The Crawley investment is also an act of reputational cleansing. The great crypto crash of 2022 was partly a failure of ambition, as companies that had overextended themselves, convinced that the good times would keep rolling, suddenly lost it all. Crawley’s new owners crave respectability. They want to show that the nouveau-riche blockchain elite can be good stewards of a community institution. But like the rest of the industry, they’ve seen their extravagant ambitions collide with reality.
At the start of Crawley’s season, American crypto enthusiasts gathered at early-morning screenings in New York and California to watch the team’s matches. The events became unlikely networking opportunities for people working in web3, the catchall term for a newfangled internet built on crypto technology. But Crawley’s losing streak dampened some of the enthusiasm. Local fans started to complain, and earnest tweets from crypto investors (“Be really nice to someone today,” one urged) were greeted with angry replies calling for the manager to be fired.
An unlikely takeover
The grand plan to turn a tiny English soccer team into a symbol of crypto’s global clout began thousands of miles from Crawley, at the Malibu, Calif., branch of Nobu. Last fall, Mr. Johnson attended a dinner at the beachside restaurant, where a group of NFT enthusiasts had gathered to bask in their newfound wealth. He was right at home: A former gambling analyst for ESPN, Mr. Johnson had made a fortune in crypto, with NFT holdings that totaled as much as $18 million when the market peaked last year.
At the dinner, he was approached by Eben Smith, a fellow crypto entrepreneur, who soon pitched him on a collaboration: a sports team for the crypto community.
Over the next few months, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Smith cobbled together a group of about 35 crypto proponents, including Gary Vaynerchuk, the NFT entrepreneur, and Daryl Morey, a blockchain enthusiast who is also president of basketball operations at the Philadelphia 76ers. They set up a business entity, WAGMI United. Pronounced “wag me,” the name stands for “We’re all gonna make it,” a popular rallying cry in crypto circles.
The group’s first takeover target was Bradford City, a club in English soccer’s fourth division with a rich history and a large following. “If we want to get to the highest level in America, you need billions of dollars,” Mr. Johnson said. “This was the cheapest price point for us.” But the deal collapsed after Mr. Johnson and Mr. Smith gave interviews to The Washington Post announcing their intentions. Fans protested, and the club’s owner refused to sell.
So the crypto investors settled for a backup option. A large industrial town near Gatwick Airport, Crawley is not an athletic powerhouse; in an interview, one member of the WAGMI project described the area as “the kind of Newark, New Jersey, of England.” But the local club was available at a relatively affordable price of between 4 and 5 million pounds — about a third of what WAGMI had raised.