A fundamental problem with Socios.com, the cryptocurrency-powered supporter engagement quiz trading app thing, is that Socios and the clubs that have signed up, our Leeds United among them, keep talking about its purposes in two different ways, often using the same words.

Take this example. Asked about the link-up on The Square Ball Podcast, Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear was very clear: “It is categorically not about monetising fan influence.”

But that very morning I, as a Socios customer, had received a marketing email from them titled ‘The Superfan Checklist’, the top item of which is ‘Influence the team you love.’ Even the sub-heading, before I even opened the email, was asking me, ‘Are you ready to influence your team?’

graphic of Meslier and Harrison with a price chart

Partly this is about language, but it’s an important cause of the stress around this app. The Socios announcement on Leeds United’s website didn’t help, with its headline reading, ‘Leeds To Boost Fan Engagement By Launching Fan Token On Socios’. Engagement and influence, to people like Leeds United Supporters’ Trust and Angus Kinnear, means involving fans in key decisions about the football club, like ticketing. Engagement and influence, to Socios, means getting fans to vote to decide what songs the players listen to before a game. There’s a third meaning, to do with the horrible internet language of ‘engaging with content’, something that particularly affects football fans who have been lulled into regarding their own tweets as ‘content’, rather than tweets, to be ‘engaged with’, rather than looked at. Right now you’re not engaging with content I created, you’re reading a blog post I have written, and it’s important for what slivers of esteem we hold for one another that we remember that. The spillover of language from Google Analytics to ordinary conversation has done nobody any good: fans don’t need to reduce themselves to the language of advertising metrics. Socios will do it for us. ‘Just one $LUFC Fan Token is enough to allow holders to access every engagement opportunity on Socios.com’, they say. Football fans just love accessing engagement opportunities! It’s sad because it’s true.

But there’s only so long Socios can carry on having one meaning for ‘influence’ and ‘engagement’ while its partner clubs are using the same words to mean something else entirely. Kinnear continued on the podcast, saying, “Socios has nothing to do with supporter influence,” but, well, that’s not what they’re telling me, the user. Angus always seems like a good dude and so I think he should be having words with these bitcoin bozos, because he’s copping the blame out here while Socios are blissfully sending out their emails contradicting him.

Anyway, about being a user. With so much heat around this app I decided the only way forward was to download the thing and find out for myself about what the heck. So after signing up and clicking a verification link, here I am in the future. Here we’ll find more contradictions, but first I’ll explain how it works.

The idea is to own a fan token for your favourite team. It’s like a share. With a token, you can do some stuff related to your favourite team. You only need one, and like a share, you keep it. It will go up and down in value as an item of cryptocurrency, but for the purposes of voting in a poll or doing a quiz, one token is one token.

The cryptocurrency value, and the monetary value, are not small points. Every token has its equivalence in euros written beneath it in the app. If you tap that, you get a graph of its value over various timescales. That value is affected by two forces, neither of which you control. One is the popularity of that token — if lots of people want a token for a particular team, its value will go up. The other is the value of Socios’ own Chiliz cryptocurrency, aka $CHZ, which is traded separately on crypto exchanges. So while your fan token’s value might go up when your team wins, $CHZ might drag its value down with overall cryptocurrency trends, or vice versa. A fan token’s value, then, is not driven by its worth as a fan token alone. Everything is built on top of $CHZ and its value in the wider crypto market.

“It’s not positioned as a cryptocurrency investment,” says Kinnear, but nevertheless you will be investing in cryptocurrency to use the app. There are four tabs across the top of the main screen: $CHZ, where you can buy the $CHZ needed to use the app; Market, which opens a ‘Trading’ screen, showing the value and fluctuations of all the fan tokens available. Then there is Vote — there are two votes about Sauber Racing at the moment, for people who own those tokens, and Predict, offering two prediction games, one for the European Championship (finished) and one for the South American Cup (also finished, and I guess they didn’t have the commercial rights to call it Copa America).

