Whether it’s basketball, baseball, hockey, racing, tennis or football (both soccer and American Football), sport is grounded in competition. Nothing is more exhilarating than seeing your team or player beat the opposition – and sometimes the odds – to victory. That competitive spirit is consistent, and has been since the dawn of humankind, but almost everything else about sport changes constantly.
Innovation can take many forms. Equipment improves through research and development. Officiation technology, like VAR, can override human error. Even the rules of the game can change, like football’s pass-back rule introduced in 1992. And, because sport means so much for so many, every and any change can be fuel for debate, even anger. Change for change’s sake is not automatically good for all since traditions are also an important part of many sports. But similarly, innovation is vital to keep sports relevant and engaging to current and future audiences. The successful change comes when the sport both stays true to its core ethos and simultaneously moves with the times. Keeping the two in lock-step is the key.
So when it comes to the experience of being a fan, the obvious reality that all sports are embracing and confronting is the rise of the internet, social media, smart phones – all have made the world a different place and sport is evolving to use all these new opportunities to enrich the fan experience in so many different ways.
As part of this, there’s a new innovation for fans, and while it’s not as fundamental a change as the back-pass rule or VAR, the aim is the same – to bring exciting innovation to sport which aims to improve the fan experience. Fan Tokens, introduced by Socios in 2018, aim to engage fans with the team and sport that they love in a new way. Through Fan Tokens, Socios has created a new form of digital membership for fans, giving them access to opportunities related to their teams they’ve never previously had. Not only are holders able to influence some club decisions, like naming a new training pitch, choosing the cover of the matchday programme or what songs to play at the ground, they also have the chance to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like VIP matchday tickets or meeting players.
We understand that Fan Tokens represent something new and different. We are also acutely aware of bad actors in this space who are creating copycat products. For these reasons, and as the market leader, we believe it is our responsibility to exercise vigilance and set standards for others to follow, because we believe Fan Tokens can bring something new to sport which will improve fan experience the world over.
Until now, regulation of the blockchain and cryptoasset industries has been slow. Regulators around the world are now acting but, at present, the sector is still largely unregulated. We want to change that, but it takes time – regulators and policy-makers are playing catch-up to an industry that moves with unprecedented speed.
Fan Tokens and the technology behind them represent unchartered territory. When we launched in 2019, there were no rules to govern consumer-facing blockchain platforms, or indeed, how digital assets could be promoted to fans. However, since launch, we have acted as if Fan Tokens were a regulated product, operating within strict, self-imposed parameters to ensure we offer the highest levels of consumer protection. As new rules have come into force, we have learned and adapted, and we will continue to do so. We recognise we will not get everything right first time round but our commitment to high standards and continual improvement is steadfast. This week, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) gave guidance on how Fan Tokens can be advertised in Great Britain, and included direction on better education and the addition of consumer protection disclaimers. We listened, we began a dialogue with the ASA and we have taken steps to work with our UK partners to improve how we collectively communicate with fans in the future.
Similarly, we were pleased to hear that the Premier League is looking to investigate partnerships between blockchain and cryptoasset companies and member clubs (see November’s The Times). Because, as with any change to the beautiful game, it’s vital that the fan is at the heart, providing a basis for protecting fans and enabling Premier League clubs to form responsible partnerships. Again, we know what we’re doing is new, and how important it is to work with the Premier League – like we do with La Liga – to make Socios the best that it can be.
While we await publication of the ASA’s first official guidance on cryptoassets (expected in the new year) and the outcome of the Premier League’s investigation, we’re working hard to ensure that Socios meets the highest standards. We will continue to engage constructively with regulators and policymakers, in the UK and around the world, to explore ways to further improve understanding and protection for fans. In the meantime, we will continue to work with our partner clubs to offer fans exciting polls and once-in-a-lifetime prizes, including the opportunity for fans to play on their favourite pitch, choose their stadium’s branding option, a private tour with their team hero and so much more. All new opportunities and experiences for fans but, simultaneously, not disrupting the core ethos of the sport which makes it so successful.