Are You Ready For Some (Fan-Controlled) Football? - Patrick Hruby
Are You Ready For Some (Fan-Controlled) Football?

Can an experimental new league revolutionize sports by turning fans into play callers?
By Patrick Hruby | The Washington Post Magazine | October 2019
The longer Marshawn Lynch sat stone-faced, the more anxious Patrick Dees became. It was November, and Dees, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles, had come to Las Vegas to pitch Lynch, a National Football League star, on his start-up: the Fan Controlled Football League. The concept was both simple and revolutionary: Through online voting and a mobile app, fans would choose team nicknames, pick coaches, draft players and even call plays — in real time, during games.

Dees, the FCFL’s chief gaming officer, wanted Lynch to buy in as an owner of one of the league’s e ight planned teams, in part because he envisioned the popular running back as a potential evangelist of sorts. Yet Dees recalls that as they rode in a car along the Strip, Lynch — half-hidden under a hoodie and behind dark sunglasses — seemed skeptical. Why, he wondered, would anyone take control away from professionals and give it to fans? (Lynch could not be reached for comment.)

Ray Austin, the FCFL’s commissioner and a former NFL player, also was in the car. He and Dees responded to Lynch with a story. Think back, they said, to the infamous ending of Super Bowl XLIX. Twenty-six seconds left. Seattle trailed New England, 28-24. The Seahawks had the ball; they were one yard away from scoring the go-ahead touchdown. All they had to do was hand the ball to their powerful running back — a player named Marshawn Lynch. Instead, Seattle attempted a goal-line pass. The Patriots intercepted the ball. Game over.

Dees turned to Lynch. “When we ask people what play they would have called, 10 out of 10 say, ‘Run up the middle with Marshawn,’ ” he said. The FCFL, Dees explained, would let fans make those decisions.

“So, what would you have called?” Dees asked. Lynch pondered the question. “Oh, you know me, dawg,” Dees recalls Lynch saying. “I would have scored 10 out of 10 times!” Dees noticed that Lynch’s hoodie had come down. His sunglasses were off. The running back was grinning. “This,” Austin recalls Lynch saying, “is going to change the world.”

Okay, no football league is going to change the world. (Have you seen the world lately?) But the FCFL just might change sports. When it comes to determining who does what, traditional leagues are as top-down as a Politburo. Owners, executives, coaches and other Professional Sports Knowers call the shots. Meanwhile, fans call in to talk radio to second-guess those choices. The closest Steve From Arlington ever gets to being in charge of the Washington Redskins is through fantasy sports — and the key word there is “fantasy.”

The FCFL aims to flip that dynamic on its head. Scheduled to debut in early summer 2020 in Las Vegas — with teams playing 7-on-7 inside a customized arena attached to a casino — the league combines the all-American habit of democratic self-determination with the Silicon Valley ethos of an app for everything. The target market? Any football fan who has ever watched helplessly as their favorite squad botched a trade, blew a draft pick, hired the wrong coach, fired the right one, or punted when they should have gone for a first down. In other words, every football fan.

“When I first got involved, people would ask, ‘So, is this a new video game?’ ” says Andy Dolich, 72, the league’s chief operating officer and a former executive with multiple sports franchises, including the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Capitals. “I would say, ‘No, this is real human beings.’ And then it’s, ‘Holy crap!’ Well, the ‘holy crap’ is what got me interested. Fans believe they are smarter than the owner, the general manager, the coach. Here, they’ll have the ability to see if they really are.”

Whether the FCFL can deliver on that promise is, of course, an open question. The NFL and major college football make billions. But other leagues have struggled. The Alliance of American Football imploded just eight games into its inaugural season, declaring bankruptcy with liabilities exceeding $40 million. From pro wrestling czar Vince McMahon and his ill-fated XFL to Donald Trump — a team owner in the United States Football League, which launched in 1983 and shuttered in 1985 — some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment have tried and failed to spin football’s popularity into business gold.

Dees and his three co-founders believe that the FCFL will be different. They come from tech backgrounds: Chief executive officer Sohrob Farudi founded a successful mobile phone trade-in business; Dees helped him build it; chief product officer Grant Cohen worked in mobile advertising; and Austin, in addition to playing in the NFL, has independently built a prototype play-calling app for fans. Collectively, they have faith in the power of game-changing ideas: Netflix upended cable television; iPhones forever changed communication. The FCFL, they believe, can do the same for football.

