Is influential leadership the future of football?

By Alex Dreyfus, CEO chiliZ,

Over the past week, there has been much speculation and discussion about Arsene Wenger’s prediction for the future of football. In an interview with German newspaper Bild, the former Arsenal manager claimed that substitutions will one day be determined by fans on social media.

“In the next five years, it might happen that social media substitutes players during a match. They’ll have a hook-up at half-time and determine which players get substituted and who will be brought on during the second half. This will happen.”

Whilst some have labelled this prediction as pretty far-fetched, the reality is that fan-influenced football is already happening in some shape or form.

The most notable example is the Carling Black Label Cup in South Africa. Founded in 2011, the Cup is a one-day pre-season football match between Soweto giants Orlando Pirates and the Kaizer Chiefs. It’s seen as an annual ‘rehearsal game’ for the forthcoming season, with the line-ups chosen by Carling Black Label customers who have to submit an 11-digit code found on Carling products to have their vote registered. In-game substitutions are voted for via text message.

In 2011, manager Leonard Brody suggested that Coventry City fans vote on in-match substitutions via premium rate text message, though the idea was dismissed. There is also an interesting example in Normandie, France, where 6th Division team L’Avante-Garde Caennaise lets the fans vote on decisions through an app called United Managers. During a game, the coach is in contact with the team’s 1200 supporters, called “Umans”, who decide on everything from the starting eleven to in-game tactics. The fans vote on live polls posted on the United Manager’s app, supported by in-app data and stats. The coach is merely a mediator between what is happening on the pitch and the fans instructions.

While the United Managers concept may work for smaller, lower league clubs, the idea cannot and will not work for the top clubs in the top leagues. Why? Because football is a business, and when commercial success is determined by triumph on the pitch, the stakes are just too high. You wouldn’t expect a company to be managed by its customers, so why should fans manage their football club? Egalitarianism doesn’t work in business, but collaborative leadership does. Take Apple as an example — it took many years of effort under the direction of Steve Jobs for the tech giant to take off, and it happened only when Jobs relied on his team and established a cooperative management style did Apple begin its ascent.

I believe that influential leadership is the compromise for the future of football, connecting fans to the clubs they love in a meaningful way, while clubs can monetise their fan base in a secure and controlled way through fan influence. And this is what we are building through — our blockchain-based, tokenized fan-voting platform. Let’s not forget, broadcast revenues are in decline, even in the biggest leagues, while superstar players — those that bring the clubs new fans — are getting more and more expensive. Clubs can bridge the gap between the stands and the action on the pitch by going direct to the consumer, sourcing additional revenue over and above ticket sales and merchandise.

Wenger was correct when he said that fans now possess all the power. Fans are, and always will be, the lifeblood of sport, but we have seen a marked change in fandom over the past few years. Whereas in the past, support for a club was either inherited or determined by locality, now fans are more interested in individual players.

“If Ronaldo leaves Real [Madrid] for Juventus, the fans follow him to Juve,” said Wegner. “Neymar has some 170 million followers. He alone is stronger than the league.”

To echo Wenger’s claims, the power of clubs will only decrease over time, but I believe that clubs have the power to delay the decline through greater fan engagement. Involving fans in some decisions, giving fans a voice and being prepared to listen to that voice — this is democratic leadership in action.

Through ownership of our club-specific Fan Tokens — the Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain Fan Tokens will be launched early next year, as well as numerous yet-to-be-announced clubs — fans are given the right to vote on certain decisions. The clubs themselves decide on the topics on which the fans can vote, but it could be choosing the Man of the Match, the player of the season, or the colour of the jersey. While there is absolutely the potential for clubs to use our technology for fans to vote on substitutions in real-time as Wenger suggests, the benefits actually extend well beyond the match-day experience.

Leonard Brody’s idea was dismissed by Coventry City on the grounds that it would undermine the manager, damage the integrity of the competition, and was open to abuse from the opposition’s fans. I think that was actually the right decision; not because it was a bad idea but because the technology in 2011 could not be trusted.

If you allow fans to vote through social media or even text message, how do you prevent sabotage? How do you stop an opponent’s fans from mass-voting, choosing a poor starting eleven or even voting for the best-performing players to be subbed off? How do you trust the integrity of the vote through social media or text message? The truth is, you can’t.

And that’s where Blockchain comes in. A blockchain is defined as a ‘single version of the truth’ that’s made possible by an immutable and secure time-stamped ledger, copies of which are held my multiple parties. Data is secured via cryptography and new transactions are linked to previous ones, making up a chain. Multiple users or ‘nodes’ run the blockchain network — a user would need to gain control of more than half of the nodes to make changes, so altering data or faking an identity would be extremely challenging. Given its ability to secure transactions and ensure traceability — every transaction is vetted, there is permanency of record and no ability for a single entity to manipulate the record — Blockchain can be used to secure voting systems and votes against tampering by those who would try to impact an outcome. You can trust the integrity of the vote through Blockchain.

While I agree with the sentiment of Wenger’s prediction — that fan influence over what happens on the pitch will grow over the next five years — I predict that this sort of fan influence can and will happen much sooner through Blockchain. Through this technology, can be the conduit for influential leadership in football.

This article originally appeared in