Presented as a football-based equivalent to the stock exchange, Football Index encouraged people to ‘take back control’ (like we haven’t been stung by that phrase by a bunch of charlatans before) from the bookmakers and ‘become a football trader’. In essence, it allowed people to ‘buy’ shares of footballers, with the shares going up when players performed well or were transferred for big money in real life, and down if they didn’t play well or picked up an injury, as a few simple examples of how it all worked.
Of course, people weren’t buying stocks in anything real, so sooner or later it always seemed as though the bubble was going to burst. In spite of the promise from the company’s Chief Executive Officer that could earn ‘10X profit within 2 years’, the people that had invested in Football Index found themselves almost penniless. That was because the dividends that people had bought were cut by more than 80%, resulting in people earning six pence per share rather than, say, 33 pence. Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes, for example, went from being worth £5.70 per share to 68 pence.
HOW DID FOOTBALL INDEX WORK?
The whole basis of Football Index was something of a combination of stock markets, betting and the world of fantasy football. It promised people a way of using their footballing knowledge in order to make money, allowing punters the chance to buy ‘shares’ in footballers that would go up or down depending on how they performed. The shares weren’t in the actual footballer, of course, but rather within the Football Index framework; much as you can’t get Harry Kane to join your five-a-side team because you bought him on Fantasy Football.
Launched by Fame Ventures and Gold-I in 2015, Football Index grew steadily in the years that followed and by 2018 there were more than 100,000 active users. By the end of that football season, the company had traded more than £200 million worth, paying out in excess of £2 million in dividends. The trader portfolios ranged from £10 to £1,000,000, largely thanks to the extreme success that was enjoyed in the United Kingdom. Users could make money in one of two ways: either by selling their shares or by earning dividends.
As with stocks and shares, punters could buy shares in the players that they thought were going to get better. Anyone that bought shares in Mo Salah when he was first signed by Liverpool and before he scored 44 goals in all competitions in a single season, for example, would have seen the worth of those shares go through the roof. They could have sold those shares and made a real-life profit, had they wished to, walking away with the money or else re-investing it in different players. If those new players played well, the share price would increase.
Of course, just as in real life, shares can perform badly as well as well. Players getting injured, for example, would see a share price plummet, whilst those that struggled to adapt to the rigours of the league or their new club would also see their share price struggle. For the bettors that had invested in them, it was then a matter of choosing whether to cut their losses and try to get any money they could for them, or else keep the faith that the shares would bounce back and they’d be able to sell them for a profit at a later date.
The other way that punters made money on Football Index was via dividends. Both Media Dividends and Match Day Dividends were paid out, with the amount paid fixed depending on the shares in a person’s portfolio. Match Day Dividends were based on the Match Day Rankings of players, being either Gold, Silver or Bronze and paid out to the top performing defender, midfielder and striker on any given match day. The Media Rankings, meanwhile, dictated the awarding of Media Dividends, with a player’s mention in any of the following resulting in more points being gained by them:
- Daily Mirror
- The FA
- Football League
- Daily Mail
- Daily Star
- The Times
- Huffington Post
- Sky Sports
WHEN TROUBLE STARTED TO APPEAR
During the formative years of Football Index, it appeared to be the real deal. Punters took to the format readily, investing in players and trading stocks and shares regularly. When the Sunday Times published its Sage Tech Track 100, Football Index appeared second. It became the shirt sponsor of football teams Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers, giving it a real sense of legitimacy for the people that had invested their money in the site. Though the eventual collapse was fast and brutal, there were some warning signs for those that knew what to look for.
On the ninth of December 2020, for example, Caan Berry posted a video to his YouTube channel talking about the ‘five major risks for users’. Berry, who was a professional sports trader, said that the use of the term ‘shares’ was misleading, given that people were actually buying a ‘time-limited contract’. The site also removed a feature that allowed users to instantly sell their shares back to the site in order to retrieve their funds was also a concern for Berry. Another thing that he was concerned about was the ability of Football Index to ‘mint’ new shares at any time, affecting share prices.