The Washington Post. Illustrated by Jess Rotter

Actually, fan management isn’t entirely new to sports. In 1951, Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Browns held a “Grandstand Managers 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.) More recently, a minor league soccer team in the United Kingdom gave fans limited control over front-office decisions, attracting investment and media interest before ultimately being sold to Kuwaiti investors.

But the FCFL is proposing to go much further than anyone has gone before. The experiment has its roots in a previous foray that Farudi, 42, and Dees, 40, made into the world of sports ownership. In 2014, both men bought minority stakes in the Las Vegas Outlaws, an Arena Football League team co-owned by Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil. At the end of their first season as owners, the team folded. Neil publicly blamed Farudi for mismanagement. Farudi sued Neil for fraud and defamation. Litigation is ongoing.

And yet, the experience led Farudi and Dees to fall in love with arena football. The sport was fast-paced and high-scoring. Better still, it was intimate. The ball came into the stands. So did the players — and after games, fans would go on the field and play catch with them. The game was so much fun, says Farudi, “because you’re literally on top of the action. Very few leagues allow that type of closeness.”

Was there a way to bring fans even closer? Searching online in June 2015, Farudi came across a 2008 article about a group of investors who wanted to buy a minor league baseball team and let fans run it. They called themselves Project Franchise.

Farudi reached out to Grant Cohen, who had been one of the group’s members. Both men lived in Los Angeles. Farudi asked Cohen to meet. Cohen was flying to San Francisco that night. He suggested finding time the next week.

I want to meet right now, Farudi said. An hour later, the two were eating salads at a downtown restaurant. Project Franchise, Cohen explained, was born in a New York sports bar. Cohen and some buddies were watching a baseball game; after a few too many drinks, they decided that fans should be allowed to call pitches. The idea grew from there. Why stop at pitches? The group built a website, then a blog. In 2009, Cohen says, they came close to buying a minor league baseball team in Fort Worth, only for the deal to fall apart.

Still, Cohen never fully gave up on the idea. In Farudi, he found a kindred spirit. Dees came aboard, then Austin. They dropped the “r” in the name of Cohen’s old group and called their new company Project Fanchise. “It was an instant bromance,” says Cohen, 36. “We decided, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

But they still needed a team. In the summer of 2015, they found a home in the Indoor Football League, a minor league that features 8-on-8 games played on 50-yard fields. After paying a $75,000 IFL expansion fee, the group put its first big decision up for an online vote: What city should we play in?

The vote was open, with no registration required. Just under 10,000 votes were cast, and Salt Lake City topped four other candidates. Next, Project Fanchise added email registration and verification to the process, but it didn’t depress turnout: Roughly 36,000 votes came in for the team’s nickname, with Screaming Eagles beating out Stormin’ Mormons and Teamy McTeamface. Fans picked a coach, Will McCarthy, after a series of live-streamed job interviews. They decided on the team’s roster and starting lineup after watching tryouts and practices — and chose cheerleaders the same way.

Fans voted for adding chili dogs to the concession stand menu at home games, and against adding troubled former NFL standout Greg Hardy to the defensive line. They even picked the song that played during warm-ups for the franchise’s first game in February 2017: “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” by DMX.

That game began inauspiciously. Through an interface similar to the play-calling screen in the video game Tecmo Bowl, fans who had downloaded a custom-built mobile app were encouraged to vote for one of four game-situation-appropriate plays taken from McCarthy’s playbook. The system had worked fine in team practices: The IFL’s 25-second play clock meant voters had 12 seconds to choose a play, with the coach then relaying their pick to his players. But during the Screaming Eagles’ first offensive possession, the franchise’s brand-new, $100,000 in-stadium WiFi network malfunctioned — cutting off the 8,000-plus fans in attendance. Unable to receive fan play calls on his tablet, McCarthy made his own selection. Screaming Eagles quarterback Verlon Reed subsequently fumbled, surrendering a touchdown. On the sidelines, Dees had a moment of pure panic.

