Real Life Fantasy Football - Patrick Hruby
Real Life Fantasy Football

In the Fan Controlled Football League, you'll call the plays - and the shots
By Patrick Hruby | BREAKER | September 2018
For sports executives, it’s a familiar dilemma: Should you sign a player whose skill will help win games, even though their off-field issues likely will produce a public relations stink? Sometimes, as in the case of New York Yankees pitcher Aroldis Chapman, teams bite the bullet. Sometimes they shy away. But when the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles, a minor league indoor football team in Salt Lake City, Utah, faced this conundrum in March of last year, the franchise’s brain trust settled on a novel solution: Let the fans decide.

The athlete in question was Greg Hardy, a former Pro Bowl defensive end effectively banished from the National Football League following a conviction for assaulting his ex-girlfriend—charges were later dismissed when she stopped cooperating with authorities—and an arrest for cocaine possession. Hardy hadn’t played football since 2015, but had recently contacted the Screaming Eagles about a comeback.

His talent was tantalizing. “Let’s be honest, that guy would have made our team 1,000 percent better, immediately,” says Ray Austin, a former NFL player and Screaming Eagles co-owner. But the franchise also was terrified. “I believe everybody gets a second chance, but there’s no way it was a good community fit,” says co-owner Patrick Dees. As the team’s braintrust discussed adding Hardy, a third co-owner, Grant Cohen, spoke up.

“This is a fan choice,” Cohen said.

Silence ensued. Let the fans decide? In any other front office, the mere suggestion would be laughable. The New York Yankees do not let Tommy from Queens choose their batting order. The San Francisco 49ers did not put quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing employment up for a public referendum. But the Screaming Eagles were different. A first-year expansion franchise in the Indoor Football League—a minor league founded in 2008 that features 8-on-8 games played on 50-yard fields—the organization was conducting a radical, almost unprecedented experiment in sports management.

Via online voting, fans chose the team’s home city. They selected the club’s nickname, passing on “Spaghetti Monsters” and “Teamy McTeamface.” They decided on the DMX song that played during warm-ups. Fans even were picking the team’s offensive plays—during games—via a custom app.

For Cohen and the other co-owners, that level of interactivity had been the whole point of joining the IFL—a chance to build a crowdsourced hybrid of fantasy football and the Madden video game, only with real people, and maybe, just maybe, transform professional sports. So yes, Hardy’s fate would be settled by popular will. “We all agreed on it,” Dees says.

Fans voting during a Salt Lake Screaming Eagles game, March 2017. Photo by FCFL

The Screaming Eagles made Hardy a jersey, and also prepared to tell him thanks, but no thanks. Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser argued about it on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. They weren’t alone. “We had fans saying, ‘Hey man, it’s just indoor football, who cares, everything happened three years ago, let him play,’” Austin said. “We had women calling into radio stations saying they would protest every home game if we signed him. I had family members telling me, ‘I know you won’t let him on the team.’ We were freaking out. Freaking out.

On the night of the vote, Dees went to bed with the pro-Hardy camp leading by six percentage points. “I figured that we got him,” Dees says. When he woke up, fans had chosen not to sign Hardy, with 50.1 percent voting no. Austin exhaled. The freakout was over. But not for everyone. “What we didn’t expect was a vocal backlash from the 49.9 percent,” says Screaming Eagles co-owner Sohrob Farudi. “They said it was bullshit, a publicity stunt. That the vote was rigged and that we never planned to sign him. We heard that for months.”

This was a problem. After all, it’s one thing to antagonize your fanbase with a bad personnel move; established franchises do that all the time. It’s quite another to tell fans that they’re the ones making the moves, and then leave some of them feeling like the whole thing is as scripted as pro wrestling.

The Screaming Eagles had attracted glowing national coverage from the likes of Sports Illustrated and GQ. Fan feedback had been positive—so much so that the team’s owners were planning to extend fan control to a second IFL franchise, and also considering a fan-run league. Suddenly, the future seemed shaky. “We could’ve opened up our [voting] database, but that can be made up,” Farudi says. “There was no way for us to really prove that the votes fans saw for Hardy were legitimate.”

Without that proof, the Screaming Eagles would face corrosive skepticism—after all, if your league is built on voting, suspicion about one ballot could undermine the whole system. “If fans don’t trust the votes,” Farudi says, “they’ll lose interest.” Going forward, the team needed a unimpeachable way to let fans call the shots. The revolution needed revolutionary tech.

