JThe People’s Pension Stadium turf was resurfaced at the end of the season but was struggling to settle. Then came the Jubilee weekend and, as one club official put it, ‘boom, it just popped up’. The green shoots timed their arrival well. The new American owners of Crawley Town followed this week, making their first public appearance and rolling out their case for a different way of running a football club.
Preston Johnson and Eben Smith are the founders of Wagmi United, the “crypto bro consortium” (not their term) that earned its cryptocurrency money and used it to buy Crawley in April. They got a lot of coverage – equal parts confusion and dismay overall – then got a bit more when the scandal over manager John Yems’ alleged racist behavior became public knowledge.
Yems left the club soon after, and Johnson and Smith were in Sussex on Wednesday to reveal their own signing, former Arsenal Under-23 manager Kevin Betsy. But the question of how the owners plan to use the power of “Web3” to transform Crawley into a world football player was not far behind.
“A lot of the world, whether it’s football, crypto sports, or anything that lives a more digital life,” Johnson says. “We believe there is an opportunity for the remote fan to attach themselves to a club as a result. We want to provide unprecedented access to local and remote fans and technology gives us that ability to do so in a way that has never been done before. This is macro vision.
Johnson is a tall man in his thirties with a bushy blond beard and, on this day, a pair of designer slip-on shoes with a large image of a water tower on them. He’s a professional gamer turned crypto investor and he’s confident in his idea for Crawley.
The club will soon be offering a number of digital tokens for sale which will give buyers the opportunity to watch and participate in decision-making. This, Johnson insists, will go well beyond offers made by companies such as Socios which run programs for a number of top European teams where tokens allow users to vote in polls on club issues. .
“Socios…they’re on the right track but I don’t know if the fans care if it’s Coca-Cola or Pepsi that’s for sale in the stands,” Johnson said. “Probably not. But how much of our wage budget in the transfer window goes to attack, midfield or defence, that could be really intriguing, right? Being able to actually participate in decision-making is absolutely on the table and those are the things that we need to weigh: what fans care about where the real ability to have governance and have a say is worth it, that gives NFT tangible value real.
Concerns about the dramatic spread of cryptocurrency in football cover a number of different angles: from their basic utility to the prospect of secondary market manipulation, where fan investors end up buying at high prices to see their assets plummet in value. Crawley’s tokens, Johnson says, will be resalable and the fact that NFTs are currently taking a beating on the coin doesn’t bother him too much.
“We acquired the club completely in fiat [currency], in pounds, we have reserves for several seasons and within the ownership group to preserve the club even though we have had no income for years,” he says. “Whether it’s a bear market for NFTs or not, we’re still very confident that we can establish something that will generate revenue for the club and be positive.”
Johnson envisions a plugged-in, digital audience paying to stream Crawley matches from around the world because they feel they have a stake in what’s going on. They will also be able to be sure, he says, that the team will play “a beautiful style that is actually more pleasing to the eye”. This is one of the criteria that the club sets for any managerial candidate, another being the desire to integrate data analysis into the heart of his job. By hiring Betsy, they think they have found someone who matches their plans.
The former England youth manager impressed Johnson and Smith with an hour-long presentation on his approach to analysis. The 44-year-old promises “attacking, adaptable and aggressive football with and without the ball”. He is also a young black manager, again a striking rarity in English football and an appointment that contrasts sharply with what came before him.
With quiet eloquence, Betsy made a positive first impression at her first press conference as Crawley’s manager, as did her bosses. But as Betsy said, “talking is cheap,” and the outcome of Crawley’s audacious plans will remain the subject of great curiosity for some time to come.