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Crypto Bros Bought an English Football Team. It Isn’t Going Well.

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Reggie the Red Devil, Crawley Town FC mascot.

Reggie the Red Devil, Crawley Town FC mascot. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Images via Getty Images

The small town of Crawley in West Sussex isn’t synonymous with football in the same way Manchester or Barcelona are. It was the childhood home of England manager Gareth Southgate who played alongside 2005 X Factor winner Chico at school, but beyond that Crawley isn’t known worldwide for its footballing pedigree.

Full disclosure: I grew up there. My PE teacher, Mr Bagnall, even used to play for Crawley Town FC. But I was never a fan – the only time I watched them play, they conceded four goals in 22 minutes. 

In April 2022, Crawley Town caught my eye again when they were bought by WAGMI United after failing to acquire Bradford City – WAGMI stands for “We’re All Gonna Make It”, a popular slogan in crypto circles. They’re a consortium of American businesspeople and web3 investors with no prior experience in football, including influencer Gary Vaynerchuk and Daryl Morey the president of the Philadelphia 76ers.

WAGMI purchased Crawley around the same time the NFT market began plummeting and crypto investors turned to real-world assets for stability. “We were trying to use all the hype from the NFT boom. These online communities were forming and people were gathering and we’re like, what if we bought these people a professional sports team?” explains Preston Johnson, WAGMI co-owner and former ESPN gambling analyst, from his home in America. “There were a lot of projects and companies that were coming out built on hype and essentially, that’s all it was. It was empty promises and hype.” 

Johnson tells VICE they wanted to give the crypto community something tangible “that people can gather around every Saturday and root for”. They arrived with big promises; pledging to make Crawley the “internet’s football team”, give fans a meaningful voice, reinvent the broken way sports clubs are managed, and boldly, take League Two Crawley all the way to the Premier League.

“How?” you might ask. Have they discovered one weird trick the FA hate? Well, no. As it turns out, running a football club is harder than they thought. American crypto bros parachuting into a League Two club and taking them to the Premier League has gone as well as you would expect. Nine months, four managers and half the season in and Crawley sit near the bottom of the table, battling relegation.

Crawley Town owner and WAGMI United founder Preston Johnson (left), watching a match

Crawley Town owner and WAGMI United founder Preston Johnson (left), watching a match. Photo: Simon Dack / Telephoto Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Two weeks after the takeover, manager John Yems was suspended for racial abuse, which Johnson seems to blame all his current woes on. But this was followed by a litany of unforced errors that paint a picture of overconfident Americans biting off more than they can chew. Whether it be selling their star striker to a relegation rival or accidentally transfer listing the whole squad, League Two fans have been watching this saga unfold, thanking their lucky stars WAGMI didn’t buy their club.

WAGMI’s big idea is minting NFTs to democratise the club to bring in money. They say they’ve sold 10,200 of these NFTs, raising around $5m. Holders receive a customisable image of the red devil mascot, an exclusive all-black kit and voting rights alongside season ticket holders. In their first and only vote, fans were given the chance to decide which position they should sign next and opted for a midfielder.

This apparently, is the future of football. WAGMI are adamant blockchain technology will revolutionise the world and believe they’re pioneers in this respect. “I think in five to ten years most industries will be using NFTS via blockchain first in some form or fashion,  just because it’s more efficient,” predicts Johnson.

Lecturers at City, University of London Dr Andrea Baronchelli and Dr Francesc Rodriguez Tous warn that relying on NFTs to boost revenue could put Crawley’s finances at risk: “The danger […] is there’s no guarantee of long-run sustainability in raising funds, and if the project does eventually collapse or slow down they would have little else in the way of raising capital.”

WAGMI are reinventing the wheel when it comes to democratising football, too. League One Exeter City have a supporters’ trust which bought around 54 percent percent of the club in 2003 and have voting parity with the club’s Board of Directors (Jeremy Corbyn proposed a similar idea in the 2019 general election). In Germany, clubs are required to have 51 percent of the club owned by fans, something over 60 MPs called for in England last year. Supporters may not be able to vote on which player to sign next, but they do have power over their club without needing to buy NFTs.

WAGMI have been so focused on disrupting football, they’ve gradually alienated local fans with decisions, including sidelining favorites like goalkeeper Glenn Morris and hiring Arsenal Under-23s manager Kevin Betsy, who managed one win in 12 league games before getting sacked. 

Other ideas have been branded disrespectful. Last October, ahead of two important cup games, manager-less and struggling in the league, the owners flew into the UK. Instead of going to watch Crawley, WAGMI scouted the Sidemen playing in a charity match the YouTubers had organised. The YouTubers were then invited to train with the squad and if they did well, play in the upcoming FA Cup match. One of the Sidemen, Simon Minter, later revealed they were actually told they could play in the game if they wanted but declined, knowing how they would feel if their club did the same.

Preston explains this was a publicity stunt to “supplant ourselves as unique and different and non-traditional”, but fans were less than impressed. The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world and one in which Crawley has a proud history in. “Well, let me tell you, it kicked off. It was like they were totally blind to what was going on,” says Nathan, a lifelong fan in his twenties. He is speaking anonymously as he is worried about being banned from matches by WAGMI. “It’s disrespectful to the players. It ruins the integrity of the Cup because then anyone can rock up and play.”

From then the situation spiraled. In November, interim manager Lewis Young left after eight years of service when he was told wouldn’t be offered the job permanently. Their next manager then resigned before a game against Stevenage after 34 days in charge. Having been knocked out of the FA and League Cups, managerless again and staring at relegation, by the end of December fans were angry.

As if waving a red rag to a bull, Johnson flew in for the Stevenage game and joined coaching staff in the dugout to show his support. Fans had been asking for meetings with the owners for weeks and here was one sitting right in front of them.

Johnson says this is one decision he doesn’t regret but supporters were seething; the one time he stepped off the bench he was greeted with angry jeers of “Sit down, shut up”. Later the Guardian reported he had to ask an official how substitutions work – something Preston denies. “He just looked like an absolute wally,” recalls Nathan.

Despite saying he understands fans’ frustrations – some WAGMI owners have received death threats – Johnson sees a funny side to it. “The day after the Stevenage game the World Darts Championship was on TV and someone was caught holding a ‘WAGMI out’ sign. Like at the Darts Championship, that’s hilarious. I think that’s so funny.”

Supporters of lower league teams aren’t in it for the glory that comes with being a Premier League fan. They’re there because they love their local club. In the i, Daniel Storey previously wrote of his apprehension at his beloved Bradford City might be “used like a petri dish, a real-life version of Football Manager that you can quit without saving” by WAGMI. Unfortunately, his worst fears have come true for Crawley fans.

In 2021 actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney purchased Wrexham FC, who currently sit in the league below Crawley. Nathan thinks WAGMI should take a leaf out of their book. “The fans were very sceptical but they sat down with them and won them over.”

“There’s a tone-deaf arrogance … so many lies and empty promises,” he says. “If you’re gonna try and repair any sort of relationship you need to start doing it now because it’s getting ugly very quickly. The WAGMI Out group is growing by the day.” Popular podcast Football Ramble were more forward with their advice. These crypto bros, its hosts said, should realise “there is just one option, and that is to fuck off”.

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