Two out of four tabs are about cryptocurrency, and the first instructions you’re given when you sign up are to ‘Top Up’ with $CHZ, then to use that to buy some fan tokens. To the $CHZ screen, then, where the default top-up amount, whenever you open it, is €25, which today gets you about 88 $CHZ. €25 seems like a high default to me, given that it is immediately subject to the fluctuations of cryptocurrency, and there’s a bit of effort involved in reducing that default value to a slightly more comfortable amount (the app is quite bad for tap-sensitivity, I often got a different screen to the one I thought I tapped on). I deposited €10, plus a 50c transaction charge, and was rewarded with jolly pop-ups congratulating me with hundreds of XP ‘gamification’ rewards, that we’ll come back to.

Costs, and the barrier to entry, are quite a big issue here, and again Socios are contradicting Kinnear’s view of how the app works.

“All season ticket holders and all members are going to receive a token for free,” he said on the podcast, and the announcement adds that an option will be available for a limited time to receive a free $LUFC token. “So they can have the ability to engage in a way which is at no cost to themselves. And the second thing is the price of the tokens is £2. So we’re not talking about large level cryptocurrency speculation here.”

The token will be £2 at launch, that’s true. But the entire point of the app is that, if the value of a token doesn’t go higher than £2, it isn’t working. $LUFC is supposed to become the must-have token among tokens, and the more people want to have it, the more it costs. If I’m a fan joining up a few months late, or a non-member wanting to get involved, the price of a token by then will very likely be more than £2. This actually presents savvy fans with an opportunity: grab your free token as soon as it is launched, then when the price goes up, cash out for a profit — free money! But this is not a cryptocurrency speculation app, so don’t do that (and I feel duty bound to remind you the value of these tokens can go down as well as up).

The two quid $LUFC token will soon be a memory. The top priced fan token on the app at time of writing is Paris Saint-Germain — Messi gonna Messi. One $PSG token is worth 151 $CHZ, which is €43. So to vote in a poll, like the most recent to choose the cover of FIFA 22’s PSG edition, I need to find a way of owning €43 (£36) worth of $CHZ, to exchange for one $PSG token. There are two ways: top up with a couple of quid, and through luck and skill but mostly I’d suggest luck, trade various fan tokens until I have 151 $CHZ. That feels a bit too much like cryptocurrency speculation, which this app is apparently not for, but the other option is putting in €43 in cash (plus fees). And whether I like it or not, that €43 will then be subject to the popularity of PSG and the whims of cryptocurrency exchanges. That fan token might not be worth €43 by the time I decide I’ve had enough and want to cash out — it might be worth more, sure, but this morning the app is telling me $PSG is actually down by 2.84%.

PSG have the top priced token, so let’s go down the charts looking for a fairer comparison: a Barcelona token costs €22, Manchester City is €20.49, Juventus is €12.83. Atletico Madrid is €17.95, Roma is €6.93.

With my €10 worth of $CHZ, I bought an $ASR Roma fan token. I guess I’m a Roma superfan now! I always liked their kits, and David Batty and Francesco Totti looked like brothers, so it’s fine. Leeds United, you had a good run in my affections. Forza Roma! In case there’s any doubt that transferring my allegiance in this way was a cryptocurrency transaction, I had to stump up a ‘Trading Margin Cover’ to account for fluctuations in the price while the trade went through. The transaction took a few seconds to go through and then the Trading Margin Cover was refunded.

Photos of young Francesco Totti and David Batty side by side, they're practically identical
Like brothers!

