Football has become the establishment. Thirty years since the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the gentrification of professional football in England is no longer confined to the executive suites. Where once the middle-class enthusiast—like Hornby—was an exotic presence, now the entire culture of the game is awash with the instincts of the bien pensants.
Whatever demotic power football had in the 1970s and 80s has completely dissipated. Like Glastonbury Festival or the Labour Party, Premier League football has mostly decoupled from the affiliations, tastes, and preferences of the everyman. It used to be that working-class fans ignored, defied, or resisted the authorities. Now official club supporters’ groups can be found clamouring for greater government regulation.
You might argue that this is a good thing. Football is less a specific culture, with its partiality, its parochialisms, and its ugly blind spots. Instead, the Premier League is a money-making machine, a juggernaut of soft power, and an adeptly managed global media phenomenon. UK PLC would be much diminished without it. But we should also be clear about what has been lost.
It is this conviction that some things are not for sale, a commitment to community building, that Peter McCormack has been trying to revive since he took over at Real Bedford FC last year.
“When my granddad or my granddad’s granddad was into football, teams were built around ideas,” says McCormack, chairman and owner of Real Bedford. “They might have been a group of miners, or they might have been from a printworks.”
But whereas football clubs of the past may have been animated by industrial pride, civic one-upmanship, or Arnoldian uplift, Real Bedford is a club founded on Bitcoin. It is a gesture towards the potential of a new technology, and a new form of money, to reinfuse football with real value.
“We’re a community of people from Bedford and further afield who like football, and like monetary sovereignty,” says McCormack. “And we’re a community of people who do better when we’re not being interfered with.”
This is not the kind of sentiment generally endorsed by the Premier League’s social media team.
Since completing his takeover of the then-Spartans South Midlands Division One club in 2022, McCormack has injected ideas, energy, and investment. He’s renamed the club—they were previously known as Bedford—and they’ve adopted the Skull and Crossbones as an emblem. The club is now sponsored by Gemini, a crypto exchange, and their kits have adopted the orange and black colour scheme associated with Bitcoin.
“I don’t care for authority,” he says. “When I write my match programmes, I don’t always write about football, I write about freedom of speech or failures of the government with regards to economic policy.”
In terms of approach, the obvious comparison would be St Pauli, the legendary counter-cultural team of Hamburg. “Look, they’re socialists,” says McCormack, “and I’m not a socialist. But I do have that kind of rebel anarchist side.”
Closer to home, inspiration came from the example of Forest Green Rovers. Since being taken over by the entrepreneur and environmentalist Dale Vince in 2010, Forest Green worked their way through the non-league pyramid to League One (although they were relegated this year). Vince made Forest Green—hitherto a tiny village club in Gloucestershire—into ‘the greenest team in the world’: a vegan only, carbon neutral club who play in a football kit made from recycled composite material.
Real Bedford FC’s current manager Rob Sinclair played at Forest Green during their remarkable rise, and the success appears to be rubbing off. In last season’s title-winning campaign, Real Bedford lost only three times and secured the double by beating Elstow Abbey 6-0 in the County Cup. They closed out the campaign with a 2-0 win at Winslow United to wrap up an entire season unbeaten away from home.
“Success in football is 60% your budget, 30% your manager, and 10% luck,” says McCormack. “We’ve got a good budget and the best manager, so we don’t need luck.”
Ahead of the new season, Real Bedford have signed midfielder Lee Watkins and defender Joe Steele, both of whom have experience playing at a higher level, and they have appointed a new manager for the ladies’ team. “Football is a business, and with any business you need to find your edge, which I think I’ve found,” explains McCormack. “But we don’t force it down people’s throats. If you go and look at Crawley Town they’re trying to get fans to buy NFTs and all this bollocks. We don’t do that. We’re a football club.”
Indeed, it’s arguably McCormack’s media profile that has enabled Real Bedford’s rapid improvement. His renown owes much to his podcast, What Bitcoin Did, a thrice-weekly show that in its five and a half years of existence has garnered millions of downloads. To give you a sense of its impact, the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, gave his first interview to McCormack after making the currency legal tender in 2021. Even the briefest glance at Real Bedford’s website is enough to realise that McCormack has bought the club a level of promotional skills far above the average of a team nine tiers below the Premier League.
Here, McCormack is also tapping into a wider shift. Football has become a global media phenomenon, and one consequence is that attendance figures do not determine the potential for success as they once did. The income from global media rights has helped establish smaller clubs like Bournemouth, Brentford, and Burnley in and around the Premier League, while well-supported ‘traditional’ sides like Sunderland, Derby County, and Sheffield Wednesday have underperformed. In this new environment, what matters more is not the number of fans a club has but the quality of the relationship between the two.