A Danish hockey team rebrands its arena—down to the pucks—with bitcoin logos. Celebrity athletes including soccer’s Luis Figo and boxing’s Manny Pacquiao endorse initial coin offerings. Cryptocurrency-based digital startups announce plans to disrupt sportscasting and the developmental funding of teen tennis and soccer prodigies. Blockchain has come to sports, and as is the case in other fields, the grandiose promises and breathless press releases can be sorted into two basic categories: 1) projects poised to own the future—which is crypto, duh—featuring long-term business plans that are, uh, TBD; and 2) projects attempting to solve thorny problems through practical software applications, a decidedly unsexy grind that won’t make anyone an overnight millionaire, but might help our food supply chains limit costly and deadly E. coli outbreaks.

The Fan-Controlled Football League (FCFL) sounds like bucket one, but it has a far more concrete and developed plan than most industry-upending crypto-based projects. Wholly independent of the IFL and scheduled to launch next spring, it’s the Screaming Eagles’ concept on growth hormone: eight teams, a 14-week regular season, playoffs and a championship, and fans determining everything from team mascots to league rules about what constitutes a catch—something the big-boy NFL has struggled with. “What’s happening there is not working,” Austin says with a laugh. “We see that as the type of decision that’s a good opportunity for the fans to get involved. People want to feel that their voice matters.”

To ensure that it does—and to avoid a Hardy vote rerun—the FCFL has turned to blockchain. After dabbling in bitcoin as an investment, Farudi studied the underlying technology. He quickly realized that a transparent, shared, and incorruptible transaction ledger was exactly what the league needed. With blockchain, fan votes couldn’t be changed or hidden. Trust, to borrow a phrase from Ronald Reagan, would be verified.

“Blockchain is a big expense for us from a technical and legal standpoint, and because it’s still in its infancy, there’s risk,” Farudi says. “But if our fans are spending all this time, energy, and emotion making these votes, let’s make sure there’s no questioning the outcomes.”

A 41-year-old entrepreneur who funded his childhood baseball card and video game habits through lemonade stand sales, Farudi grew up in Texas, living and dying with the Dallas Cowboys. He’s also an avid fantasy football player, and a weekend warrior who has torn ligaments in both knees. “Left knee three times, right knee once—twice playing basketball, once playing flag football, once playing indoor soccer,” he says with a laugh. “I refuse to play baseball. I’m not going to tear up my knee playing baseball.”

After founding a successful cell phone trade-in company, Farudi got his first taste of sports ownership in 2014, purchasing a minority stake in the Las Vegas Outlaws, an Arena Football League team owned by Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil. Sitting in the owner’s box was a dream come true—until it became a nightmare. “It was the least amount of diligence I had ever done before making an investment,” Farudi says. “I learned my lesson the hard way.”

The Outlaws folded after a single season. Neil publicly blamed Farudi for mismanagement. Farudi sued Neil for fraud. (Litigation is ongoing.) “Honestly, it was the most trying time of my life,” Farudi says. Nevertheless, he fell in love with indoor football. The ball came into the stands. The players came into the stands. It was like hockey, only with no plexiglass separating fans from the action. “After the game, you can go on the field and throw the ball around with the players you were just watching,” Farudi says. “That really resonated with me.”

Farudi wondered: what if you could remove all of the barriers between fans and teams? What if fandom was less like watching football on a Sunday afternoon, passive and powerless, and more like controlling your MyClub in the FIFA video games?

“As a fan, you find yourself yelling at the TV when they run the play you didn’t want, or a draft pick comes in and it’s like, ‘how the fuck did we pick that guy?’” he says. “Everyone thinks they can do it better. Let’s find out.”

So Farudi started Googling. He found an old article about a group of investors who wanted to buy a minor league baseball team and let fans run it, then got in touch with its mastermind, Cohen. The two agreed to revive the idea, calling it “Project Fanchise.” They subsequently connected with Austin—who independently was building a real-time play-calling app for football fans—and added Dees and two other investors.

In the summer of 2015, the group made their pitch to the IFL: We want to buy a new franchise, and we want to turn every decision over to the fans—including the city the team plays in. The league, which features eight players per side and 50-yard fields, said yes. For a $65,000 expansion fee, Project Fanchise would become a reality in either Boise, Idaho; Independence, Missouri; Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City; or Salt Lake City. “We were the first team that was approved for five different markets,” Farudi says.

Fan-managed sports have been tried before. In 1951, Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Browns held a “Grandstand Manager Night,” allowing fans to hold up placards reading YES or NO to vote on various in-game decisions. (The Browns beat the Philadelphia Athletics 5-3). A decade ago, a minor league soccer team in the United Kingdom gave fans limited control over front office decisions, attracting a flurry of investment and interest before running low on both. (The franchise was sold to Kuwaiti investors in 2013).

The Screaming Eagles mascot. Photo by FCFL

Project Fanchise picked up where its predecessors left off—and then some. The team’s introductory press conference featured a football helmet adorned with a question mark. Fans chose a coach, Will McCarthy, after a series of live-streamed, “Bachelor”-style job interviews, and selected the team’s roster and starting lineup after watching tryouts and practices. They even voted to add chili dogs to the concession stand menu.