Roma are a decent example of what one token, or seven euros here, gets you. This is the stuff the app is supposed to be all about. With one token, I can play some games: Rate The Kits, through which I could win a replica shirt as a prize, and Guess The Score & Win, although that one expired in April — I could still play it, though, so I looked up the 1-1 draw with Ajax they wanted me to predict and typed it in. There’s a shirt up for grabs for that but I guess it’s been won. There are quite a few games that don’t need a token, like ‘José Mourinho against Socios clubs’. The polls need a token, and the most recent poll expired in June, when I could have voted for the design of Roma’s team bus, and there was a curious one in May: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana was recently voted by Fan Token holders as the new AS Roma goal song. Would you like to confirm it or change it?’ So much for a binding referendum, I guess. The first goal song poll was only a week before, but the new option was Maneskin’s Eurovision winner (it lost). Then back in December I could have helped to choose a gift for Edin Dzeko, and that is the last eight months of polling in total: a present for Dzeko, goal music, goal music again, team bus. The most recent item in the Roma news section is a two minute video of Head Coach Paulo Fonseca answering questions submitted through the app, but that was in July 2020, and he’s long gone. Working backwards, also in July 2020, thirty fans had videos of themselves put on the Stadio Olimpico digital hoardings; in February 2020, there was a poll to name a training pitch after a club legend; and in November there was a video of a Roma superfan competition winner having a day out at a game. That seems to be your lot. I’ll come back to the lack of anything to actually do on this app in a moment.

The other thing my token gets me from Roma is a 5% cashback ‘benefit’ on merch. That doesn’t sound like a bad deal for seven euros. A standard home shirt is €90, so €4.50 cashback on that would be decent. It’s not quite that simple, though. You can’t read the details of the offer until you have enough tokens to access it. As a confirmed Roma superfan, I have one, so I can have a look: turns out it’s a one-time offer, and it’s only applied to the first €50 I spend, so cashback is to a maximum of €2.50. I have to take a photo of the receipt and upload it to the app, and then: ‘Once authenticated, Socios account holders who are KYC level 3 verified or higher will receive the 5% cashback in their Socios.com wallet via $CHZ airdrop! Ready to continue?’

But there are other offers being shown here. I could get 10% cashback, if I only had 100 $ASR tokens. Or even better, 20% cashback, if I owned 250 tokens — that’s the first ‘Benefit’ you’re shown, before scrolling sideways to the 10% and 5% offers. But 250 tokens… that’s the equivalent of €1,732.50. Which seems like a lot of money to have wrapped up in a fun fan engagement app. Most clubs offer this same ‘benefit’, but at Paris Saint-Germain, 250 $PSG tokens are worth €38,220 this morning. And I can’t read the terms and conditions to learn the maximum cashback amount until after I have the 100/250 tokens needed for the ‘Benefit’.

If this app is just about a fun token and a few quizzes, how come on nearly every club page I’m looking at a ‘Benefit’ that will cost me the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of pounds to access, and earn me perhaps, if it turns out to be capped at 20% of €50, ten bucks? I know, I know, I don’t have to access it. Maybe I could stop being so greedy and be happy with my one token and my €2.50 one-time cashback. But I’ve downloaded the app now, haven’t I? And I assume the 20% for 250 tokens is front and centre for a reason — they must expect someone to be taking it up. Maybe I can trade my fan tokens back and forth in different clubs to get up to that level (trading tokens is point four on ‘The Superfan Checklist’ they emailed to me), assuming the values of my trades don’t go down.

There is another way of acquiring tokens. The tabs at the bottom of the screen are Home, Wallet (your balance), Hunt, Feed (Socios news), Rewards. Rewards give you something called XP gamification points for completing various tasks. For example, the ‘Trade’ section will reward you for completing ‘Sell Sell Sell! — Take the plunge — sell your fan tokens for the first time and let the trading begin!’ or ‘Shut Up & Take My Money! — Fill up your empty wallet with some $CHZ and start your game’ (roughly translated that means putting some euros in). XP tokens can give you a place on a leaderboard, yet to be launched, where you can win VIP tickets and other prizes. More immediately useful are $SSU tokens, 100 of which will give you access to the ‘All Sports Discussion’ and ‘All Trading Discussion’ chatrooms — I guess a crypto trading chatroom could be useful on this app? — or enable you to grab fan tokens for new clubs before they’re launched. You get these by playing a pretty miserable form of Pokemon Go — that’s the ‘Hunt’ tab. Every day you can grab some $SSU tokens from nearby, or sometimes (I haven’t seen one) a $CHZ token. If you turn off the augmented reality you just tap a couple of $SSU tokens on a map and they’re added to your wallet, where you can see them alongside your balance in euros and $CHZ.

