Why you should care
Because coaches may soon come from the couch.
Would I have made the same mistake?
It’s the hard reality of the sports fan: We have no real ability to help our favorite team. We can’t prove that we could call better plays than the coaching staff, for instance. But thanks to a rising trend in social sports gamification, that may be changing.
Last season, an Indoor Football League team in Salt Lake City let fans call the plays. The Screaming Eagles were a test bed for Project FANchise, an ownership group that lets fans vote on everything from the team logo to personnel decisions for two teams in the Indoor Football League (the other franchise is the Colorado Crush). And now, FANchise plans to launch the Interactive Football League, a cross between esports and traditional football. And this coming spring, Boston startup Your Call Football (YCF) will launch a two-team exhibition series involving former NFL coaches and aspiring NFL athletes, but with fans calling the plays through an app powered by patented technology. A new baseball app, Infield Chatter, is allowing fans to chat with their favorite players.
We’re bringing Madden to real life.
Julie Meringer, president of Your Call Football
These initiatives portend a possible future for American sports leagues that not all players are thrilled about. But fans are flocking in numbers that dramatically outstrip participation figures otherwise. On Nov. 11, YCF served as the title sponsor for the Fenway Gridiron Series, a series of college football games at Boston’s historic Fenway Park. At the event, more than 100 fans used the YCF app simultaneously. By the middle of the next week, traffic to the Your Call Football website was up 450 percent. During the inaugural season of Project FANchise, nearly 38,000 fans used the group’s app to hire Screaming Eagles head coach William McCarthy in August 2016.
“We’re bringing Madden to real life,” says Julie Meringer, president of YCF, referring to the popular video game. “We want to put the highest quality football product possible on the field while providing fans with a game within the game.”
The new initiatives aren’t the first to involve fans in locker room decisions. Since 2012, Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders have allowed fans to vote on operational decisions, particularly the biyearly performance reviews for the team’s general manager. FC Barcelona, one of the world’s most popular and successful soccer clubs, has employed this approach for some years too.
But now, previously isolated efforts are turning into a steady stream of initiatives that hope to tap into an unprecedented gaming boom. Gaming market research company Newzoo estimates that more than 2.2 billion people worldwide will engage in gaming this year. More than 2.6 billion people — a third of the world’s population — also will use social media in 2018, according to business intelligence firm Statista. The global sports market is worth $700 billion.
During the Project FANchise inaugural season, fans were provided the opportunity to vote on organizational operations, like the hiring of a head coach and finalizing the 25-man roster, for prices ranging from $10 to $40. Then in March 2017, the Screaming Eagles entered into a partnership with Amazon’s Twitch, one of the largest esports streaming sites in the world, with more than 100 million unique monthly users. By the end of the season the Screaming Eagles had tens of thousands of registered fans. Many Project FANchise games were streamed more than 100,000 times, compared to the Indoor Football League average of 2,000, says the group’s co-founder Grant Cohen. On average, each fan called between 15 and 20 plays in a match. And crucially, says Cohen, fans from all 50 U.S. states and almost 100 countries joined in, pointing to a global digital fan base.
When the YCF app launches this spring, fans can compete in head-to-head matchups or pool play much like the system used by many daily fantasy sports giants. But instead of player production, this competition is all about the plays. Before every snap, a coach on the field will select three plays — a “bundle” in the lexicon of YCF — and will note which play he prefers. The bundle appears on the app, and fans have 10 seconds to vote for a play. Through a patented scoring system, fans — who can stream the action from tablets and mobile devices — earn points based on the success of the play and whether they chose the same play as the coach.
Crowdsourced competition and instant gratification may appeal to young fans, believes Jon Bales, co-founder of the daily fantasy sports intelligence platform Fantasy Labs. “That’s part of why people love [daily fantasy],” says Bales. “There’s a more immediate payoff. This is a different game, but the payoff would be realized even quicker.”
Producing a quality product that engages fans remains a challenge. Former Green Bay Packers special teams coach Frank Novak has signed on as a consultant with Your Call Football, and last week the company announced the hiring of former NFL head coach Mike Sherman as the one of two head coaches. Sherman will choose his staff. To attract quality, Your Call Football will provide players with lodging and three meals a day; salaries have not been announced. “Six hundred players cut by NFL teams [this fall] are looking for a job,” says Meringer.
But some former players are concerned about more fundamental implications of fans calling plays.
“Man, if I was a player I would be scared out of my mind that people might put me in a position to fail versus succeed,” says Ryan Nece, former NFL linebacker and Super Bowl champion. “I don’t know if I would trust it.” From the outside, he says, it is easy to underestimate the time and preparation that goes into “putting together the playbook for every game.”
How well these fan-centered initiatives respond to these concerns could determine their success — and the future of American sports leagues. One thing’s for sure, though: Punters better start practicing how to pass on fourth and long.