Lionel Messi's transfer to Paris St Germain (PSG) from Barcelona included a payment in crypto fan tokens – a move that bolsters the position of digital currency in sport.
Reuters first reported that the Argentinian footballer's two-year contract would include tokens in his "welcome package".
It is not public what the value of the deal is, or what percentage of the deal is made up of tokens, but the club said he received a "large number".
The tokens, which can be traded on exchanges, are being provided by Socios.com, a platform that has set a number of other clubs up with crypto assets over the last year.
The use and popularity of fan tokens has skyrocketed in that time. The overall value of the fan token market is now $516.6m (£372.98m), according to data. At the same point in 2020, it was worth $56.4m.
Like the rest of the crypto world, the value of tokens is volatile. The total value of the market more than halved in June before climbing back up in recent weeks.
PSG said there had been a high volume of trading of its fan tokens after reports of Messi's move to the club emerged.
PSG's token soared over 130% in just five days amid speculation over Messi's arrival, to an all-time high of over $60 on Tuesday. They were last down 10% at about $40, according to the CoinMarketCap website.
What does it mean for fans?
Alexandre Dreyfus, CEO of Mediarex Sports & Entertainment and Socios.com, says that 99.9% of sports fans aren't in the stadium when matches are being played, so tokens are a way of bringing them closer to the club, giving them a stake in minor decisions, without changing overall corporate structures.
Tokens act as a kind of membership: "Owning the token means you're part of the club," says Dreyfus.
They opt you in to decision-making processes that you can vote on, such as what music is played in the stadium when your team scores a goal. Juventus were the first of six clubs that came to market with Socios.com coin. Fan Token Offerings have also been launched by Atlético de Madrid, West Ham United, Galatasaray and AS Roma.
For fans, the fact that footballers like Messi are being paid in these tokens essentially reinforces their value.
The idea of fan tokens in general hasn't come without resistance. Fans and officials have revolted at the idea of a digital fan currency in the past.
Sue Watson, chair of West Ham United Independent Supporters Association, previously questioned why fans should have to pay to have any sort of say in the club, on top of mounting season ticket costs. Some regard this as a kind of gentrification of the game.
There was also discontent at Aston Villa when the club said it was launching its own fan token.
What does it mean for football?
Over the course of the pandemic, the way football clubs make money has been brought into sharp focus, with near total shutdowns in sport and games played in empty stadiums throughout the pandemic.
The combined revenue of European clubs declined by £3.4bn to £22bn, according to the Deloitte Annual Review of Finance.
Deloitte has previously reported that Premier League revenues fell by 13% from a record £5.2bn in 2018-19 to £4.5bn in 2019-20, the first drop in total revenue in Premier League history, putting clubs on course for heavy losses.
"As sports revenues are challenged, clubs are being left asking: What can you create that would be a revenue stream?" says Dreyfus.
Fan tokens have become a lucrative way to plug the holes left by the decline of broadcast partnerships and ticket sales.
"Every club is trying to onboard a crypto partner of some description at the moment," said Sunny Singh of Van Hawke, an agency that assists brands with sponsorship and partnerships.
"By gifting tokens to a player, that player is effectively endorsing that club, which then endorses that token, which in effect raises the value of the token due to their particular audience."
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The fact that footballers are seen as influencers, with an active fan base and audience, means they can dictate what fans assign value to, says Singh.
"I think the digitalisation, or tokenisation, of club assets will only continue as it becomes more mainstream."
Singh thinks that the inclusion of crypto or fan tokens in future contracts will become more and more common, and may lead to footballers and their agents requesting them to be part of remuneration packages.
However, the question is whether it is a passing craze or a viable wealth generation tool for clubs, he said.
Socios.com is set to launch another fan token for Arsenal on Wednesday, and has seven NBA team tokens in the pipeline for the coming weeks.
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