Digital fan token creator Socios received minimal pushback when it was announced in June as the primary sponsor of Valencia’s La Liga kit for the upcoming season, so CEO Alexandre Dreyfus believed the unveiling of a similar agreement with Inter would run just as smoothly.
Dreyfus was surprised, then, as social media lit up last week with critical comments about the look of the Socios branding on the Italian club’s jersey.
Inter had been sponsored by Pirelli for 26 years, and tradition in football is difficult to change without outcry.
There had been few traditions quite like the Nerazzurri’s iconic striped shirts decorated by the name of a tyre producer. Suddenly, a web-based platform previously unknown by many of their supporters had taken the cherished mantle.
“The week was crazy because I didn’t expect it to get so much feedback or interest,” Dreyfus told Goal. “I think if we had taken any other jersey, it would have been, ‘That’s great, next story, buddy.’ But because there was this 26 years with Pirelli, it was completely different.”
Therein lies a key challenge for Socios, which is aiming to become an integral part of the football fan experience in the coming years.
It offers ownership of a virtual currency tied to specific partner teams from Inter to Barcelona that can be cashed in for real-life perks like discounted merchandise and the ability to participate in ancillary club decisions such as in-stadium music. Plus, the tokens can be traded, sometimes for profit, with other users.
But the brand, which reports it generated $150 million (£108m) in revenues for sports teams in the first semester of 2021, needs to let the public know about its services without developing a reputation as a landmine for the often beloved status quo.
The mission, after all, is to deepen the fan experience, not replace what was already there.
Owned by financial technology firm Chiliz, Socios is already becoming an omnipresent force (if you haven’t heard of them yet, you will almost certainly see their branding in some capacity while watching a match this year).
Buoyed by a larger trend of successful digital collectibles and coins linked to real-life sports organisations, it has partnered with more than 40 teams – and the 50/50 revenue split shared with clubs for each fan token sold has made it an attractive partner as it looks to add more teams to its stable.
So, there’s no doubt in Dreyfus’ mind that it’s grow-time, even if there may be associated pains and learning experiences at the start of the public push.
“As a company we're going to start to do marketing, because until the last month or two, only the teams promoted our stuff for us,” Dreyfus said. “We never did like TV advertising or anything.
"But now that we have 40-plus IPs for brands, it does make some sense for us to spend some marketing dollars to say, ‘Hey, go to our site, we have [all of these teams].’ Whereas two years ago, there were only like two teams.
“It makes sense more now that our product is better. And that’s our goal in the next few months, to really promote the product using all the teams we have.”
Brick-and-mortar offices and staff count have needed to expand as a result of the push, and new regional headquarters have been opened in Madrid, Istanbul, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.
Moving forward, the company will also have a "major focus" on the Premier League in particular, meaning England will be another location of significance. Last month, Arsenal was announced as a partner, joining Manchester City in the Socios ranks.
“We are committed to finding new and innovative ways for all our supporters – whether local or international – to get closer to the club," said Arsenal commercial director Peter Silverstone.
As for making sure future jerseys meet the full expectations of tradition-obsessed supporters?
There’s a chance that one day, owners of fan tokens would be able to vote on the way the Socios sponsor insignia looks on the kit – or even approve other design choices.
However, that would require long-term planning and close collaboration between the company and official shirt designers such as Nike, Adidas and Pumas.
“For that, you need at least two years in advance,” Dreyfus said. “So, it’s possible, but it will be a long journey.”