Backlash over 'ill-timed' Leeds United gesture raising thousands for Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal

Leeds United have received a backlash over part of a fundraising scheme that is generating thousands for the Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.
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Monday night's announcement of an auction for the 'no war' shirts worn by Whites players before Saturday's Manchester City match prompted a furious response from supporters, partly because it was not the actual shirts up for grabs but non-fungible tokens [NFTs].

Fans are able to bid on a one-of-a-kind digital file of the shirt, digitally signed by the player in question, and auction winners will also receive a number of experiential benefits, including two hospitality tickets for the Brighton game, a pitchside tour with club legends and access to an open training session.

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The club's announcement said: "Each NFT features a card style element detailing the front and back of the player's shirt with a digital signature from the relevant player. Only one of each NFT will be made available at this current time, ensuring each NFT has been issued as an exclusive one-of-one and feature a fantastic set of physical rewards alongside the digital collectible."

But the timing of the announcement, coming hot on the heels of a 4-0 defeat by Manchester City amid worsening relegation fears, as well as the decision to auction NFTs rather than the actual shirts, attracted criticism on social media.

And when fans clicked through to the site which is hosting the auction, the page was headed 'The Drop' and it held a claim that Elland Road was the 'fourth biggest [stadium] outside the Premier League.'

A statement from the Leeds United Supporters Trust took issue with the NFT element of the auction.

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"As a critical friend it isn’t the Trust’s place to vet commercial partnerships but rather to highlight when we feel it could be exploiting and financially impacting our fans," a spokesperson told the YEP.

CHARITY GESTURE - Leeds United initially put NFTs of the 'no war' warm-up shirts up for auction, before doing the same with the actual shirts. Pic: Simon HulmeCHARITY GESTURE - Leeds United initially put NFTs of the 'no war' warm-up shirts up for auction, before doing the same with the actual shirts. Pic: Simon Hulme
CHARITY GESTURE - Leeds United initially put NFTs of the 'no war' warm-up shirts up for auction, before doing the same with the actual shirts. Pic: Simon Hulme

"Entering into a new NFT campaign and the linking to a current war conflict feels inappropriate and ill-timed. The club could have used the same assets and mechanics as their recent fundraisers that raised over £80k for local charities."

Martin Calladine, author of The Ugly Game and Fit and Proper People, describes NFTs as 'largely worthless products generally mis-sold as investments.'

"There's no need to involve an unregulated, unproven, environmentally harmful technology like NFTs to tap into the deep generosity of Leeds fans," he said.

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"In these cases, clubs should solicit donations or offer genuine rewards, without NFTs. The NFTs almost certainly have no lasting value and blur the lines between charity and investment."

Football finance lecturer Kieran Maguire, who has often credited Leeds majority owner Andrea Radrizzani for generating record amounts in revenue through the club's commercial activities, sees little issue with NFTs as a collectible but notes that problems can arise with the trading of the tokens.

"If fans want to collect NFT’s as a form of digital Panini card there’s nothing wrong with them," he told the YEP.

"However there’s dog whistle ‘traders’ on social media who try to market them as investments, and it’s an unregulated, volatile and potentially manipulated market."

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Leeds United's NFT auction made thousands for the humanitarian appeal within minutes of its announcement and at the time of writing the total sum of the 11 highest bids came to almost £6,000. Kalvin Phillips' digital shirt has already attracted a highest current bid of close to £1,000.

The Whites are far from alone in involving themselves in the world of digital footballing assets. Liverpool's Andy Robertson announced his own series of limited edition NFT collectables in November, via a partnership with SportemonGo, a firm who were also working with Hibs. But the Scottish top flight outfit have been forced to issue a statement this week after SportemonGo's website was taken offline and its social media accounts vanished, before the website reappeared with a notice of termination.

Rangers and Manchester City have previously launched their own collections, and in March it was reported that John Terry's collection of NFTs had plummeted in value. The Premier League is said to be on the verge of confirming its own official NFT partnership.

Leeds have shown their backing for Ukraine in other ways since the invasion by Russia, raising money through Elland Road bucket collections, the sale of Ukrainian flags and a special matchday programme.

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On Tuesday night the club announced that 13 of the warm-up shirts worn by the players would also be auctioned off, on eBay, for the same cause - a move that earned praise from supporters. The current total raised by the eBay auction is close to £9,000, with bids being accepted until Sunday.