Reggie the Red Devil, Crawley Town FC mascot. Photo: Chris Ison/PA Images via Getty Images
The small town of Crawley in West Sussex is not synonymous with football like Manchester or Barcelona. 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 his footballing roots.
Full disclosure: I grew up there. My PE teacher, Mr Bagnall, even used to play for Crawley Town FC. But I’ve never been a fan – the only time I saw 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 it failed to acquire Bradford City – WAGMI stands for “We’re All Gonna Make It”, a popular slogan in crypto circles. They are a consortium of American businessmen and web3 investors with no previous football experience, including influencer Gary Vaynerchuk and Philadelphia 76ers President Daryl Morey.
WAGMI bought Crawley around the same time the NFT market was starting to plummet and crypto investors were turning to him real world assets for stability. “We tried to capitalize on all the hype of the NFT boom. These online communities formed and people got together and we thought what if we bought these people a professional sports team?” explains Preston Johnson, WAGMI co-owner and former ESPN gaming analyst, from his home in America. “There were many projects and companies that were built on hype and basically that was all it was. It was empty promises and hype.”
Johnson tells VICE that they wanted to give the crypto community something tangible “that people can gather and cheer on every Saturday.” They came with great promises; promise to Crawley to “the soccer team of the internet‘, give fans a meaningful voice, reinvent the broken way sports clubs are run and boldly lead League Two Crawley all the way to the Premier League.
“How?” you might ask. Have they spotted a weird trick the FA hates? Well no. As it turns out, running a football club is harder than you think. American crypto bros parachuting into a second tier club and taking them to the Premier League have done as well as you would expect. Nine months, four managers and half the season, and Crawley is sitting at the bottom of the table fighting relegation.
Two weeks after the takeover, manager John Yems was suspended for racial abuse, which seems to blame Johnson for all his current troubles. But what followed was a litany of unforced errors that paint a picture of cocky Americans biting off more than they can chew. Whether it be Sell their striker star to a relegation rival or accidentally transferred the listing of the entire squadLeague Two fans have been watching this saga and thanking their lucky stars that WAGMI didn’t buy for their club.
WAGMI’s big idea is to mint NFTs to democratize the club and make money. They say they sold 10,200 of those NFTs and raised around $5 million. Holders receive a customizable 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 opportunity to decide which position to sign next, opting for a midfielder.
Apparently this is the future of football. WAGMI firmly believes that blockchain technology will revolutionize the world and believes they are pioneers in this regard. “I think in five to 10 years, most industries will be the first to use NFTS over blockchain in some form or way, simply because it’s more efficient,” predicts Johnson.
Lecturers at the City, University of London, Dr. Andrea Baronchelli and Dr. Francesc Rodriguez Tous, warn that it may be possible to rely on NFTs to boost revenue jeopardize Crawley’s finances: “The danger […] there is no guarantee of long-term sustainability in raising funds, and if the project eventually collapses or slows down, they are left with little opportunity to raise funds.”
WAGMI is also reinventing the wheel when it comes to the democratization of football. League One Exeter City has a supporters trust which bought around 54 per cent of the club in 2003 and has a tie vote with the club’s board of directors (Jeremy Corbyn proposed a similar idea in the 2019 general election). In Germany, clubs must have 51 per cent of the club owned by fans, which was demanded by over 60 MPs in England last year. Backers may not be able to vote on which player will be signed next, but they have power over their club without having to buy NFTs.
WAGMI have become so focused on disrupting football that they have gradually alienated local fans with decisions including the elimination of favorites like goalkeeper Glenn Morris and the hiring of Arsenal’s Under-23 manager Kevin Betsy, who has played a league game in 12 games Scored victory before being sacked.
Other ideas were branded as disrespectful. Last October, the owners flew to Britain without a manager and struggling in the league ahead of two crucial cup games. Instead of seeing Crawley, WAGMI scouted the sidemen playing in a charity game the YouTubers organized. The YouTubers were then invited to train with the squad and if they did well, play in the upcoming FA Cup game. One of the sidemen, Simon Minter, later revealed that they were actually told they could attend the game if they wanted to, but declined because he knew how they would feel if their club did the same.
Preston explains that this was a publicity stunt to “replace us as unique and different and not traditional,” but fans were far from impressed. The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world and one in which Crawley has a proud history. “Well, let me tell you, it’s started. It was like they were completely oblivious to what was going on,” says Nathan, a lifelong fan in his 20s. He is speaking anonymously as he is concerned about being banned from games by WAGMI. “It’s disrespectful to the players. It ruins the integrity of the cup because then everyone can rock and play.”
From then on the situation worsened. In November, interim manager Lewis Young left the company after eight years of service after being told he would not be offered the job on a permanent basis. Their next manager then resigned ahead of a game against Stevenage after 34 days in office. At the end of December, fans were livid after being eliminated from the FA and League Cup, again without a manager and staring at relegation.
As if waving a red rag at a bull, Johnson flew to the Stevenage game and joined the coaching staff in the dugout to show his support. Fans had been asking to meet the owners for weeks, and here’s one sitting right in front of them.
Johnson says it’s a decision he doesn’t regret, but supporters are seething; the one time he got off the bench he was greeted with angry jeers of “Sit down, shut up.” Later the Guardian reported he had to ask an officer how substitutions work — something Preston denies. “He just looked like a total Wally,” Nathan recalls.
Though he says he understands fans’ frustration – 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 up a ‘WAGMI out’ sign. Like the darts championship, that’s hilarious. I find that so funny.”
Supporters of lower division teams are not in it for the glory that comes with being a Premier League fan. They are there because they love their local club. In the IDaniel Storey before wrote about his fear in his beloved Bradford City “could be used like a petri dish, a real version of football manager which you can exit without saving” by WAGMI. Unfortunately, his worst fears for Crawley fans have come true.
In 2021, actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney bought Wrexham FC, who currently sits below Crawley in the league. Nathan thinks WAGMI should learn a lesson. “The fans were very skeptical, but they sat down with them and convinced them.”
“There’s an unmusical arrogance … so many lies and empty promises,” he says. “If you’re going to try to fix any kind of relationship, you have to start now because it gets ugly very quickly. The WAGMI Out group is growing by the day.” Popular podcast Football Ramble were ahead with their advice. These crypto bros, their hosts said, should realize that “there is only one option, and that is to fuck off.”