Up until now, football’s relationship with cryptocurrency sponsorship has felt like a complete and utter free-for-all, with no rules whatsoever. Slowly but surely that is starting to change.
This week the UK government announced plans to crackdown on misleading ads for cryptocurrency companies, which would treat them like ads for other financial products, a move that could have far-reaching implications in the world of football which is increasingly dependent on the booming sector. Meanwhile Spain is leading a similar charge in the EU.
“Cryptoassets can provide exciting new opportunities, offering people new ways to transact and invest,” said Rishi Sunak, the UK chancellor. “But it’s important that consumers are not being sold products with misleading claims. We are ensuring consumers are protected, while also supporting innovation of the cryptoasset market.”
Volatile cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum boomed in value in 2021, leading to big financial gains for some people, but also generating huge amounts of hype which may mean latecomers are exposed to losses. Most cryptocurrencies have declined in value in recent months and nobody can predict what they will do next.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) a type of digital asset also based on blockchain technology with a lot of similarities to the examples outlined above, are excluded from the new rules.
But given there were almost literally no rules before this week, the shift from a Wild West to a very-slightly-less Wild West is a notable one.
Online betting ads have long been a huge revenue stream for football clubs, but that murky world is coming under increasing scrutiny and regulation. For example Italy imposed a strict ban on gambling firms recently.
But now, many of the top clubs in Serie A are sponsored by cryptocurrency companies, while the league’s technology partner is sponsored by crypto.com, meaning the branding flashes up on TV when there is a VAR check.
This is a cryptocurrency exchange that recently spent $700 million on a 20-year deal to rename the Staples Center in Los Angeles, an iconic sports and concert venue.
Inter Milan’s shirt sponsor was tyre company Pirelli for 26 years, but this was replaced last year by Socios, a Malta-based “fan token” company that also sponsors six Premier League clubs and claims to offer “fan engagement” in the form of polls and competitions.
Last year in a special investigation, The Athletic revealed how alongside “fan engagement” in the form of polls and competitions, the Socios ecosystem is a hotbed of volatile, risky and unregulated financial speculation, with users of the product on social media far more likely to be engaged in talk of “pumping” and “dumping” than anything to do with football.
Last month the UK Advertising Standards Authority slapped down Arsenal’s promotions of Socios fan tokens deeming that the club “trivialised investment in cryptoassets and took advantage of consumers’ inexperience or credulity” in a promotion for Socios that featured three first-team players. It was a landmark ruling because up until that point fan tokens had been virtually untouched by regulation, being classified as “utility tokens” rather than “cryptocurrencies” or “crypto-assets”.
These distinctions may seem arcane but could become more significant in the coming months given the UK government announcement, the result of a consultation running for 18 months, which seems a lifetime in the rapidly changing world of cryptocurrency.
As well as Socios there are many other cryptocurrency companies popping up to sponsor football clubs in England and abroad.
For many it is hard to determine what the actual product is being advertised, and in some cases it is not even possible to discern basic details about the companies in question. For example, 3KEY became Manchester City’s new “official regional partner in decentralised finance trading analysis”, before the club severed the deal after enquiries by multiple news outlets revealed the firm had virtually no digital footprint or named employees.
The report accompanying the new UK rules reference research that shows some holders of cryptoassets “may not fully understand the risks involved”, supporting the case for “regulatory intervention to ensure that cryptoasset promotions are fair, clear, and not misleading”.
The change will see crypto ads become subject to Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) rules which will bring them “in line with the same high standard that other financial promotions such as stocks, shares and insurance products are held to”.
This will mean firms will have to register with the FCA before listing adverts. Outside of football, UK regulators have been critical of cryptocurrency ads on public transport, often for companies with virtually no real world footprint or identifiable human representatives.
The changes could also have implications on some of the online betting sponsorships in football, for example Sportsbet.io, which sponsors Arsenal and Southampton, and the subject of an Athletic investigation into the Premier League’s hidden links to Bitcoin gambling.
How much do you know about some of our best moments against Liverpool? 🤔
All done? Check your answers now! 👇
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) January 13, 2022
One notable area exempted from the changes is non-fungible tokens or NFTs, another type of digital asset which, like cryptocurrency, is based on blockchain technology.
“Unlike fungible assets which can generally be sold more easily and quickly, the sale of non-fungible tokens typically depends on the utility or unique value it gives the holder and is more akin to a digital collector item than financial services products,” said the UK government.
This is a contentious position given that NFTs are often bought and sold by those trying to make a quick buck.
One NFT project making waves is Sorare, a fantasy football game where users trade footballer NFTs for vast sums of money and win cash prizes. A “quantitative hedge fund” works to maximise cash rewards from the platform, so separating NFTs from “financial service products” is not straightforward.
Sorare is based in Paris, and just like the UK, the European Union is seeking to beef up regulation on crypto which could have big ramifications in football, particularly in countries like Italy where there are many crypto sponsors.
Spain is leading a continent-wide crackdown on another issue — social media “influencers” promoting cryptocurrency via their personal accounts.
In Spain, World Cup winner Andres Iniesta was paid to promote Binance, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, but did not reveal this explicitly. Advertising watchdogs generally require influencers make clear when a post has been paid for, often by using the #ad hashtag.
Many crypto projects are put in front of the eyeballs of football fans through routes other than official club sponsorship deals, such as Chelsea stars John Terry and Reece James sharing expensive NFTs depicting cartoon monkeys, known as “Bored Apes”.
Last year The Athletic revealed how multiple elite footballers including Ronaldinho, Ivan Rakitic, Thiago Silva and Marcelo had promoted an obscure cryptocurrency project called “MiniFootball Token” to their huge social media followings.
This token “pumped” on social media when hyped by top footballers, then “dumped” in value shortly after, which means fans who bought into the digital token at the height of the craze will have lost big sums of money. Kim Kardashian and boxer Floyd Mayweather are facing a lawsuit in the US alleging that they collaborated with a “pump-and-dump scheme”. (The EthereumMax cryptocurrency said it disputed the allegations.)
Although fans may feel uncomfortable about many of the crypto-related sponsorship deals secured by clubs, and obscure projects pushed by their favourite players, money generally talks louder than discomfort, especially when there are virtually no rules whatsoever.
But very slightly and very slowly, that complete free-for-all seems to be changing.
(Top Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)