These games bring me back to the content. There isn’t much of it, and I suspect part of the reason execs like Angus Kinnear are bemused by the reaction to this app is that, deep down, they’re not very fussed about the content. The clubs are being paid by Socios upfront, so the content is for Socios to worry about, as they monetise to make that money back. Every club is running the same sort of polls — design the bus, choose the goal music, tell the goalkeeper what colour gloves to wear in training — and based on last season’s content, they’re usually months apart, so for a long time you won’t be interacting or influencing your favourite team on this app at all. Some clubs are a little more involved, letting you pick some questions to ask a player or manager at a press conference, but again, this content is consistent across clubs and there’s nothing innovative here or, significantly, that looks club-led, unique to one team rather than another. There are a couple of weeks until most European seasons start but none of the clubs on the app have anything for me, their devoted superfan, to do. It feels to me like, up to now, the discussions with Socios around offers and ‘influence’ have been ending with most clubs saying, well, what are the other clubs doing? Okay, let’s do the bus thing. Then in a couple of months the goal music thing. Socios are coming up with content ideas and clubs are going, okay, pre-match playlist, whatever. Maybe that will change. Some of Socios’ more vocal users on social media reckon fans will be picking the team through this app one day.

Who these ‘engagement’ ideas will appeal to in the meantime is another thing. You can quite quickly get called grandad for not jumping on board with the exciting future of blockchain powered fan engagement and innovative content. Okay, fine. I’m old. Let’s assume that Milan’s poll a couple of weeks ago, asking fans to vote for a player ‘To dare to show us the inside of their personal shower bag’, is aimed at much younger fans than me. The Pokemon Go token-hunting game sure is, and the language of the rewards games mentioned above has a young voice: or, for another example, ‘Pick your 2 favourite teams and make sure you purchase their tokens’ to get 150 XP. Does anyone over the age of fourteen have two favourite teams, or want to know what’s inside Daniel Maldini’s shower bag, or want to play a token hunt game? Fair enough if that’s what today’s teens are into. But should anyone under the age of eighteen be topping up this app with the euros they need to buy tokens for both their two favourite teams, maybe not understanding that they’re actually investing in cryptocurrency that could fluctuate wildly in value before their parents even check their credit card bill? There is a warning about using another person’s card, and of course, kids famously heed those warnings. But the app is also set by default to save credit card details for a faster top up next time.

After exploring the app over a few days I think this thing is, as it stands, a mess. It’s not supposed to be a cryptocurrency trading app, but you have to trade cryptocurrency to use it. You’ll even get rewards for doing that. A token is two quid, until it’s eight quid, or thirty quid. It’s an app for fun quizzes and votes, that keeps telling you to top up with €25. It isn’t selling influence, but it sells itself as influential. Blockchain technology will be a ‘competitive advantage’ for clubs in the future, but none of the clubs can be bothered making anything for the app now. It’s Pokemon Go, y’know, like for kids, but you’re hunting cryptocurrency assets which are, y’know, for fiscally responsible adults.

As always with a mess, you wonder why it was made. If this didn’t exist, I doubt you’d need to invent it. Using the app, there’s very little content to engage with, but a lot of cryptocurrency — every page shows you a token value, a euro value, and a green or red percentage increase or decrease, then a bunch of samey-looking polls that closed weeks or months ago. The $CHZ top up button and Market trading button are never far away from showing you which tokens are up and which are down, and don’t forget, it’s a ‘Superfan’ move to trade your tokens for another club’s. There was some attention over the weekend on how Milan and Real Madrid swapped fan tokens before their friendly, part of Milan’s Socios-sponsored summer tour, but when it comes down to it, that was all about old fashioned sponsorship. Anyone can sponsor a friendly, and in return, decide what’s on the pennants or whatever that the players exchange. Much of Socios’ innovative, disruptive activity boils down to stuff like that. They’ve basically paid for sponsorship rights to a friendly match pennant, or a team bus, then they’ve run a competition to pick a design. In essence that’s nothing any other sponsor hasn’t done before. Why, then, does it need to have cryptocurrency and blockchain tacked onto it? Who gains from Frankensteining trading in $CHZ onto deciding the look of a team bus Socios are paying to sponsor?