One of the most prescient concerns put forward by Berry in the December video, though, was the knowledge that Football Index had written it into the contract that players agreed to when they signed up that significant changes to the dividends structure could be brought into effect at any time, including after shares had been purchased. In early January, this fear was realised when the company informed users that it would stop paying In-Play Dividends, such as when a player scored a goal, four weeks later.
Berry’s video alone should have been a warning for people that were paying attention, but what happened next will have set alarm bells ringing. A seemingly co-ordinated campaign was launched against him, with YouTube saying that his channel would be ‘de-monetised’ on account of complaints of ‘misleading information’. Twitter users encouraged others to ‘downvote’ his video, meaning that it would be seen by fewer people, with hundreds posting abusive comments under the video that he had to take time to repeatedly delete.
Of course, not everyone pays attention to YouTube commentators and some loyal Football Index customers might well have thought that it was just sour grapes from Berry. Even if that were the case, those that were keeping an eye on things will have noticed that share prices were crashing occasionally and that it was getting more and more difficult to sell shares. Jadon Sancho, who played for Borussia Dortmund at the time, had traded at £15.40 in September of 2020, dropping to £12.33 in September, £10.31 at the start of October and had hit £4.20 by just before Christmas.
As it became more and more difficult for users to sell shares that they had in players, the desperation set in. There were some believed to have as much as six-figures invested in the exchange, many of whom had fallen for the idea that it was a trading environment similar to a stock market. In actuality, however, Football Index was licensed by the Gambling Commission, which had given the green light to the firm running it. For customers, the problem was that it only offered them a medium level of protection.
Medium protection means that only money on deposit is offered any protection in the event that a business struggles. Football Index themselves made this clear in their terms and conditions, saying:
“Once you have purchased shares, the applicable value of your shares have been ‘wagered’ and are not stored in this segregated account. This means that steps have been taken to protect your funds but that there is no absolute guarantee that all funds will be repaid in the event of insolvency.”
In other words, if you’ve invested money and the company goes busy then tough luck.
In March of 2021, the United Kingdom Gambling Commission finally acted and suspended the licence of the company, with some criticising it for taking too long to act. The UKGC released a statement saying that BetIndex, the Jersey-based company of Football Index, had had its licence suspended as the organisation carried out a ‘Section 116 review’ of the operator. That was based on ‘concerns activities may have been carried out in purported reliance on the licence, but not in accordance with a condition of the licence.’
The Gambling Commission declared that it expected Football Index to keep customers ‘fully informed of any developments which may impact them’. The initial decision of the UKGC was to suspend the licence, rather than to revoke it entirely, but the reality for most was that it was extremely unlikely to recover as soon as that happened. Earlier in the month, Football Index had changed the terms on its dividends to mean that there was a crash in the price of shares, with the top 200 players being sold for one or two pence per share, whilst many others couldn’t be sold at all. That resulted in limited liquidity in the market.
Despite the fact that many believed that the model was ‘safer’ than betting with traditional bookmakers, the collapse of the company was seen as one of the biggest ever failures on the part of the regulator. Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers both made the decision to drop the company as shirt sponsors with immediate effect. Outstanding stakes, believed to be up to £60 million, were considered all but lost. The decision of the UKGC to suspend Football Index’s licence was believed to be the correct one, but was also the moment that users felt their last hope of recovering funds had vanished.
THE COMPANY GOES BUST
Though some will say that the writing was on the wall and others would point out that the Gambling Commission didn’t do enough to stop the inevitable from happening, there was still a hope from some that things could be rescued for Football Index during the initial phase of the company’s failure. For those that invested tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds, they had to at least hold onto that hope rather than give up altogether. Unfortunately, the collapse of the company was spectacular and almost entirely unavoidable.
Within days of the Gambling Commission suspending the licence of Football Index, the company went into administration. On the 11th of March 2021, BetIndex released a statement that confirmed that it had ‘consulted with external legal and financial advisors’ and were ‘pursuing a restructuring arrangement’ via the use of an administrator. They said:
“The restructure could involve equity in BetIndex Limited being distributed to customers, board representation for customers, and a new management team put in place, along with other initiatives.”
