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This football team is surrendering play-calling, roster moves, and even its logo design to its fans
Fans run everything around them.
One of the primary tasks for any sports fan is the need to second guess. Since we have no say in our favorite squad’s decisions, we can argue endlessly about what to do without ever being proven wrong. The people behind Project Fanchise understand that fan hindsight is 20/20; now they plan to find out just how good their foresight is.
A team of former NFL players, executives, and sports industry insiders—the type of people you’d want running a team—decided last year to buy in to the Indoor Football League. They secured the rights to an expansion team, which is set to debut during the 2017 season. Then they did something radical: they decided to give away control.
For Project Fanchise, the front office executives won’t be watching from suites above field and the coaches won’t be on the sidelines; it will be the face-painted diehards in the stands and at home running the show.
Everything from the team identity—logo, team name, location—to on field personnel and even the play calling will be dictated by the people with the most emotional investment in the outcome.
It’s the very thing that Grant Cohen, the leader of the digital effort behind Project Fanchise, dreamed up nearly a decade ago. At the time, it was just an idea shared between a group of friends—the typical type of concept that arrises in between pitches and over a few beers.
A full nine years later, with that time spent developing apps and mobile products, Cohen and the rest of the ownership group finally have all the resources necessary to make their barstool banter a reality.
“Think of all the crazy shit that you could do if you owned a team. I own a team now,” he told the Daily Dot. “Me and a bunch of other dudes who think like me own a football team.”
Right now, that team is without all of the defining characteristics of a typical sports franchise; it has no name, no logo, and up until Thursday had no place to play. Location was the first decision left up to the fans, and they selected Salt Lake City, Utah, and its Maverik Center will be home to the organization.
Everyone who showed enough interest to register an account with Project Fanchise was able to vote on the team’s location; that won’t be the case for everything.
“This is not a true democracy. Not all fans are created equal, that’s our belief,” Cohen said. The basic stuff, the decisions that won’t necessarily impact the team, anyone can vote on. Bigger decisions, like making the play call with the game on the line? You better be invested and know what you’re talking about if you want your voice heard.
The chance for fans to differentiate themselves started with the Battle of the Fans, an effort to encourage fans to spread the word to as many people as possible. Participants get points by sharing links and getting more people to sign up.
A more fleshed-out version of the platform will appear in a couple months, once the beta version of the mobile app is available. Cohen is hard at work on the final product, which will operate similar to one-day fantasy teams.
“Every day, you’ll have a series of questions, quizzes, trivia,” Cohen explained. Those questions may range from things like, “Who’s going to have more catches: Dez Bryant or Antonio Brown?” or more subjective questions like “Who’s the better Bears running back: Gale Sayers or Walter Payton?”
Picking correctly (or siding with the majority) is rewarded with points, which increase everything from access to voting power. “We call it the Fan IQ,” Cohen said. The points move fans up a tiered ranking system, where they’ll advance from rookie to starter, all the way to Hall of Famer, with a variety of perks unlocked along the way.
The top fan will join the team in an advisory role, serving on the board of owners. The next highest levels will score everything from season tickets to merchandise. But most important, they’ll have more sway in the decision making. “The guy who spends every day of the last six months pounding away, his vote is going to be worth 10 of the other people’s votes,” Cohen said.
Cohen and his team intend to reward fans in every way they can. He suggested that fans who lead in points each week will lead the team out of the locker room, or the person with the most play calls leading to first downs can throw warmup passes with the quarterback before the game.
“Every week we’re going to have fans submit videos of themselves choreographing what our first end zone dance should be when we score our first touchdown,” he said. “The person who’s video wins the most votes, we’ll fly him out and sit him next to the endzone so when we score, we’ll put him on the Jumbotron and he can do the dance alongside the players.”
They’ll also consider the most dedicated fans for staff positions. Cohen said they hear from at least a handful of fans every day asking for jobs, and “there are certainly ones who we’ll consider bringing on board for our team.”
One of those fans who worked his way up into the top fan position got a special shoutout on his birthday from some of the former NFL stars involved with the team, and got a call from Cohen telling him that he’ll have a job with the Fanchise if he wants it. “You’re crushing it and you’re doing it for free right now. I can’t even imagine how good you’d be if you were actually paid and on our staff,” Cohen said he told the fan.
Those roles aren’t necessarily are as much about knowledge as they are effort—the true test of fans will be how the handle making the decisions that the team will need to get right. When Cohen talks about giving fans the ability to call plays, he’s not talking about a novelty, one-off play selection like what has rolled out during the Pro Bowl—he means the entire game.
Early on in the process, it will be situational. But once Cohen and his team can work through the kinks and ensure plays can be relayed in a timely fashion, they plan to hand over every snap—offense and defense—to their most engaged followers.
Cohen insisted that the idea is “not that crazy,” comparing it in practice to calling plays in Madden. “It’s down and distance and the plays come up. It’s not like you’re going to have to draw up a play,” he said. “We know because it’s, you know, third down in the fourth quarter and we’re down a touchdown, here’s the type of play our coach wants us to do. It’s going to give you a few different options…and all you have to do is tap one.”
