By Jason McKeown
So that’s that then. A truly surreal episode in the Bradford City soap opera comes to an end, with the news that the takeover offer by a group of American investors, calling themselves WAGMI United, has been rejected.
On Saturday evening, Stefan Rupp released a statement confirming he had turned down the bid. “On Thursday I received an offer from the WAGMI United group to purchase the football club. This has been rejected.
“A great deal has been aired publicly since the offer was made. This, as well as a number of factors which will remain private, has led me to this decision.
“The matter is closed.”
It is a run of events disputed by WAGMI United, who via Twitter shortly after issued their own statement. “WAGMI United has been engaged in productive and confidential negotiations with Mr Rupp to purchase Bradford City since early November…he agreed to a deal in principle. This agreement was non-binding and pending additional due diligence on both sides before finalization, but there was an agreement.
“He’s obviously had a change of heart, but to suggest that he’d never heard of WAGMI United before Thursday or that no further action was taken following our offer is simply untrue.”
Someone is lying. And even if it is the would-be buyers who are stretching the truth, Rupp might want to reflect on whether he should communicate such an important matter to us supporters in more detail. The statement on the Bradford City website is only 178 words long. As fans, we deserve to hear an in-depth explanation of the events of the last few days.
Whatever did and did not happen over the talks, the reality is that the deal is dead. WAGMI United’s big promises of taking the Bantams back to the Premier League, funded by issuing non-fungible tokens (NFTs), will not be realised. And aside from the war of words, the key question – as the dust settles – is whether the offer on the table was a good one for the future of Bradford City.
In terms of assessing WAGMI United’s public comments and strategy, there was a lot to leave you feeling concerned. It began with the Washington Post article talking about how they would revolutionise the sport, try some “unconventional stuff” and how there wasn’t “much downside if it doesn’t [work]”.
Then there was the Twitter space event, where confident boasts about the abilities of the 30-strong WAGMI United group looked pretty hollow when their football experience was revealed. Playing football as a teenager hardly qualifies you from knowing how to take a club from the middle of the fourth tier into the Premier League. Citing the fictional Ted Lasso as an inspiration did not suggest a firm grip on reality. And when questions about the specific challenges facing the club – such as the fact City don’t own their stadium or training ground – drew blank responses, the uneasiness grew.
“Six weeks of madness”, “I know football, you have to respect me”, “We are not getting relegated” – you could fill a book of Bradford City-related quotes that will go down in infamy. And when one of the WAGMI United members, Jack Settleman, tweeted a picture of Derek Adams with the words, “explain who this is to me like im 5” we had a new entry to add to the inglorious collection.
If we are to believe they have been in talks to buy Bradford City since November, the lack of knowledge they displayed about the club was even more worrying. Would they even have known where Bradford is on a map? Are they aware what our colours are? At one stage Settleman was asking the world what a Bantam was. They did not seem to care about how stupid they looked. A complete lack of self-awareness about the depth of their ignorance.
The world of NFTs is deeply confusing to most of us, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss its potential rewards. NFTs are unique digital files produced with blockchain technology (the same technology used by Bitcoin). People issue and sell them, with buyers willing to spend a lot of money because of the guarantee each NFT is one of a kind. The market is growing – with activity in quarter three (July to September) coming in at over $10 billion – a 704% increase on the quarter before.
If you buy an NFT and the market rises, the value of what you own grows and you could sell for a profit. But like all markets, they rise and fall – and the relative newness of the NFT market suggests the risks are especially high. In June 2021, for example, the market fell 90%. It has since recovered and recovered well, but that’s incredibly volatile.
It was this kind of investment market that WAGMI United were proposing to link Bradford City’s future to. The 30-strong group would put up the initial capital, and a bit more if needed. Split 30 ways, that’s probably not a huge commitment to a bunch of millionaires with plenty of resources. If, for arguments sake, they offered £15 million to Stefan Rupp, that would be an outlay of £500k per person. Maybe it was more or maybe it was less, but in the grand scheme it was beer money for hugely clever people who have made a fortune in their lives.
The Washington Post article made clear that much of the subsequent funding of the push to the Premier League would come from creating and selling a range of new NFTs, associated with Bradford City (even though we were not named at the time). According to the piece, this might include “characters, uniforms, photos and videos”. They would be sold to investors around the world, primarily the cryptocurrency community.
I don’t doubt that NFTs are brilliant if you know what you’re doing. And these people are not stupid. They have made huge sums of money. More money than you or I will probably ever see in our lives. But is this a sensible business model for a football club? The risks are vast.
So, to sum up where we are so far. Red flag one – boasting you’re about to buy a football club having apparently only made an initial enquiry (though WAGMI dispute this). Red flag two – displaying a complete lack of knowledge about football. Red flag three – showing you have no understanding about the football club you’re claiming to buy. And red flag four – unveiling a plan to fund Bradford City to the Premier League by persuading people around the world to buy NFTs linked to the club.
