says it is still “actively engaged” in its NFT strategy.
One of the few relatively resilient football NFT schemes is Sorare (pronounced “So rare”), which has a huge partnership deal with the Premier League as well as La Liga and the Bundesliga, its equivalent top divisions in Spain and Germany.
The company sell NFTs which are intended to function somewhat like a fantasy football game.
The Athletic has previously highlighted issues with the scheme, such as how it had been marketed as an “investment” product despite the company’s claims to the contrary.
However, it has proved fairly robust despite the wider NFT crash.
The Tottenham Hotspur and Paris Saint-Germain forwards both promoted a scheme called NFTSTAR last year.
Son’s belated setting up of a Twitter account was swiftly followed by him promoting NFTSTAR, then deleting the posts after fan backlash.
Neymar has now moved on to Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal, the posts from NFTSTAR have stopped and moderators have abandoned the Discord server.
— Neymar Jr (@neymarjr) November 22, 2021
Last year, The Athletic reported on the failure of a scheme hyped by several Croatian players, and several for Inter Milan, the common person being Marcelo Brozovic, who has now left the Italian club and plays in Saudi Arabia.
The scheme lost 98 per cent of its value with people including Huy, a college student from Vietnam, losing out. “Everything turned to dust,” Huy told The Athletic. “I decided to leave the project with a loss of around 70 per cent. I lost belief in some footballers after this.”
No update here — the project turned to dust, as Huy says, and has remained that way.
Crypto token hyped by Croatia and Inter Milan players fell by 98% – ‘Everything turned to dust’
(Top photos: Cryptodragons, LFC Heroes Club, Ape Kids Club)