Blackpool Football Club, its fans and community have been treated horrendously over the last few years. The owners, the Oyston family, have run the club into the ground, abusing and taking legal action against fans in the process, while both the football authorities and Blackpool’s town councillors sat by and watched.
Last year there was light at the end of the tunnel when Justice Marcus Smith ruled that the Oystons had “illegitimately stripped” the club “in a manner which involved “fundamental breaches” of their duties as directors”. The ruling came after a legal case bought by Valeri Belokon, a major investor at the club. To compensate Belokon the Oystons need to raise money so have put the club up for sale.
Seven patient months later a company called vSport are reported to have bid for Blackpool FC and are quoted saying that they expect to complete the purchase by the end of the month.
vSport say that they are the “world’s first non-profit, open-source and blockchain empowered platform which is completely dedicated to the Sports Industry”.
Sounds impressively futuristic but what on earth does that mean? And should fans and journalists be welcoming the news, or undertaking a bit more scrutiny?
What on earth is blockchain?
I was part of a team that looked at blockchain two years ago. Our first assessment was that it was useful, but not for everything. We then wrote a longer report, which looked at the promises and risks. Our simplest definition was:
Blockchains provide a way to store information so that many people can see it, keep a copy of it, and add to it. Once added, it is very difficult to remove information. This can reinforce trust in a blockchain’s content.
This type of data storage can support lots of new business and organisational models. Bitcoin is the most famous new model associated with blockchain, indeed blockchain was invented as part of the development of Bitcoin.
Bitcoin was originally intended as a way for people to send payments to each other without an intermediary, unfortunately Bitcoin is currently most famous for being notoriously hard to spend and use, generating a few (Bitcoin) billionaires, losing some people a lot of money, and using as much energy as Ireland or Denmark. Bitcoin doesn’t seem a great thing.
There are many many other proposed uses of blockchain. I won’t list them all. They seem to exist in every sector.
I still haven’t seen one working at scale. And I do spend time looking, Because while I still think there may be some good in blockchain (making it really hard to change data, and making it easier for more people to see when it is changed, must be useful for something! perhaps our project on national archives will help find it?) there is also a lot of hype.
It is good to see that the hype is gradually being seen by more people. We need to get past it to see where, or if, blockchain can be used for positive purposes. Where there is hype there is danger. Not just of lost money — some people will always lose some money while experimenting with new technology — but of more unintended harmful impacts, such as Bitcoin’s impact on the environment, or a direct and immediate impact on individuals.
As societies we need to experiment with new technology to see where it could be useful, but we need be wary of harmful impacts and who could be affected. In the age of a global internet and world wide web, harm can happen at great scale and speed.
What on earth is vSport?
vSport say that they are “world’s first non-profit, open-source and blockchain empowered platform which is completely dedicated to the Sports Industry”. It was founded by Bai Qiang and, Dutch ex-footballer, Wesley Sneijder. vSport is based in China.
The two previously founded a company called Sport8. The English-language version of Sport8’s website has not been updated since 2015 although the Chinese-language version seems to have been more recently updated.
There are reports that Sport8 signed a deal with Borussia Dortmund in 2016, although the Borussia Dortmund website has no mention of it. Bai Qiang previously produced a 3D music video in 2012 and worked as a Vice-President at large speech recognition firm iFlytek.
vSport, like many other companies, has raised some initial funds from investors, put out some blogposts and a whitepaper and is trying to show its potential so that it can bring in more funds. When I signed up on the website I got the chance to play a boring roulette game, I don’t think that game will bring in many funds or players in Blackpool.
The whitepaper has lots of big words and claims but little technical information or detail on how the capabilities will be built and adopted across the many claimed scenarios. I couldn’t find any source code to review, either to check if the roulette game was fair or to help form an opinion on whether the larger technical claims were credible.
The list of applications on the website and in the whitepaper is long and varied. In the time it would take to build a business across the sports sector then most of these ideas would be out of date. If I was advising them then, as for most other blockchain companies, I would recommend that a little more focus and a lot less hype would make them more likely to have long-term success.
Some of the applications are a little strange and will have harmful impacts. For example, a section on data sharing talks about personal data like people’s names, sports activities and achievements being put into the blockchain. It says that this could be used in marketing and in making decisions about teenagers at school. Don’t put personal data in a blockchain. Sometimes people need protecting and data about them needs changing or removing. The very same factors that make it hard to change data in a blockchain, also make it hard to protect the people that the data is about.
Most of the applications don’t require a blockchain, they could be built with existing and less experimental technologies, and most of them are about creating financial value for vSport, football clubs, and celebrities but, one of the promises of blockchain is that it can widen the number of people involved in decision making.
If vSport follow that model (and the whitepaper hints at this) then football fans could influence its direction and get it to build applications that they want. Perhaps Blackpool fans could vote to finally build a training ground?
Unfortunately the limited information about the foundation shows a simple organisation chart with no detail of who is in which box, how decisions are made, and how they can be appealed.
vSport looks like the very early stage of a classic top-down business. Lots of promises, few products and in need of customers to both develop the products and prove that it can deliver what it promises. I worry that it wants to buy Blackpool football club either for marketing or to test its new technology on the club and fans.
vSport needs more scrutiny
Blackpool fans have had a terrible time. Many, like me, haven’t been to see their football club in years. Any escape route from the Oystons might seem a good one but vSport doesn’t seem the right next destination.
Being either a marketing vehicle for vSport or a testing ground for its technology doesn’t seem like something Blackpool FC, its fans, or its community need. Fans, journalists and local councillors (who’ve hopefully learnt a lesson from their failure to get to grips with the Oystons) need to ask more and better questions of any potential new investor. Any investor that fails to talk with fans before bidding should immediately raise alarm bells.
Many fans were happy to start a new fan-owned club if the Oystons failed to leave. We can ask more questions of vSport, or wait and see if Belokon can use his court case to get ownership from the Oystons, but we should also continue to be prepared to start a new club rather than accepting the first rescue ship that comes along.