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Ken Early: Fan Tokens for football supporters – loyalty is a two-way street

Some clubs are so desperate for money they are herding their fans towards tokens

Leeds against Everton has the ring of a true classic fixture – a match that would have been even bigger in 1971 than it was last Saturday. The two teams left everything out there, and so did the home crowd, which was finally getting to enjoy Premier League football at Elland Road again after 17 years. A middle-aged Leeds fan assumed a lecherous air and rubbed his paunch at Dominic Calvert-Lewin in a vain attempt to distract the Everton striker as he took a first-half penalty. A respectable-looking older woman greeted Calvert-Lewin's celebration with a middle-finger salute. Everton might have been a goal up, but Leeds United were back.

These are two clubs with a lot in common. Both represent the less successful side of one of English football’s ancient rivalries. Both have struggled with the English game’s transition from local sporting institution to global entertainment business. Leeds famously chased the debt dragon all the way to the Champions League semi-finals and blew up in one of football’s fieriest financial meltdowns. Everton steered a more prudent course for years under David Moyes, only recently joining the ranks of the big-spending billionaire-owned superclubs, although many people have not yet noticed the metamorphosis.

Both are currently managed by legendary Spanish-speaking coaches, who could be seen after the final whistle chatting on the sideline for several minutes. Marcelo Bielsa and Rafael Benitez have both been internationally famous for at least 20 years, since Bielsa led Argentina to the 2002 World Cup finals and Benitez won the first of two La Liga titles with Valencia.

Bielsa's and Benitez's success shows us that if you want to inspire loyalty and devotion, sincerity is a better foundation than charm

Football-wise, they don’t appear to have much in common. Bielsa’s teams prioritise intensity, Benitez’s organisation. Bielsa’s style gets more plaudits and he is more commonly cited by other coaches as an influence, but Benitez has won more important titles.


They do, however, share a mysterious capacity to inspire a level of devotion and loyalty from players and supporters that initially seems at odds with a somewhat stiff and formal interpersonal style.

When you see guys like Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino dealing with people, it’s not difficult to see how they can connect with players – there’s no mystery about their charisma. But when you watch Bielsa doing his post-match interviews, staring at the ground as he slowly answers questions phrase by phrase through his interpreter, it can be hard to understand exactly what it is about this man that is capable of inspiring the Leeds players to outrun every other team in the league.

Yet Bielsa is loved by players and fans in Leeds as he has been in Rosario and Santiago and Bilbao and everywhere else his career has taken him. Benitez is widely regarded as a cold fish – yet his teams have invariably played with passion. And at Valencia, Liverpool and Newcastle there were large sections of the support that pined for his supposedly cold and prickly persona for years after he left.

Neither Bielsa nor Benitez are backslappers, comedians or charmers. Their success shows us that if you want to inspire loyalty and devotion, sincerity is a better foundation than charm.

Another interesting thing about Leeds v Everton was that it was the first meeting this season between two of the five Premier League clubs who have announced a partnership with to market digital Fan Tokens to their supporters.

Fan Tokens offer the opportunity to “be more than a fan!” according to the Socios website blurb. “We believe passion should be recognised and that every fan has the right to make their voice heard, wherever they are in the world,” it continues.

These Fan Tokens entitle their holders to vote through the Socios app on issues to do with their club – but those expecting to be consulted on matters of import like signings and tactics will be disappointed. “Which player do you want to dare to show us the inside of their personal shower bag?” ask AC Milan. “Which song should be played at Emirates Stadium after we win?” wonder Arsenal. “Which design would you like Atletico de Madrid to wrap their bus in for season 2021-22?” And so forth.

The Fan Tokens fluctuate in price in response to (obscure) market forces, and can be bought and sold like shares on a trading exchange

How can I get some Fan Tokens so I can start voting in these great polls, you scream. This is where it gets interesting: the only way to buy Fan Tokens is by first buying the Chiliz cryptocurrency, which is the first thing you are urged to do when you download the Socios app. At last we begin to understand why somebody bothered to invent Fan Tokens: as a device to get people to turn their euros or dollars or pounds into Chiliz, they finally make some kind of sense.

The Fan Tokens fluctuate in price in response to (obscure) market forces, and can be bought and sold like shares on a trading exchange. The price movements can be dramatic. In February, the AC Milan Fan Token traded as high as 365 Chiliz, before collapsing to something closer to its current price of 24.49.

And the excitement does not end there. The Chiliz cryptocurrency, in which the tokens are denominated, is itself subject to dramatic fluctuations in price. In February, Chiliz were changing hands for between one and five dollars. Now the exchange rate is closer to 40 cents. So even though the Milan Fan Token has collapsed 15 times in nominal value since February, traders who bought with Chiliz they acquired for 2 cents may still be marginally ahead in “real” terms (if a word like “real” still means anything in the context of crypto).

Likewise you can easily imagine situations in which your Fan Tokens are increasing in nominal value, except that they are denominated in a depreciating currency. Amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear: anyone who wants to get into trading Fan Tokens better keep their wits about them, and in most cases that still won’t be much use.

The question is: why are many major football clubs herding their supporters towards participation in this? The answer is that they are so desperate for money they will do anything. This is another dead canary in the coalmine of football’s overextended economy. Leeds and Everton released similar-sounding statements filled with words like “innovative” and “engagement” to hail the start of their partnership with Socios earlier this month. Remember this the next time you hear people talk about how the new generation of fans seem more loyal to personalities instead of clubs. Loyalty is a two-way street.