Football Index clients’ money could be trapped after fall in players’ ‘share price’

A series of share-price crashes and rule changes on the betting site Football Index has led to increasing concerns that its clients now have millions of pounds in stakes trapped in the platform which has no protection if the firm ceases trading.

Football Index, the shirt sponsor of Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers, is a self-styled football stock market where users trade virtual “shares” in top players. It was launched in 2015 offering “a challenge” to traditional forms of betting on football.

It sells time-limited “shares” in footballers which can then return “dividends” over the course of a three-year contract. Dividends normally range from 1p to 14p per share, and are based on both the player’s performances on the pitch and their media profile. The shares can be sold on to other users to retrieve some or all of a user’s stake from the exchange – but only if the owner can find a buyer at the right price.

This, however, has become increasingly difficult in recent months following a series of crashes in the price of shares. A share in the Borussia Dortmund forward Jadon Sancho, say, cost £15.04 in early September. The price fell to £12.33 on 15 September and has since hit a series of new lows: £10.31 on 3 October, £5.76 on 19 November and £4.20 on 22 December. A “share” cost £5.28 on Thursday, a 65% drop from its peak.

The growing desperation among users of the site, including some thought to have five- or even six-figure stakes in the exchange, has been highlighted by the experience of a professional sports trader and YouTuber who raised concerns about Football Index on his channel. Caan Berry has been subjected to a sustained and possibly coordinated campaign of abuse and intimidation by some clients of Football Index after posting the video on 9 December.

Berry described Football Index as “a good concept” but also listed what he believes are “five major risks” for users, including: the use of the term “shares” when users are in fact buying time-limited contracts; the removal of a feature which allowed users to “instant sell” shares back to Football Index to retrieve stakes from the platform; the exchange’s ability to affect prices by “minting” new shares; and its right, written into its terms and conditions, to make significant changes to its dividend structure and rules after shares have been purchased.

The risk of mid-contract rule changes was highlighted as recently as last Friday, when Football Index gave notice to users that it will stop paying “In-Play” dividends – for instance, when a player scores a goal – in four weeks’ time.

The online campaign against Berry was immediate, and culminated in a notice from YouTube on Thursday that his channel is being “de-monetised” until mid-February at the earliest due to complaints about “misleading information”. The notice was withdrawn a few hours later after the Observer asked YouTube to explain its decision.

“I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t know what some people in the [Football Index] community were like,” Berry says. “People ask me different questions [about betting and trading] on the YouTube site and had been asking me a bit more about Football Index since the summer. So I thought I’d have a look.

“After the first video, a lot of people on Twitter and social channels were encouraging people to ‘downvote’ it, to try and stop it being seen. After that, the hounding has been constant, I’ve had to delete hundreds of comments from the YouTube channel. It’s typical football thuggery, ‘you’re a nonce and I’m going to report you’, that sort of stuff, and then a book I’ve got out on Amazon suddenly started to get loads of one-star reviews in just a few hours.”

Football Index leans heavily on its claim to offer a trading environment similar to a stock exchange in its extensive marketing campaigns, including stock-market style “tickers” as pitch-side adverts during televised matches. However, the firm is regulated as a betting site by the Gambling Commission and while it offers a “medium” level of protection for users’ funds if it ceases trading, this applies only to money on deposit and not to any stake that has been “invested” in shares.

As Football Index makes clear in its T&Cs: “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.”

Brian Chappell, the founder of Justiceforpunters.org and a long-standing campaigner on issues affecting gamblers, said on Thursday that “medium” protection “is no guarantee that all funds will be repaid”, adding: “If restrictions are being placed on a customer’s ability to sell shares and/or withdraw funds, this must be a major worry. Betting consumers are all too aware of previous UK-licensed gambling company insolvencies.”

A spokesperson for Football Index said on Friday the firm is “unable to comment on ongoing complaints that involve our users, however we take any reported abuse extremely seriously and we strongly condemn harassment and online trolling”.

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Regarding withdrawals from the site and recent crashes, the spokesperson added: “Cash balances [not spent on shares] are always free to be withdrawn from the site. Order Books [the firm’s system for buying and selling shares between customers] allow our customers to sell more quickly at a lower price or take longer to achieve a higher price, depending on their strategy and demand for that particular footballer. This is clearly set out in our terms of service.”

The spokesperson added that Football Index “is in regular contact with the Gambling Commission and updates them on changes [to operations] at appropriate junctures. These product enhancements were introduced after appropriate testing for fairness through a UK Gambling Commission approved test house.”

The spokesperson declined to reveal the total net investment in Football Index by its customers since launch, or the proportion of customer deposits being held as a cash balance, saying only: “Football Index is a betting product regulated by the Gambling Commission and customers’ bets are not investments. Customer cash balances are protected under a quistclose trust.”