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Fifth downs, drone cameras and celebrity owners… welcome to the world of Fan Controlled Football

A place where traditional sports meets esports and fantasy, Fan Controlled Football is letting its viewers decide pretty much everything. Sohrob Farudi, the startup’s co-founder and CEO, outlines why its digital-first approach could see a spring football league finally stand the test of time.

9 February 2021 Sam Carp
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The year was 2014, and Sohrob Farudi was out in Las Vegas watching a game of football with friends. As the group talked about the match he broached an idea, of creating a place where fans could have even greater involvement in the sports that they love.

Now, Farudi is just days away from seeing that vision come to life with Fan Controlled Football (FCF), a high-octane, four-team, seven-on-seven indoor football league whose core purpose is exactly as the name suggests. Pretty much everything – from real-time play calls and team rosters, to club logos and even some of the rules – is determined by the fans, who themselves can join the star-studded ownership groups of the Zapperz, Glacier Boyz, Wild Aces or Beasts, the franchise aptly co-owned by Marshawn Lynch, the National Football League (NFL) running back who famously wasn’t handed the ball in the decisive moment of Super Bowl XLIX.

According to Farudi, the league’s co-founder and now chief executive, the aim is clear: to give fans the opportunity to sit in the seat of an owner, general manager and offensive coordinator. It sounds straightforward enough, but he reveals that FCF has had to overcome the same obstacles any startup might encounter in trying to get its idea off the ground.

“99.9 per cent of people that we have told this to are like, ‘holy shit, that’s awesome, that sounds amazing’,” Farudi tells SportsPro. “So I think the actual idea of what we are doing in the mind of a sports fan, there is an instant connection to something that they’ve always wanted to do.

Getting people to write a cheque was the difficult part, but it hasn’t been hard to convince fans that this is something they want to be a part of.

“Now, if you take that a little bit further and you say, ‘well, how many VCs did I have to go talk to before I got the ones to invest in our idea?’ I mean, I heard no more times than I can remember. The number one reason for the no was: ‘Are you guys too early? We really love what you’re doing, we think this is really interesting, [but] is the market ready for this, are you guys too early?’”

Following a brief stint as a minority owner of the Las Vegas Outlaws, a franchise in the now defunct Arena Football League (AFL), the first opportunity to test drive the fan-run sports concept actually came all the way back in 2017 with an expansion team in the Indoor Football League (IFL). Then known as Project Fanchise, Farudi’s ownership group even asked fans where they should base their franchise, which would eventually be placed in Salt Lake City. Fans were then invited to put forward a team nickname, with the Screaming Eagles beating over 500 other submissions, including the slightly more controversial Stormin’ Mormons and Teamy McTeamface.

Just one season of the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles was enough to convince Project Fanchise that its model could be applied across an entire league. Now armed with seed funding from the likes of lead investor Lightspeed Venture Partners, Verizon Ventures and Talis Capital, as well as angel investors such as Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian and Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio, FCF is attempting to merge traditional sports, esports and fantasy to create what can best be described as a real life version of the Madden NFL video game.

“We want to build the next generation of sports,” Farudi declares. “The reason we decided to break away from the indoor football league is that we felt we were this really digital-first product and we were stuck in an analogue league.”

He adds: “I would say getting people to write a cheque was the difficult part, but it hasn’t been hard to convince fans that this is something they want to be a part of and are excited about.”

A “league in a box” philosophy

FCF’s inaugural six-week season gets underway on 13th February, which will be just six days after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl. If it’s starting to feel like you’ve heard this one before, that’s because you have.

Farudi certainly doesn’t need reminding that there is a long list of upstart spring football leagues that have tried and failed to occupy a portion of the six-month window when the NFL isn’t happening. Most recently, in April 2020, the XFL folded for a second time under the weight of tens of millions of dollars in losses, just one year after the Alliance of American Football (AAF) suspended operations eight games into its first campaign. Both of those leagues promised that they would deliver something different to the NFL, but ultimately did little to distinguish themselves from North America’s most popular football league.  

The most obvious question, then, is why Farudi believes FCF will be able to succeed where plenty of others have failed.    

“I think there’s a very simple answer to why I think we’re going to be different, and it’s because we’re actually doing things differently,” he asserts.

“If you look at AAF and XFL, it was the exact same model of football: 11 on 11, outdoor, big stadiums, coaches making half a million dollars in a freaking startup, players getting paid 50 grand, bloated budgets, bloated everything. 

People would be dumfounded by what we are able to do to put this league on, compared to what the AAF and XFL burned through.

“Then, on top of that, all of the people that were building those leagues were NFL people, every single one of them. If you look at the executive teams and the coaching staffs, all of those people were used to working in the NFL where the teams are worth billions and they have basically unlimited money to run the organisation.”

Whereas XFL founder and WWE mogul Vince McMahon was reportedly ready to spend some US$500 million on the reincarnation of his league, the FCF is championing a more sustainable business model that it insists will help keep operating costs down.