The Screaming Eagles built an app that would let fans pick offensive plays from their mobile devices—choosing from four game situation-appropriate plays, like the play-calling screen in Tecmo Bowl—and hired a longtime indoor football coach, Shawn Liotta, to teach them the nuances of the sport. But would fans make good decisions? And would McCarthy or his players mutiny if they didn’t? Nobody knew. Andrew Kline, an investment banker and former NFL lineman, told the Los Angeles Business Journal that the Screaming Eagles would either change sports forever, or “crash and burn really bad, and people will make fun of them forever.”

The team’s first game started with a crash—literally, as a brand-new, $100,000 in-stadium WiFi network froze during the Screaming Eagles’ first offensive drive. With the 8,000-plus fans in attendance and thousands more watching online unable to send a playcall to McCarthy’s tablet, the coach made his own selection. Quarterback Verlon Reed promptly fumbled in the Screaming Eagles’ end zone, surrendering a touchdown to the visiting Nebraska Danger.

That wasn’t the play I called, commented one spectator on the YouTube stream of the game.

I don’t remember ‘drop the ball in the end zone’ as a play option in the app, wrote another.

From the sideline, Dees saw fans fiddling with their phones, wondering what went wrong. He was apoplectic. “It was our coming-out party, and if the tech doesn’t work in game one, then we are a joke,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘what have we done?’” Minutes later, the WiFi was back up—and with it, vindication. Fans called a pass play. Reed threw a touchdown to receiver Derwyn Lauderdale, the first in franchise history. People in the stands rushed the field, snapping celebratory selfies with Lauderdale and gleefully slapping his shoulder pads. “Everybody felt ownership of that score,” Dees says. “It was awesome.”

The Screaming Eagles lost the game. They finished the season 5-11. But that hardly mattered. The franchise attracted more than a million total online viewers for its home games, averaged 19,000 playcalls per contest, and received votes from 100 different countries. While McCarthy chafed under fan control and was let go after two games, the team’s players embraced crowdsourcing—with good reason. The Screaming Eagles boasted the IFL’s third-ranked offense, and Reed, who was discovered by fans who sent his game film to the front office, was the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

“The fans did better than seven of the 10 other coaches in the league, who are professionals,” Liotta says. “Now compare that to what happens on Monday morning after NFL games. You turn the radio on. Everyone has an opinion—your team ran too much, threw too much. What’s awesome about this is that your opinion actually matters.”

But Project Fanchise wasn’t satisfied. Following the season, they shut down the Screaming Eagles and exited the IFL. “We found a league [in the IFL] that was gracious enough to let in a bunch of crazy guys with a crazy idea,” Farudi says. But the fit had grown increasingly awkward. Farudi’s group initially hoped to license its fan control platform to the league’s other teams, transforming the “I” in IFL from “indoor” to “interactive.” That changed after the group saw how expensive it was to field a single team for a single season, with travel costs alone running as high as $40,000 per road game.

“It’s not impossible to make money in the indoor game, but it’s almost impossible,” Farudi says. “You have to sell out your arena, sell a ton of merchandise, and get a giant chunk of concessions”—in other words, earn revenue by putting fans in the stands, the traditional business model of minor league sports. Project Fanchise had a different idea: why not focus on a potentially much bigger digital audience, the fans watching game streams and calling plays from all over the world? Create a compelling football experience—build an entire league of your own—and you could spend less while making more.

“Go to a NFL game,” Liotta says. “Take a look around. Every single person has their phone out. It could be a playoff game, and they’re texting and taking pictures. When you think about the future of sports, this is the future—engaging fans in a way that they can participate from their phones.”

As such, the FCFL will look less like the IFL—or, for that matter, the NFL—than “American Ninja Warrior.” To slash expenses, all eight teams will be located in a single city, sharing position coaches, medical staff, and a practice squad. They’ll play in the same arena, which will only hold a few thousand fans and otherwise function in the manner of a television soundstage, allowing the league and broadcast partners Twitch and IMG Productions to deliver a more seamless interactive experience and experiment with helmet cameras and overhead drones delivering Madden-style views of the action.

The game itself will be optimized for online viewers, such as the players on the high school football team Liotta coaches in suburban Pittsburgh. “I’m sure they will love this,” he says. “They love Fortnite.” Contests will be a hour long, fast-paced and high-scoring, with seven players per side on a 50-yard field. Oh, and no kicking extra points. “There’s nothing more boring,” Austin says. Instead, the FCFL will feature a one-on-one showdown between a receiver and a defensive back. “I went to [the University of] Tennessee, and Peyton Manning was my quarterback in practice,” Austin says. “The most exciting, competitive drill was the one-on-one with the receivers and DBs. You had the best athletes on the field, all the NFL scouts sitting on the sidelines, the whole team watching. And you never see it anywhere else! Imagine the anticipation when fans get to vote on who goes up against who.”