Begbies Traynor, insolvency specialists, had been appointed to deal with the administration. It certainly rubbed salt into the wounds that, not long after the UKGC had suspended its licence, the Betting and Gaming Council suspended Football Index’s membership from the group. On the sixth of March, the company had confirmed that it would be changing the dividend policy as a result of ‘substantial losses’ in the months before. It was, therefore, not overly surprising that the administration decision was taken, even if it wasn’t well-received by those associated with the company.
Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that it was entirely avoidable. A former employee of Football Index spoke of how he had warned the company’s executives that it was ‘unsustainable’ not long after its launch. E-mails, seen the Guardian, said that there was a very real fear that it could amount to being an ‘unsustainable bubble’ that was ‘similar to a Ponzi scheme’. Proposals put forward to make the market more sustainable were rejected, principally on account of the fact that they were likely to impact revenue, leading to more questions of the Gambling Commission and its understanding of the business model.
GAMBLING COMMISSION WARNED
The questions about the Gambling Commission grew louder when it emerged that the body had been warned about the business in January of 2020. The UKGC had been told that Football Index was ‘an exceptionally dangerous pyramid scheme under the guise of a football stock market’. This was written in a document that had been sent to the regulator, analysing the business model of Football Index in detail. The author believed that there were a number of ‘fundamental flaws’, in particular the deliberate imitation of an ‘investment model’.
The document also drew attention to the fact that the liabilities of Football Index of the dividends that were obliged to be paid on every share increased each time a share was purchased. The document said that the liabilities ‘exceed £1m/month’, saying:
“The only way the company can afford this long term is through the constant sale of yet more new shares to new users alongside a constant churn in positions. Should user growth stop or decline, the company would quickly find itself unable to pay these liabilities to users.”
The report ended up being quite prophetic, stating that Football Index was ‘vulnerable and destined for a bank run’, with only a few customers likely to ‘get some money out before the system collapses and the remainder lose everything’. The document, which was presented to the UKGC in person as well as e-mailed to senior executives, said:
“Not only is this incredibly dangerous in that significant and life-altering sums of money are at stake and risk, but the perceived safety of the platform is inducing users to shift their capital from genuine investment vehicles (bank savings, ISAs, stocks) into it, given the hope and promise of constant high returns.”
Matt Zarb-Cousin from the Clean Up Gambling campaign summed up the issue, saying:
“If the remote general betting licence Football Index were trading off covered their main product, then it should never have been licensed by the Gambling Commission as clearly this business model is unsustainable. But if their main product didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the Gambling Commission, then it was an unregulated form of betting. This constitutes illegal gambling, and so action should have been taken to close it down. The regulator is culpable either way.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO CUSTOMERS’ MONEY?
At this stage, you will not be all that surprised to learn about what happened to the money that people had invested in Football Index. When the business chose to cut dividends, the result was that as much as £90 million was wiped off the shares in a matter of seconds. That resulted in people losing the likes of retirement funds, mortgage deposits and more. Some lost more than £100,000, with the average loss being £3,000 per user. One user saw his shares drop from a value of £23,000 to virtually nothing overnight.
It is hardly surprising that people continued to invest money in Football Index even as it was collapsing. After all, the Chief Executive Officer, Mike Bohan, said in a statement in January of 2021 that he was ‘extremely excited’ about the plans for the year ahead. That followed a statement the previous November in which the company claimed that it had ‘never been in a stronger financial position’. Burnley fan Neil Kirk had been investing since 2019, initially paying in £300 but then invested more on account of the ‘addictive’ nature of the product.
Given the fact that Football Index used language from the financial markets, the UKGC approached the Financial Conduct Authority to ask if it would regulate it. Initially the FCA said yes, but then reversed its decision, leading to years’ worth of back and forth between the two bodies. That time was therefore lost in terms of protecting customers, with the Gambling Commission falling back on the idea that their money was always at risk on account of the fact that ‘gambling is a leisure activity and not an investment opportunity’.
The company brought in to act as liquidators, Begbies, said in December of 2022 that it was ‘unable at this point to accurately determine when all matters will have been concluded or to the level of return to creditors’. For the punters, the reality is that they hadn’t lost their bets, instead the wagers were still open when the company collapsed and therefore they hadn’t had a chance to win or lose. Their hope was that they would be able to recoup some money via another means, but it is unlikely that will ever come to fruition.