Shortly thereafter, the WiFi unfroze. Democracy was restored. Fans called a pass play, and Reed threw a touchdown to receiver Derwyn Lauderdale. Giddy Screaming Eagles supporters rushed the field. Some snapped selfies with Lauderdale. The Screaming Eagles got a delay-of-game penalty, but Farudi didn’t care. It was everything he had hoped for: athletes and fans, connected like never before. “Until you’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine,” he says. “But when you call a play and get a notification that they’re running it on the field, and then it’s a touchdown — it doesn’t matter if a million other people called it, too. You throw your hands in the air and it’s ‘Holy s—! I called a touchdown!’ ”

The Screaming Eagles lost the game and finished the season 5-11. Still, the team’s co-owners felt vindicated. Previously, there had been no way to know if a large number of football fans truly wanted total control, and no way to know what would happen once they had it. Would players mutiny if fans proved inept at calling plays? Would opposing fans download the Screaming Eagles’ app and attempt digital sabotage by making lousy calls en masse? “They were picking from four plays we would want to run in that situation anyway,” Dees says. “It wasn’t like we had a punt on first down, or ‘put your Grandma in the game.’ So sabotage wasn’t too much of a concern.”

Voter fraud reared its ugly head exactly once, Cohen says, when a would-be cheerleader tried to stuff the ballot box to her benefit. “We had a tool to see when and how the votes came in,” Dees says. “This one cheerleader got like 1,000 votes in a half-hour span at 11:30 at night, all from the same IP address coming from one house. It was her house.” Otherwise, the group’s fears were unfounded. According to Dees and Farudi, the team attracted more than a million total online viewers for all its games combined, averaged 19,000 play calls per contest and received votes from 100 countries. “People will say, ‘Man, fans are going to call some stupid plays,’ ” says Austin, 45. “And I’m like, ‘Man, how many coaches call stupid plays every week?’ Our fans were pretty good. They were not calling plays that didn’t make sense.”

They had help. The Screaming Eagles hired a longtime indoor coach, Shawn Liotta, to give fans in-depth online tutorials. They also created a “virtual front office,” allowing fans to join management conference calls about the inner workings of the franchise. “We were all about making sure we put fans in position to do the right thing,” Dees says.

As a result, Austin says, fans sometimes made better decisions than the team’s executives. Case in point? Reed was named the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year — yet as Dees freely admits, the fleet-footed quarterback “wasn’t on our radar before the season.” “Our fans found that dude on YouTube!” Dees says with a laugh. “They must have sent us eight to 10 clips. We signed him because they spammed us.”

The next step was scaling up. Right before the start of the Screaming Eagles’ inaugural campaign, Project Fanchise bought a second IFL team in Colorado, which it slowly converted to fan control over the course of the season. Moving forward, the group planned to license its tech to the league’s other clubs. The goal? Change the “I” in IFL from “Indoor” to “Interactive.”

But the math was dicey. Operating the Screaming Eagles cost roughly $75,000 a month, with travel expenses alone running as high as $40,000 per game. Commandeering an entire league would mean footing the bills for 10 teams in 10 cities. And while college and NFL teams drew tens of thousands of fans per game and enjoyed eight- and nine-figure sponsorship and broadcast deals, IFL franchises made most of their money selling tickets and beer to game-day crowds that seldom exceeded 10,000. “And you can’t get away with charging very much,” Cohen says.

The more Project Fanchise studied the business of minor league football, the more it looked like a sucker’s bet. Even the Alliance of American Football, which was broadcast on major networks and boasted the involvement of former NFL coaches and front-office personnel, collapsed with reported yearly revenue of $12 million and operating costs of $100 million.

To cut costs and improve their odds of avoiding the same fate, Cohen and company decided to exit the IFL and instead start their own league. The FCFL will base its teams in one city, Las Vegas, and play in a single location. Teams will share position coaches, doctors and trainers, marketing staffs and even a practice squad. And rather than relying on putting fans in seats, the league will target eyeballs on screens — chasing a potentially larger and more-lucrative digital audience.

Like real estate agents, traditional sports leagues bank on location: Live in Washington, root for the Redskins. By contrast, the FCFL will crib from esports, a booming, $1.1 billion global industry in which fan loyalty doesn’t depend on geography. “We had 100 different countries calling plays for the Screaming Eagles,” Dees says. “I Skyped with a guy from Hong Kong who would watch with his friends. They didn’t give a s— if the team was in Salt Lake City or Boston or Orlando. They treated it like being associated with one of the three teams in Pok√©mon Go.”

Name-dropping Nintendo’s blockbuster mobile video game isn’t a coincidence. From the NFL to men’s tennis, the average age of the television audience for almost every major American sport is rising. Meanwhile, young people are flocking to video games — as players and spectators. A 2018 Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll found that roughly 60 percent of Americans ages 14 to 21 watch live or recorded video of people playing competitive games. A similar percentage play such games themselves.

