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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The ‘Budget Ryan Reynolds’ Taking Bitcoin FC to the Big Leagues

A melt, a muppet, a fraud, a bungler, a Judas, a taker of bribes. A good boy, a lad, a maestro, a beauty. To the crowd at Real Bedford Football Club on a sun-bleached evening in August, the referee was all of these things within the span of half an hour. The Bedford fans, separated from the soccer field by a crooked metal railing and about a meter, held a running dialog with the players throughout the game: “Number 3! Number 3!” shouted Simon, one especially vocal supporter, “That was a fucking exquisite touch!” Number 3 returned a knowing grin and a thumbs up.

This is nonleague, semiprofessional English soccer: the ninth rung of the national ladder, where players are paid tens of pounds per week, not tens of thousands, and matches attract at best a few hundred spectators. The regulars know one another well—they live and mostly work nearby. The game was a replay of an earlier match against F.C. Clacton, from a coastal town 100 miles away, the winner of which would go on to the next round of the FA Cup, the oldest and most prestigious knock-out tournament in England. The previous encounter had ended in a large-scale brawl and a 2-2 tie.

Soccer at this level is rarely glamorous, but Real Bedford’s new owner and chair, Peter McCormack, has the grand ambition of taking the club to the Premier League, the top flight of English soccer. McCormack, who took over the club in April 2022, made his money first in advertising, then by investing in Bitcoin and producing Bitcoin-related content. He is a prominent member of the cryptocurrency community, courtesy of his podcast, What Bitcoin Did, and his plan is to parlay his standing in the crypto world into an international fanbase and lucrative sponsorship for Real Bedford.

This match, like all home games, is being streamed live on YouTube. The club has set up fan groups across the globe—from Ghana and Tanzania to China and Cambodia. The club badge and shirts bear the Bitcoin logo, in an attempt to turn it into something for all Bitcoiners to rally behind. And big-name sponsors have followed, like Gemini, the crypto exchange run by the Winklevoss twins.

Rags to riches stories are few and far between in English soccer, and the blending of crypto and sports has previously led to hostilities between clubs and their fans. But McCormack is confident that this time will be different, and he’s taking a decidedly hands-on approach to prove it.

McCormack had agreed to host me at the match, but it soon became clear he wouldn’t be able to complete our first interview. Three hours before kickoff, he was busy laying out merch, curating the changing room playlist, and shuttling boxes of gear from the trunk of his car. Later, I squeezed in a few questions while he was marshaling the car park, but the rest would have to wait. “I’m sorry. You ask someone else to do something, they won’t do it properly,” he said over his shoulder, as he jogged off to intercept another wayward driver.

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Bedford is a market town in the east of England, in the county of Bedfordshire, and has a population of about 200,000. Straddling the River Great Ouse, parts of the town are charming and leafy, like the villages in its orbit. But it’s in need of investment. Census data from 2021 suggests that almost half of households qualify as deprived by one metric or another.

McCormack grew up in Bedford and owns a bar in town. Before he started his Bitcoin podcast, he ran a marketing agency with an office in central London, and the crypto conference circuit now takes him all over the world. But Bedford is where he comes home to. Broad-shouldered and heavily tattooed, with a salt-and-pepper beard, McCormack cuts an imposing figure, though at the club it’s all hugs, handshakes, and fist-bumps.

He knows that it’s a cliché, but his boyhood dream was to buy his local club and move it up the ranks, giving locals access to a decent quality of soccer without having to travel miles. In 2021, he tried to buy Bedford Town F.C.—the oldest and largest of the local teams—but was rebuffed, so he turned to Bedford F.C., a smaller club that plays in an industrial area on the edge of the town.

It’s an unpretentious affair. The parking lot is ringed with wooden pallets and other detritus, and weeds poke through the gravel. The prefab clubhouse, where Real Bedford supporters gather at halftime, is fenced into an area in the corner of the complex, shared with a boxing gym and a workout studio. A path runs down to the edge of the soccer field, where it meets a solitary stand with enough seats for about 50 spectators.

Ahead of the 2022-23 season, McCormack carried out a full rebrand, the effect of which might best be described as “Bitcoin metal.” The club was renamed Real Bedford F.C., with the crest changed to a skull and crossbones and the nickname to the Pirates. The hallway where players line up to take the field was painted black and covered in menacing graffiti in ultraviolet paint—with phrases like “tears of blood” and “punishment parade.” Before games, Rage Against the Machine, McCormack’s favorite band, is piped into the changing rooms at deafening volume.

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The aim, according to McCormack, was to provoke a response: to get the media and crypto scene talking about a small club in a small town in England. “Bedford is a nothing town. There was no reason to visit Bedford, but now people have heard of it,” he says. “Our project has put Bedford on the map, in a small way.”

There is an urgent need for a rejuvenation of lower-league soccer, which does not benefit to any great degree from the lucrative TV licensing deals that have made English top-flight clubs some of the wealthiest in the world. The majority of clubs do not generate enough revenue from tickets and sponsorship to remain solvent without continuous financial support from their owners, sometimes losing millions of pounds per year. In the past 40 years, more than 70 lower league clubs have fallen into insolvency, and 13 have been shuttered.

The success of Wrexham A.F.C., a Welsh club playing in the English league that was purchased by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in 2021, has demonstrated the potential of unconventional marketing to revive a club. This season, Wrexham returned to league soccer (the fourth division and above) for the first time in 15 years. McCormack, he says, styles himself as Bedford’s “budget Ryan Reynolds.” But there is precedent for this kind of thing going wrong too.