The incentive for fans to partake in this process is obvious; it’s unprecedented control over the sport they love. For players and coaches, it’s a little less clear.
“A lot of people look at it and say, ‘How will you get players to play for you?’ On a fan-run team, who the heck wants to be running back, right?” Cohen said. “You’d expect fans are going to want to throw the ball every time.”
In his mind, though, the fact that it’s status as a minor league team means Project Fanchise’s leverage is platform more so than conventional measures of success.
“We’re not talking about the NFL. We’re talking about the IFL. The guys who play in the IFL, this isn’t their career for life,” Cohen said. “This is their stepping stone.” They’ll have a bigger audience, with fans across the country rather than confined to a particular city or region. And even better, they’ll have a major group of advocates behind them, because it’s the fans who pick the players.
“My gut is when you have all the fans having say over personnel, that the person themselves actually matters,” Cohen said.
“You’re going to have to be not only a really good player, but a good person and engaging and interesting and you’re going to have to be someone who the fans want to root for and want to get on the team,” Cohen theorized, pointing to examples in the NFL like Greg Hardy, who was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend, signing with the Dallas Cowboys for his on-field skill despite his despicable actions off it.
Cohen backed off the idea slightly, though, to acknowledge that, with fans in control, he could be proven entirely wrong. “It could be the fans are just as cutthroat as Jerry Jones and say, ‘We don’t give a shit, we just want the best guys.'”
Those distinct voices with very different ideas for how the team should be run are sure to rally their likeminded fans and eventually butt heads. Cohen said that’s the part that he’s looking forward to most, highlighting to the game-sealing play of Super Bowl XLIX as the perfect example of what might happen.
“Imagine you’re a Seahawks fan and instead of running the ball with Marshawn [Lynch] and scoring a game-winning touchdown, they throw it. And you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that’s not what I would have done.’ You never really had a chance to make that decision,” Cohen said. “Now imagine if you actually voted for the run, and your fellow fans had outvoted you, and they threw the pass and got picked. Imagine how incensed you’d be.”
That outrage—or excitement when things go right—will be the driving force for the team, though obviously winning will have to come with it. Fans might turn out to be horrible decision makers, but they aren’t going to want to take the blame for it, especially when they can quickly abandon the team by just not logging in any longer.
The hope for Cohen and Project Fanchise, and the IFL as a whole, is that their platform will drive fans to become even more dedicated to their favorite squads. “If we’re lucky, if we win the title, we’ll play in a 20 game season. 340 days a year, over 90 percent of the year, most teams are doing something that fans can’t engage in,” Cohen said.
The system behind the Fanchise could change that—and could be implemented elsewhere. Other IFL teams are watching closely and considering the possibility for applying aspects of to system to their own teams. IFL commissioner Mike Allshouse told the Daily Dot the league is completely in support of Project Fanchise’s efforts, and would welcome other teams who want to adopt it.
“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I am sure that some of our teams would be interested in adopting the components of Fanchise that prove to be successful,” he said. “That would be their choice and we would support them if they chose to do so.”
Even pro teams might be able to take parts of the process; Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr assuredly isn’t going to let fans decide what play to run out of a timeout, but ownership might reward its most dedicated fans with opportunities to interact with the team in new ways.
Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, told the Daily Dot that it the idea was “the ultimate fantasy football crowd sourcing game,” and expected fans who participate would be more likely to attend games and watch. “Hope it works for them,” he said.
Other teams have dabbled with similar, albeit smaller, ideas in the past. The Sacramento Kings in 2014 opened its draft war room to a handful of fans with unique statistical models and allowed them to offer insight into their draft pick. The team landed University of Michigan guard Nik Stauskas, though the outcome will remain unknown—the team traded Stauskas, who has struggled at the pro level, the next season after firing the general manager who led the fan-friendly initiative.
Several franchises have also opted to give fans a seat at the table to some degree, though it’s often more symbolic than meaningful. The Green Bay Packers may be the most widely-known example in the United States, as the NFL team has been fan-owned nearly since conception, selling shares of the team to its faithful followers. There are annual shareholders meetings where fans are addressed, though their “owner” title is nominal.
FC Barcelona, the top tier soccer squad in La Liga, holds elections for fans who pay a membership fee to vote for the president of the team, a practice that comes with often extravagant promises from the prospective candidates. The event often draws larger turnout than Barcelona’s mayoral elections and is one of the few instances where fans can truly have an impact on the direction of the team.
But what Project Fanchise is doing is essentially uncharted territory. It may prove to be that it’s with good reason, that there truly is a difference between the quarterback and the armchair quarterback, and hours spent in front of the television don’t equate to hours in the film room. Or it might turn out that the fanatics know a thing or two after all.
AJ Dellinger is a seasoned technology writer whose work has appeared in Digital Trends, International Business Times, and Newsweek. In 2018, he joined Gizmodo as the nights and weekend editor.