The FCFL is being built with Generation Fortnite in mind. Kinda Funny, an online entertainment company that produces video-game shows and podcasts, will own a team. During broadcasts on the streaming platform Twitch, camera-equipped drones will deliver video-game-style views, while helmet cams will provide the same first-person perspective found in shoot-’em-ups like Call of Duty. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Wearable sensors will track player movement and spit out real-time data. So will a wired football that measures throw velocity, spin rate and something called “spiral efficiency” — the better to precisely quantify why your favorite team needs a quarterback change.

Fan voting also will be gamified. The league will track play-calling statistics for individual fans and post the results to a leader board. Pick a screen pass that produces a 15-yard gain on the field? That’s 15 yards for you, too. Or suppose you vote for three successful plays in a row. “Do that, and now you get a multiplier for the next pass — let’s say it’s good for 25 yards, only we boost your score by 75 yards,” Dees says. “It’s the same as a Call of Duty kill streak.”

From top to bottom, the league will be extremely online. Athletes will be encouraged — possibly required — to live-stream their activities outside of game days. “Whether they’re breaking down game film, eating breakfast, working out or playing video games, we want them to be a part of that [online] community,” Farudi says. The hope? Create the football equivalent of YouTube stars and Instagram influencers. On the sidelines, the FCFL plans to introduce a reality-television-style confessional cam, where players can talk directly to the audience. “We want to break that barrier,” Farudi says. “You’re p—ed off that fans voted to run the ball instead of passing? Go tell them!”

“Think about how reality TV started,” says Austin, who appeared on the Bravo series “100 Days of Summer” after retiring from football. “Somebody said, ‘F— it, we are not paying $1 million for superstar actors and spending ridiculous budgets on shows. We are going to get some no-name people, put them in a house and make them famous. That’s never been done in sports.”

Project Fanchise is also reimagining the game itself. Forget spending entire afternoons in front of a television set, wading through endless commercials and a sluggish pace of play: FCFL games will be an hour long, with seven players per side on a 50-yard field. When teams score touchdowns, they won’t have the option to kick extra points. Instead, fans of both squads will vote for a wide receiver and a defensive back to go one-on-one, something Austin says was the most exciting part of practice when he played at the University of Tennessee and Peyton Manning was the quarterback. “Kicks are boring,” Austin says. “Why not showcase three of the best athletes on the field for just one play?”

Speaking of why not: Farudi says that the FCFL will hold weekly contests in which fans can win their teams an extra timeout or an “insurance” fifth down, the latter sponsored by a major insurance company. Teams also may receive a one-time ability to “flip” the field — that is, move the ball from their own 20-yard line to their opponents’ 20-yard line.

Fans will decide an overtime format. “We have a couple of options,” Farudi says. “Maybe it’s the traditional college format. Each team gets the ball and a chance. Maybe it’s one goal-line play: If you score, the offense wins, and if you don’t, the defense wins. Maybe we have a shootout format like soccer with a series of those extra-point battles.”

In Salt Lake City, Project Fanchise was hesitant to go too far off the football reservation. Every change had to pass muster with the IFL’s nine other team owners. “We didn’t want to p— them off, because they were gracious to us,” Farudi says. “But now we own the league. We have no restrictions.”

Owners of FCFL franchises include former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, left, and former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch. (Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The FCFL is in the process of meeting with venture capital firms and potential corporate investors to raise the roughly $15 million the league needs to launch and play a full season. Smaller individual investors already have signed on. Among the earliest was John Brostrom, a 60-year-old entrepreneur from Arizona who learned about the league over dinner with Dees. He bought in after discussing it with his teenage nephews. “They were jaw-dropped,” Brostrom says. “Then I talked to my father, who is in his 80s, and he got it. He sees kids on their devices and screens. It’s football, so there is a tremendous amount of risk — you could have a player break his neck during the first game. But we are in a country that is hungry for sports and hungry for video games. This mashes them together. It’s a home run if they execute.”

If they execute. It’s a qualifier heard weekly on football pregame shows, an acknowledgment that even the cleverest play call can be undone by a fumbled snap. For the FCFL, execution means setting up payroll. Scheduling scouting combines. Finding an insurance carrier willing to cover a sport increasingly linked to brain damage. It also means coming up with rules for sexual harassment, domestic violence and drug use. “We are planning to be more progressive than the NFL on marijuana,” says Lionel Yarmon, 36, FCFL director of football operations.