The result is that cleverer operators use the tools of new media to usher new communities into existence. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this is at Wrexham, where the celebrity clout of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney has transformed the team’s fortunes. Now the Welsh club are stars of a Disney+ documentary series – Welcome to Wrexham – and champions of the National Conference League.
Alternatively, in the same way that Amazon now has supermarkets on the high street, Open Goal Broomhill FC provide an example of how a team that began as a digital initiative, the podcast Open Goal, have moved into the very real world that is the lowland leagues of Scotland. Hashtag United provides an even more apt comparison. Created by the YouTuber Spencer Carmichael-Brown in 2016, the Essex club have just been promoted to the Isthmian League Premier Division, the 7th tier of English football. It is remarkable stuff.
With sharp merchandise, matches streamed online, and lots of interesting video content, Real Bedford mixes a similar level of self-promotion to Hashtag with a global community of committed enthusiasts.
While McCormack has tried to place Bitcoin at the heart of the club’s identity and is sharp in his criticisms of both the sport’s governance and the profligacy that has brought ruin to so many great clubs of the past, there is a subtle difference between a team marketed as a Bitcoin club, a team run by Bitcoiners, and a team financed by Bitcoin. While Real Bedford may be all of these things, it’s the identity that is most easily discernible. Bitcoin holdings don’t seem to be directly underpinning the club’s finances. If anything, there is a degree of circumspection. There is even a page on Real Bedford FC’s website entitled ‘Why you shouldn’t buy Bitcoin’.
“If you want to come down and watch football, you can come buy a ticket, buy a pint, you don’t have to get involved in Bitcoin at all, you can completely ignore it.”
Yet there is something about Bitcoin that embodies in embryo the contradictions of running a football club. Bitcoin is a collaborative system that depends on hard collaborative work. Many Bitcoin advocates are also proponents of so-called hard money and talk grandly about the importance of currency that lowers the time preference of investment decisions. Productive long-term investment not debt-fuelled speculation. At the same time, all the average person on the street knows about Bitcoin is that the price is extremely volatile and that you can either make or lose an enormous amount of money in a short period of time.
This contradiction is one all too familiar to supporters of English football clubs. At the start of the season, clubs will talk about long-term plans, but then they will sack their manager at Christmas and panic buy in January. They might aim to build a system based on trust, data and collective effort, but instead of a gold standard they usually end up rolling the dice.
“Look, you can make connections if you want to and say, ‘Well, Bitcoin is about proof of work, and the football club is about proof of work’,” says McCormack, “but it’s bollocks, it is just talking shit.”
Nevertheless, the Bitcoin connection has attracted more than 4,500 people to stream the club’s matches, helped sell more than 2,000 replica shirts, and attracted hundreds of committed fans from all around the world to watch a game. McCormack claims that over the course of the season the club have taken around £10,000 in Bitcoin, all of which has been saved, with the longer-term aim of building a new stand or perhaps even a new stadium. It’s an ambition with incredible symbolic power.
“Both are underdog stories,” says McCormack. “If somebody said 14 years ago, ‘Yeah, there’s going to be a decentralised currency that’s going to become the most important currency in the world, and it might end up becoming the global reserve currency,’ people would think you’re mad. I mean, people still think we’re mad, us Bitcoiners…It’s a bit like me coming out and saying, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna take this team from the 10th tier of English football into the Premier League.’ They’re like, ‘No, you’re not.’ But I think I can get us in the Premier League. I genuinely do. And I can walk you through how. I’m not saying it’s gonna happen in 10 years, but I think I can do it.”
Elite football in England has come to have a dreamlike quality. The football is close to perfection, but despite the best efforts of their marketing teams, it no longer connects very convincingly with anything outside of itself. It is as if the game has become a new genre of video game or abstract art. Aside from success on the field, and sharp marketing, this is the larger issue that initiatives like Real Bedford address.
While it will always be impossible to compete financially with the oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds that now shape top-flight football in England, Bitcoin is both a financial technology and a media that offers a potential route out of economic disadvantage. It not only opens up a way to build twenty-first century clubs, but twenty-first-century communities. This is why Bitcoin football might come to really matter.
“With Real Bedford, I get to create opportunities for my town. I get to expand football opportunities for people around Bedford: kids, disabled people, and women whilst, at the same time, I get to spread the knowledge about what Bitcoin is and why it’s important. Running a club is a pleasure and an honour. I love it. It just makes sense for me.”