Some investors in $CHZ, probably. From the past twelve months, to today, the value of $CHZ has risen by more than 2,000%. Cool for you if you happened to own a bunch of $CHZ before the app took off. Let’s imagine a theoretical person out there a year ago with £100,000 invested in $CHZ — that’s worth £2m now! If that person invested their £100,000 at the lowest point in the last twelve months, and sold it after that low point when $CHZ reached an all-time high in March, after that 9,954% increase they’d have been walking away with more than £10m. Although $CHZ is about 60% down from that all-time high, it’s up by 28% over the last month, 22% over the last week. Somebody could be making a lot of money off this $CHZ thing, but it isn’t Leeds United and it sure ain’t me (my Roma token has gone down).

What drives the price of cryptocurrency up and down in general is still as much mystery as science, but one key factor is mainstream acceptance — the theory goes that as cryptocurrency gets better known, and the more it is used in day to day life, the greater the demand will be, and the higher the price. That’s why, when Elon Musk tweets that Tesla will use Bitcoin, Bitcoin’s price goes up, and when he tweets that they won’t, Bitcoin’s price goes down. So as more clubs come on-stream with Socios — West Ham appear to have faded from the scene, but Arsenal, Inter, the Portugal national team, Valencia, Leeds United and others are listed in-app ready to launch — with all their season ticket holders and members acquiring free fan tokens linked to $CHZ, and others following them wanting to buy fan tokens and play games and vote in polls, more football fans will, knowingly or not, be owning $CHZ cryptocurrency. The first thing the app tells you to do, after signing up, is deposit €25 to buy $CHZ, so you can buy fan tokens. Cryptocurrency might well be the future, but right now it’s confusing, and if you asked most people if they wanted to sign up to a cryptocurrency exchange and start trading today, they’d give it a cautious swerve. But signing up to this app is like signing up to an exchange that only sells one cryptocurrency. And that feels to me like the point of it all. Most clubs will prefer to keep their best content on their own channels, and to keep the peace, they will have to keep the fan votes on Socios fairly meaningless. The meaning for Socios is all in $CHZ.

Some of Angus Kinnear’s comments on the TSB podcast were replying to objections about ‘monetising fan engagement’. He said, “Professional football clubs are fundamentally about monetising fan engagement, whether that’s selling tickets or broadcast rights or, you know, when we want supporters to engage in the brand, often there’s a financial transaction.” That’s all true and I’ve no complaints there. Behind the modern language, those are some of the fundamentals of a football club. Fans buy stuff like tickets or shirts from the club for money, then the money is spent on players we can enjoy watching, hopefully winning. That’s been the deal for decades and I’m fine with that. The club is a lot better at upholding its end of that bargain now than it was under former owners. The question, though, is about why Socios need to be involved in this. They’re paying to be, which is to the club’s benefit financially, but is that enough?

One of the examples Kinnear gave for how Leeds United might use the app is for naming the third and fourth training pitches at Thorp Arch. Fans could vote to name them after former players, like Roma fans did last year. But speaking from one fans’ point of view, after using the Socios app, I can not see how this process will be helped, or made easier, or made more fun, or more engaging, or produce a better decision, by first requiring me to put money into an app to buy cryptocurrency to buy a fan token to vote. I think Socios will do quite well out of that process, as will cryptocurrency speculators if the price of $CHZ goes up. But when I engage with my football club, whether that’s input into ticketing, voting to name a pitch, or writing a critical blog post about a third-party cryptocurrency fan engagement app, I want to be helping my football club. I feel like anything I do with this Socios app will be in the service of Socios, not Leeds United, and certainly not me, and I think that welding youth-orientated fan votes to cryptocurrency trading in one phone app comes with too many potential pitfalls. There might well be a blockchain enabled future for football and football fans, and in other parts of society. Surely this isn’t it. ◉

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