In early 2022, a consortium of American investors with ties to the crypto industry acquired Crawley Town F.C., a club that plays in the fourth tier, also with the goal of taking it to the Premier League. It hasn’t gone well. Last season, the new owners dismissed three separate managers, sold the team’s main striker, and mistakenly made the entire team available for transfer. They also put in place a system whereby fans could purchase NFTs—a type of crypto token—that gave them the right to vote on which type of player the club should buy next. Previously a reliable mid-table finisher in its division, Crawley Town narrowly avoided relegation.

When McCormack first announced that he would take over the club, there was “a lot of skepticism,” says Tom Carr, sports editor at the Bedford Independent, a local newspaper. In particular, people were wary of McCormack’s ties to cryptocurrency, which they associated with either scams or new-fangled finances beyond their understanding.

In some cases, Bitcoin was just the “easy part to attack” for rival supporters of Bedford Town, says Carr, who faced a new threat to their club’s status as the biggest in the area. But others wondered what Real Bedford’s ties to Bitcoin meant for the soundness of its finances or those of the supporters who might be drawn into investing in crypto. Some locals worried instead that, in pursuit of an international audience, McCormack might neglect the need to nurture the club at a local level—by developing an academy for young players, for instance—to ensure that the project could remain robust in fallow periods.

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“People in football are not into failure—it’s a cutthroat business. He’s done a good job so far, but you’ve only got to have one bad season and the support dwindles,” says a fan who gave his name as Sean, and who has been following the club loosely for decades. “You can build a skyscraper, but if you’ve got a two-foot foundation, you’re in trouble.” Sean says that investing in the local piece “would give him the hold in the community that he hasn’t got at the moment.”

McCormack insists that he understands the need to keep the club rooted. Although it doesn’t have its own youth development setup, it has entered into partnerships with feeder teams nearby, including Bedford Ladies and Girls, a team that now plays in the Real Bedford livery. The plan is to establish a full-fledged academy. “The international piece is important: We knew the budget for infrastructure and playing staff would come from international sponsors,” says McCormack. But he adds, “I’m from Bedford. This means everything to me.”

In contrast to Crawley Town, says McCormack, there was no existing fanbase to alienate and no traditions on which to trample when he took over in Bedford. “There was one guy that would come to watch that wasn’t related to one of the players,” he says. “It’s not like I’m destroying something, I’m birthing something.”

At the height of crypto mania, in 2021, industry players began to pour millions of dollars into sports sponsorships: Exchanges Coinbase and Crypto.com, for example, signed multiyear deals with the National Basketball Association and Formula 1, respectively. The following year, the Super Bowl was described as “Crypto Bowl,” due to the number of crypto ads aired over halftime.

For some, it was a way of creating a veneer of maturity and trustworthiness. Before its collapse in November, crypto exchange FTX bought the naming rights to the home arena of basketball team Miami Heat and became a sponsor of Major League Baseball and the Mercedes Formula 1 team. It also hired famous athletes Tom Brady and Shaquille O’Neal to appear in TV advertisements. A cynic might look at Real Bedford as an extension of this trend, a stunt designed to help sanitize an industry now synonymous with fraud and grift.

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But McCormack says this is a mischaracterization and that he is careful to avoid imposing Bitcoin on supporters of Real Bedford. While the club accepts bitcoin as payment for tickets and concessions (I used it to buy a sausage roll), it’s not a requirement, and the majority of people pay in regular pounds. The club also has a notice on its website—entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Buy Bitcoin”—to warn people about the risks of investing in cryptocurrency. “I don’t want to be that annoying Bitcoin guy,” says McCormack. “We’re a Bitcoin club that doesn’t force it down anyone’s throat.”

McCormack says Real Bedford’s finances are also structured in large part as any other business’s might be. Although it keeps a bitcoin side-treasury, which McCormack believes will increase in value over time, it never converts the regular currency that accounts for the vast majority of its revenue into bitcoin. (The club, though, has abandoned an earlier pledge to issue a monthly financial transparency report, which McCormack says was manipulated by reporters as ammo for hit pieces.)

Moving up the leagues will cost a lot in player salaries, and will also require new infrastructure, including a stadium and other facilities. McCormack might need to raise funds to do that. But for the time being, his Bitcoin-centric marketing strategy appears to be working. He says the club has sold more than $100,000 worth of merchandise—far more than a team at this level might otherwise expect—and now runs at a profit, which has allowed it to pay the wages necessary to attract a better class of player. Tom Hitchcock, the club’s new forward, has featured for a number of sides far higher up the leagues, including second-tier Rotherham United.

On the pitch, it’s paying off. Real Bedford was promoted from its league in McCormack’s first season in charge, giving him some credit with soccer-going locals, most of whom take pleasure in the spectacle. “We might not get to the Premier League, but there’s an end goal—there’s a journey,” says Ian Tull, who now attends all the home games with his son and friends. “Everyone wants to go on a journey.”

McCormack spent the duration of the FA Cup replay watching nervously, a beer in hand, from the uppermost row and farthest corner of the stand.

Real Bedford play technical, passing soccer—a far cry from the punts up the field people expect from the lower leagues. A sequence of brisk exchanges in the center of the field is followed by a threaded pass through to the striker or a ball into the flanks, chased down by an overlapping full-back and delivered into the box. The team was in control and quickly took a two-goal lead. Although Clacton managed to pull a goal back with 20 minutes to go, Bedford rallied, striking two more into the net and putting the game out of reach.

As the game wound to a close, a new chant began in the Bedford end, directed at the now-silent away fans brooding over the prospect of a three-hour trip home: “No noise from the Clacton boys! No noise from the Clacton boys!”

In reply, a lone man raised his arm, brought four curled fingers to his thumb to form a loose fist, and shook his knuckles back and forth in a gesture known to all in English soccer. But the Bedford fans didn’t care, for their side was through to the next round.

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