The FCFL’s owners plan to let fans select cheerleaders and vote for picks during a real-time, preseason player draft—which, naturally, will take place after a live-streamed scouting combine. They’re considering holding weekly contests that would award fans extra perks, like the ability to give their team an extra down during the next game. Farudi says his group also plans to expand something they call the “virtual front office,” which in Salt Lake City allowed fans to pay a monthly subscription fee to join management conference calls and connect with former NFL players and team investors Al Wilson and Ahman Green. “Fans don’t usually get to do this stuff,” Farudi says. “I was on the phone with Joe Montana two weeks ago, and even I’m like, ‘holy shit, I am talking to Joe Montana!’”

Underneath it all will be blockchain. In April, the FCFL partnered with New Alchemy, a Seattle-based consulting group, to implement the technology into their fan platform. In part, the league wanted to avoid a repeat of the Hardy vote. “For a while, we figured we would use, like, the accountants who verify the Oscars or the NBA Draft,” Dees says with a laugh. “We needed a better solution.” They also wanted to take advantage of the ability to create bitcoin-style tokens, the FCFL’s answer to the virtual currency found in popular sports video games such as NBA 2K.

The tokens will work in two ways. First, they’ll serve as a proxy for voting power: the more you have, the more your vote for a team logo or a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-short will count. Fans will receive tokens when they download the league’s app, and be able to earn more by being involved with the league—watching games, creating and sharing league content on social media, picking plays that produce yards and touchdowns. “If you choose a sweep right and that gets run and we gain six yards, then you gain six yards on your fan profile,” Farudi says. “We’ll have fan leader boards and a whole competitive ecosystem. And it’s not a pay-to-play thing. You earn more as you participate.”

Second, the FCFL wants to create individual player tokens that fans can collect and trade, akin to the baseball cards Farudi loved as a child. “What we really like about the blockchain is that we can give those tokens special properties,” he says, envisioning rare tokens that could be redeemed for a 30-minute Skype session with a star receiver, or the chance to warm up a favorite quarterback on the field before a game. “It’s all about unique experiences and opportunities,” Farudi says.

One fan, one vote. Photo by FCFL

For now, the FCFL is a lot like blockchain itself—potentially game-changing, but very much a work in progress. “Nobody has done this before,” Dees says. “There’s no road map.” Challenges abound. Dees says that current blockchain tech may be too slow for real-time play-calling, and that building an intuitive online interface has proven thorny. “You see some pretty cumbersome stuff with blockchain, 13-step nonsense with using a special browser,” he says. “We have to distill everything into something accessible and instantly fun.” On the meatspace side of things, the league likely will play its games in Las Vegas, and possibly on the Strip. That has Austin—responsible for the care, feeding, and football development of the FCFL’s athletes—fretting. “Is that the right place for us?” he says. “I’ll be dealing with 200 young players, in Vegas, who will now be in the limelight.”

Fans are another wildcard. In Salt Lake City, they were good sports citizens, voting to help the home team win. But what if the FCFL’s larger, mostly digital, and less geographically loyal audience decides to act like … online trolls? Could they sabotage a team by calling crummy plays? Could fans of one team tank an opponent with a targeted barrage of bad faith votes? (According to Cohen, a prospective Screaming Eagles cheerleader tried, and failed, to stuff the ballot box in her favor). Then there’s the old school specter of gambling and game-fixing—could a bettor or bookie somehow amass tokens, then use that voting power to shade and swing games? “You make one mistake there, and you probably won’t get a chance to make a second, because you’ll be done in terms of credibility,” says Andy Dolich, a former professional sports executive who is advising the FCFL. “It’s like a terrorist attack at a sporting event.”

The Screaming Eagles were a successful proof of concept, but the dustbin of business history is overflowing with promising concepts that struggled to scale. For Farudi, the potential payoff is worth the risk. Global sports, he says, are a trillion dollar industry. Video gaming and fantasy sports are worth hundreds of billions. “We want to be at the intersection of those markets—the passion of live sports, the competition of fantasy sports, the engagement of video games,” he says. Dees sees the future in more intimate terms. Wandering the field after the Screaming Eagles’ first game, he watched a young fan approach receiver Devin Mahina and introduce himself. Hi, the boy said, I’m Billy. On that touchdown, I called that play. Mahina kneeled down. He looked the boy in the eye. Billy, he said, thank you for calling that play. “The kid lost his mind,” Dees says. “That’s when I knew we were onto something. This is going to be a thing.”