For months, Yarmon has been shuttling between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, scouting doctors and trainers, gyms and practice fields, apartment buildings and extended-stay hotels. He spends a lot of time negotiating with restaurants and grocery stores. “Food for 180-plus dudes is a lot of food!” he says with a laugh. “But I want everything to be teed up and seamless when guys get to Vegas. Players talk. They have friends who will be interested in playing in this league in future years. If we leave a bad taste in their mouths, we’ll have a problem recruiting the high-quality talent we need.”

Austin is confident that the FCFL won’t lack for talent — not when there are hundreds of good players who every season either go undrafted by the NFL or are cut during the league’s preseason. “It’s a rotating door of guys who are always wanting to play and get picked up,” he says. For those athletes, the league has a simple pitch: Don’t sit at home. Come play for us. Get exposure. Compile highlights. Sharpen your skills. “And don’t forget, playing in Vegas is a huge selling point,” Austin says.

When the Alliance of American Football abruptly shut down, chaos reigned. Some players reportedly were stuck with the bills for their lodging and flights home. A staffer for one franchise told Sports Illustrated that colleagues engaged in the “biggest loot-fest I’ve ever seen,” swiping cameras, printers and flat-screen TVs from the team’s offices. Austin read the reports with dread. He was reminded of a recent documentary film, about another group of enthusiastic entrepreneurs promising to change the world. “We’re not trying to be the Fyre Festival of football,” he says. “That is what keeps me up at night.”

Other owners of FCFL franchises include radio host Bobby Bones, left, and NFL cornerback Richard Sherman. (Photos from left by Linda Davidson; Ben Margot/Associated Press)

"Congratulations,” says Dees. “You own a football team.” Mike Tyson holds up his hands, smiling and victorious. It’s a July afternoon at the El Segundo, Calif., offices of Tyson Ranch, where the former heavyweight boxing champion has reinvented himself as a podcast host and budding cannabis impresario. Dees and Austin are here to finalize a deal that makes Tyson an FCFL franchise owner — joining Lynch, NFL star Richard Sherman and an eclectic group of pop culture figures that includes singer Prince Royce and radio host Bobby Bones.

“What happened to [the AAF]?” asks Charlie Lyons, a longtime sports and media executive who now advises Tyson.

“They overpromised,” Austin says.

“It’s unfeasible,” Dees says. “They thought they would just do more of the same.”

That, of course, is the opposite of what the FCFL is pitching. The question now is whether the league can persuade enough fans to answer its revolutionary call and reject the fundamentally passive nature of watching sports. In practice, that will mean winning over people like Mark Nichols. A 55-year-old sales manager at Tyson Ranch, Nichols once played defensive tackle at Michigan State University; he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but a training-camp neck injury ended his football career. As Dees and Austin describe their vision from across a conference table, Nichols seems unconvinced.

“How big is your stadium?” Nichols asks.

“Six hundred people,” Dees says.

“That’s it?” Nichols asks.

“It’s for the digital age,” Austin says.

“Explain that to me,” Nichols says.

“It’s on Twitch,” Dees says.

“What’s Twitch?” Nichols says.

Dees explains streaming. Fan voting. Gamification. He explains that the league is partnering with a Vegas nightclub to give its arena a party vibe. We might have hot tubs. Austin discusses the Screaming Eagles, and how he watched game film with fans from around the world — later meeting some of those same fans for drinks in New York. That’s the relationship we’re creating.

“We are taking out special teams, too,” Austin says.

“F—ing good,” Nichols says.

“Thank you,” Dees says.

In the future, Austin says, the FCFL would love to see the NFL use its tech in an exhibition game, like the Pro Bowl. “Our holy grail,” he says. Cohen still wants to bring fan control to baseball. Dees believes international cricket is a perfect fit. “This can be worldwide,” Austin says.

For now, though, they’re just trying to win over one fan. Austin opens his laptop. He shows a video of the Screaming Eagles’ first-ever touchdown, and then a demo of the FCFL’s play-calling software. Nichols grins. “I think this is f—ing great,” he says. “You guys are crazy.” Dees slaps his hands on the table. One more skeptic down. The rest of the world to go.