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As Crawley Town FC searched for a new manager this spring, ownership offered multiple warnings to leading candidate Kevin Betsy. People might hate us, co-owner Eben Smith told Betsy. It might get a little crazy, because we’re doing some things that are different.
Skepticism had followed WAGMI United (a reference to crypto mantra “We’re All Gonna Make it”) since before it appeared in Crawley. When it first announced its intentions to buy an English football club late last year, the group, led by Smith and longtime sports bettor Preston Johnson, alongside several NFT entrepreneurs, was labeled the “clueless crypto crew,” and its bid to acquire Bradford City was ultimately rejected.
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After WAGMI successfully bought Crawley Town FC—a club in England’s fourth-highest division—in April, “the initial thought from most people was, ‘This is not going to work,’” Crawley Observer editor Mark Dunford said. “Scared I think is a word you could use of an American group coming in—not just Americans but anybody coming in with the words cryptocurrency, NFTs all bandied about.”
Message board warriors referred to Crawley Town as Magic Beans United, predicting the club would fall out of its league altogether.
And yet Betsy, the former leader of Arsenal’s U-23 squad, took the gig. “They want to bring a new, innovative way of thinking into the football industry,” he said at his introductory press conference.
So far, so good. In contrast to crashing crypto prices, optimism around Crawley (30 miles south of London) is as high as it’s ever been. After landing a coveted manager, Crawley Town signed its division’s leading goalscorer from last year and cruised through five preseason games unbeaten this summer.
Off the pitch, new ownership has slashed season ticket prices while selling 10,000 NFTs, promising to use that money to help the fans see their dreams of promotion come true and to incorporate those fans into key decisions along the way. Today, for instance, the club will interview for a scouting job live on Twitter.
Crawley Town kicks off its regular season Saturday. As Johnson said at Betsy’s introduction, “This is the fun part now.”
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England’s football pyramid has dashed the hopes of many an investor with eyes on the windfall that awaits any team that can move up the ranks. But WAGMI feels it has a new formula.
Having seen online communities develop around NFT projects like the Bored Ape Yacht Club, Smith and Johnson felt those people would rally around something physical, too. If the owners could go beyond local followers to develop and monetize an online legion, they could give themselves a competitive advantage on the pitch. More fans would mean more money, which would allow for more investment, which would lead to more winning, which would attract more fans in a virtuous loop.
After Philadelphia 76ers president Daryl Morey joined the group, he told The Washington Post, “WAGMI United could be on the leading edge of a revolution in how sports franchises are run.”
While much of the ownership group had ties to blockchain projects, WAGMI United doesn’t want to limit itself to the NFT community. The team at first aimed to become “Crypto’s Club,” but Johnson now prefers another title: “The Internet’s Team.”
WAGMI United didn’t roll that moniker out right away, however. First it wanted to get the locals on board.
“Fans of a football club are very protective of their club,” Dunford said. “They’re going to be quite skeptical, cynical.” Steve Herbert certainly was. A 45-year-old train driver who runs a Facebook fan group at first wondered why a new age ownership collective would be interested in his favorite team.
Though Crawley Town is 126 years old, the club only made it to League Two (the fourth division of soccer in England, behind the Premier League, The Championship, and League One) a decade ago. In a town of 114,000, the team had just over 700 season ticket holders and was £500,000 in debt. The team was sold for a reported £5 million ($6.1 million).
At a fan forum in May, Johnson and Smith assuaged fans’ fears. The league had required the group to buy in cash, and prove they had the funds to operate the club going forward. Fans wouldn’t be forced to buy NFTs. The group’s main goal was to win. And after the event, ownership kept communicating
During one of his first days in town, Johnson broke a vow to not use the word “soccer,” and repented by heading to the Old Punch Bowl in town, where he bought £1,000 worth of drinks for fans while discussing the team’s plans.
“It’s a bit of a nightmare for me as a journalist because they are so transparent,” Dunford said. “They’ll make a signing and they’ll go on Twitter Spaces, invite everyone on and explain why they made the signing.”
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On its website, WAGMI maintains a list of improvements it has made to the club so far—26 and counting, from acquiring ice baths for its players to partnering with Adidas. Other small upgrades don’t make the list. “The fact they had a hand dryer that was broken for five years and never got fixed is crazy,” Johnson said.
No. 1 on the list is hiring Betsy, a sought-after candidate who worked not only with Arsenal but with England’s youth national teams. A couple of weeks later, the club signed Dom Telford on a three-year deal after Telford led League Two with 25 goals in 37 matches.
“When that happened I had to pinch myself,” Crawley native Jack Standen said in an email. “I honestly thought it was a wind-up.”
Standen is a lifelong Crawley Town supporter who also had become known as “the ‘crypto guy’” among his friends after buying NFTs, so he had more at stake than most when WAGMI took over. “This to me was a way to show my doubting peers that crypto isn’t just ‘internet monopoly money,’” he said. Overall, Johnson said WAGMI United plans to nearly double Crawley Town’s player wages this year, while also investing in analytics, coaching, and training infrastructure.
Dunford estimated 90% of Crawley Town supporters are now on board with leadership. The train driver, Herbert, might as well be leading the bandwagon. “Everything they’ve promised so far they have delivered,” Herbert wrote in an email. “They are like the new messiah!”
Earlier this month, WAGMI unveiled its first NFT, a $500 (or .35 Ethereum) virtual season ticket that would entitle holders to limited edition merchandise, exclusive live streams, in-person events, and some input on how the club would be run.
Last year, Johnson said, Crawley Town sold 900 jerseys. This year, WAGMI United has already sold 10,000 NFTs, about as many as Premier League power Liverpool moved earlier this year at a much lower price point. The plan is for that extra revenue to translate to an advantage on the pitch, where the real money can be made.
If Crawley Town can get promoted twice to England’s second division, the English Football League Championship, they’ll join a number of other clubs with U.S. owners, where teams in the top half of the table are regularly valued at over £100 million. And fans’ ambitions don’t stop there. “I think the fans are properly dreaming of the Premier League in a few years time,” Dunford said.
WAGMI United, meanwhile, has goals beyond the pitch. “It’s a playbook that’s maybe applicable in other leagues, other sports and other countries,” Johnson said. “We just need to win.”