Football finances are never an easy subject. I love reading stuff from David Conn, but you don’t half need to concentrate to understand it. Yet, up until now, talk around football club ownership was around pounds and pennies. Someone buys the club with a few million in the bank which they will invest to deliver success, tied in with the revenue streams they seek to generate from the way they run the club.
This was not any of that. It was an idea to raise money by creating items they hope people would want to buy because of their uniqueness. It was pinning the club’s fortunes on an unregulated, relatively new market that is completely susceptible to huge swings. If Bradford City were closing in on the Premier League with all the exposure that would come from it, demand for City-related NFTs would be high. Getting it off the ground – with the club in League Two – would be a different matter. I love Levi Sutton, but I doubt there’d be much global investor demand for a unique GIF of his goal against Tranmere Rovers.
Maybe it’s a genius idea. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, NFTs will be mainstream concept and a part of all our lives, and football clubs up and down the land will be tapping into cryptocurrency to fund new signings. But it is a remarkable level of risk. And if it had gone wrong, the damage it might have done to Bradford City could have proved utterly terminal.
Ultimately WAGMI’s reasons for wanting to buy Bradford City were not a love for our club over others. It wasn’t even a desire to want to serve a relatively huge fanbase of dedicated Bantams supporters. Their expertise lies in branding, marketing and selling NFTs. The aim was to market Bradford City to the rest of the world. For us to become something rich investors would keenly want to buy a small piece of, by buying unique digital assets. And whilst we supporters would have clearly benefited from their success, we had far more to lose than those 30-something investors, each stumping up a relatively small amount.
If WAGMI United had done things in a more sensible, professional way, it might have been possible to buy into their vision. But there was nothing about this that suggested the club would be transferring into competent hands. Absolutely no substance behind the bluster.
The reaction from many fans, via social media and message boards, has been one of disappointment. They have every right to express their feelings, and the rest of us who sided against it – and, of course, the club – would do well to listen to and respect their views.
The idea presented by WAGMI United appealed to them because of the ambition it offered. And compared to the grey mundanity of City’s seemingly never-ending struggles, the opportunity for radical change was welcomed. To hear people say they would be willing to risk the club going out of business to give this concept a try shows the level of disillusionment that many feel about the current status quo. And it all adds to the need for the club to start getting things right sooner rather than later.
Fans behind the takeover attempt were either knowledgeable enough about NFTs to see the benefits, or hugely fearful the club is on a terminal path anyway under the current regime. Rupp has to be mindful that the actions of Bradford City this January will be scrutinised even more following this episode. Every one of us deserves to feel confident about the future of our club, and there is clearly a lot of work to be done.
A section of supporters have, for several seasons, deeply disagreed with the way the club is being run and the decisions taken. And the reality is that events on the field have only further reinforced their convictions that Rupp is getting things wrong. Those people keep losing in terms of what they want to happen not occurring, and this is a further outcome they don’t agree with. For some time now, they feel as though they haven’t been listened to or respected.
After these events, the challenge facing the club in the very immediate term is that if the second half of this season isn’t more convincing, they might lose these supporters forever.
Still, for however frustrating another season of League Two failure might prove, does it merit taking such a huge level of risk with the club’s future? Sticking everything we had on black? The suggestion is that something has to be done, or we’ll die as a club. And there’s probably some truth in that – as long as we’re in League Two, we’re one bad season away from relegation to non-league and likely oblivion. Yet still, are Rupp and WAGMI United the only two choices? Stick with what we are, or pin our future on the fluctuating value of non-fungible tokens?
It appears Rupp could have accepted this offer and recouped the money he has put into the club. He could have gone back to his regular life without the headache of owning a football club he must wish he had never got involved with in the first place. And there were plenty of fans willing him to do just that. To take the money and run.
So the fact he turned down all of this says a lot about the credibility of the offer, and the way WAGMI United have conducted themselves. Of course, many fans will be disappointed he’s rejected the offer, but it’s worth pondering his reasons. If he was getting the money he wanted, and could have removed all this hassle from his life, then there must be a really good reason to not entrust the future of the club with WAGMI United.
How would we all have felt, in hindsight, if these guys had come in and killed the club? There has been a lot of criticism of Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn for selling Bradford City to Rahic and Rupp in the first place – the accusation they weren’t careful enough. Well surely, we should be hoping that Rupp is vigilant about who he passes the baton onto?
We all know the issues and limitations of the current Bradford City ownership model. And, who knows, perhaps this whole strange episode might raise the profile of the club enough to attract a more serious and credible buyer. It is understandable that many fans would like to see new ownership, but let’s not just sell to the first buyer who shows an interest. It has to be passed over to the right party.
Surely, as fans, we can all agree that we want an owner who has our best interests at heart. Can anyone truly say that was the case WAGMI United?
Ultimately, there are questions about the future of the club that this episode has once again brought to the fore. Things cannot go on as they are, struggling in League Two. And the lure of new investment was understandably exciting to everyone. But this takeover offer was full of red flags.
Time will tell if WAGMI United find another club and do indeed revolutionise the sport – we will certainly all be watching their next move with interest. But, right now, it feels as though Bradford City might have dodged an almighty bullet.