The blockbuster Lionel Messi deal is triggering an unlikely rally—in crypto

August 11, 2021, 8:09 PM UTC

Professional soccer is still reeling from the news that Lionel Messi will leave FC Barcelona for Paris to play this season for France’s most dominant football club. If that weren’t enough, the trade has triggered a surprising rally in the crypto tokens the superstar’s new club first issued its fans over a year ago.

Created in January 2020 in cooperation with technology partner, the Paris Saint-Germain Fan Token—ticker symbol: $PSG—was conceived as a high-tech way to build a new fan community. The holders of the tokens can interact regularly with the club, owned by the ruler of Qatar, through instruments like online polls that gamify the fan experience. It was never designed to be an investment vehicle.

The crypto community, apparently, didn’t get the memo. On Tuesday, a bidding war broke out for the PSG tokens, sending the value up more than twofold at one point.

The Messi-inspired rally is just the latest window into the wild, anything-goes world of crypto trading. It may not be the last fan-fueled rally of its kind.

More than two dozen of Europe’s top football clubs have become enamored with the idea of fan tokens, seeing them as a kind of modern, high-tech twist on the age-old fan club. They became particularly popular in the past 18 months at a time when fans were shut out of stadiums, and lockdown measures greatly limited their ability to head to the pub to meet friends and cheer on the team.

‘Not financial investment instruments’

Tuesday’s rally comes despite cautionary comments from PSG’s partner. When expanded its reach into the U.S., it set limits on the purchase of tokens and issued a warning on its site that “fan tokens are for entertainment purposes only and are not financial investment instruments.” With the recent craze in all things crypto, the message appears to have fallen on deaf ears—if indeed it was read at all.

The idea of fan tokens has been the source of other controversies among die-hard football faithful, too. Supporters of English Premier League side Aston Villa opposed club plans announced on Wednesday to launch its own token. also abandoned a partnership last year with West Ham United after Hammer fans revolted against the idea when it was first proposed in 2019.

Kevin Miles, CEO of the Football Supporters’ Association, criticized the Socios model at the time as an attempt to monetize fan engagement that U.K. leagues and clubs committed to do for free: “There should be no financial barriers to engaging with your football club.”

Much of the backlash has come from local fans who are increasingly hostile to the further commercialization of the sport just at a time when the pandemic has cost clubs billions in lost revenue. A fan backlash in England even sunk a brazen plan by some of the most prestigious European sides to create their own Super League within days of its announcement.

A ‘share of influence’

Here’s how such tokens are designed to work: The holders get the power to influence trivial decisions of favorite teams, such as what motivating slogan should be chosen for the dressing room wall. By purchasing these coins and engaging repeatedly with the platform, consumers can climb leaderboards to unlock VIP rewards like signed player jerseys, and gain access to exclusive promotions.

Unlike more traditional forms of fan participation—think annual memberships or even direct stock ownership—these virtual coins are designed to appeal to a new class of younger, digital-savvy fans who want to actively play a role with the teams they follow despite often living far from club grounds.

“Our target is not to monetize the traditional hard-core fan [but] to go after the 99.9% of fans that are not in the stadium,” CEO Alexandre Dreyfus told SportsPro this month. “Instead of owning a share of a company, you own a share of influence. Last week, for example, PSG asked their fans what cover of the FIFA 22 [football video game] they wanted to have for the PSG edition.“

Named for the Spanish term designating a club’s members, mints the tokens using its own blockchain called Chiliz. Two such coins it launched also began trading on the popular Binance exchange in December: $PSG, and the $JUV token issued by Italian soccer powerhouse Juventus FC, where Messi’s rival Cristiano Ronaldo plays.

Dreyfus has struck deals with other clubs, including FC Barcelona, which sought an innovative channel to interact with its fans as part of a new digital strategy. 

Barcelona, Messi’s former club, also promptly found itself inundated by demand in an initial 48-hour, first come, first served sale of fan tokens in June 2020, with Socios saying all 600,000 were sold for €2 a piece almost right after it started.

The platform’s vision is “to tokenize the sports and entertainment industry over the next five to seven years,” according to Dreyfus.

Scoring with tokens

It’s not just football, either. The National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils recently became the first U.S. sports franchise to partner with Dreyfus, while the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association inked a deal in July “looking for innovative ways to reach Celtics fans.”

It’s become a booming business for tech startups like Socios.

“We have many more teams that are ready to be announced in the very near future, and we keep on building every day,” Dreyfus said.

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