Farudi, who previously started and later sold a mobile phone trade-in platform called Flipswap, is keen to point out that he and his fellow co-founders – Ray Austin, Grant Cohen and Patrick Dees – are “startup guys”, and therefore don’t view their league as a traditional football operation. Their philosophy, he says, is to create a “league in a box”. Rather than station teams at huge stadiums in different cities, every FCF game will be played on the same 50-yard field at Georgia’s Infinite Energy Arena, meaning the league will be able to save hundreds of thousands in potential travel expenses and venue operating costs. Franchises will also share a number of services and personnel, which includes having the same wide receiver coach as opposed to one for each individual team.

“Our overhead and the amount of money that we need to run a season…people would be dumfounded by what we are able to do to put this league on, compared to what the AAF and XFL burned through,” Farudi states. “We could have played for a decade with the money that those people burned so, to me, the single biggest answer is the cost structure. 

“We just completely reinvented it to make it scalable. It becomes a much more friendly, venture-backable, scalable business when you cut out all of that other overhead.”

‘Even pre-pandemic, our model had zero in ticket sales’

FCF is banking on finding its core fanbase on Twitch, which boasts more than 15 million daily active users and will be live streaming every 60-minute game. Various traditional sports have started experimenting with the Amazon-owned platform in recent years, but none are fully integrated with the service in the same way that FCF was made to be. The league has built an interactive overlay (right) that will present viewers with eight plays to choose from on each down, while users will also receive a Fan IQ score, which they can improve over time by making successful play calls.

Building engagement on Twitch will be all the more important given that FCF will play its first season in front of an empty arena due to the pandemic, but Farudi says that – even in a post-Covid world – the experience will be better for those watching from home anyway. Live streams are set to feature images captured by drones and helmet cameras, providing viewing angles similar to what fans might be used to seeing in a video game. The aim, it seems, is to produce something more akin to a motion picture than a traditional sports broadcast.

Eventually Farudi envisages hosting “more of a VIP experience” in venue, where fans could either win tickets to attend games or earn them based on their Fan IQ. In any case, Farudi makes clear that FCF won’t be relying on income from things like parking or hot dog sales. Instead of gameday turnover, the league is focusing on scalable digital revenue streams that are “accessible to anybody around the world”, such as in-app purchases, microtransactions, subscriptions on Twitch and digital ads.

“Even pre-pandemic, our model had zero in the ticket sales [column],” Farudi reveals. “Our goal is obviously to create this rabid, passionate fanbase, and if you don’t sell tickets and the only way to get them is to participate to win them, it becomes something like this badge of honour. That’s the experience we wanted to create in-venue, because you can’t have two masters.

I don’t want to alienate the 35 to 60, 70-year-old that loves football and is a fantasy player.

“The problem with most traditional sports right now is that they’re locked into these arenas where they’re selling tickets for 300, 500, 1,000 dollars, and they have to build the product to cater to those people, because those people are right there watching the game. That is a non-scalable audience.”

FCF has also sourced valuable revenue through multiple six-figure sponsorship deals for its first season. Some 23 partners have been secured in total, and Farudi reveals that FCF has been pitching itself as a “sports technology lab” to potential sponsors. Verizon, for example, is deploying its 5G technology to support FCF’s delivery of alternate viewing angles, while other big-name partners onboard include IBM, Champion, Gatorade and Progressive Insurance, which is sponsoring the league’s newfangled fifth down.

While much of this sounds like an experience designed exclusively for a younger audience – namely the much coveted 18 to 34 demographic – Farudi is adamant that the league will appeal to anyone who has ever watched sport and thought they could do a better job than the coach. In other words, he believes there will eventually be something in it for everyone.

“The focus for us is a truly digital-first interactive product,” Farudi reiterates. “I think that automatically puts you in the crosshairs of the younger demo, because that’s what they’re looking for, that lean forward participatory experience. It aligns us right alongside the gaming audience, obviously our partnership with Twitch puts us even further inside of that ecosystem.

“But look, I’m 43 years old, I play in a fantasy league, there’s 16 of us, it’s all of my college buddies – those guys are as excited about it as their kids are. So I don’t want to alienate the 35 to 60, 70-year-old that loves football and is a fantasy player – probably not much of a gamer, but loves fantasy, will turn on and watch multiple NFL games on Sundays. I think those people can be a big part of this business.

“They won’t be the early drivers of this business, but that is absolutely an audience that we don’t want to alienate, even though we’re doing all of these crazy things around the game to change it.”

‘We’ve got the opportunity to own the whole thing’

While FCF hasn’t yet staged its first game, Farudi is already thinking about what the future might hold. His goal is to grow the league to 20 teams in the next five years before eventually increasing that number to 30, and says expansion would not have a huge impact on costs. Using London as an example, he also discloses that FCF is contemplating how it can take its “league in a box” international.

The overarching ambition, Farudi says, isn’t necessarily to compete with the NFL, because he believes FCF sits in its own category of interactive, fan-controlled sport. He can, however, see a time when the league is spoken of in the same breath as North America’s major competitions.

“In my mind,” he begins, “where I want to be is a totally new sport that was invented, that is looked at as its own category, and we’re right up there with the big five. We’re now the big six, and Fan Controlled Football is one of those big leagues.”

We’re laser focused on execution for Fan Controlled Football, but we are ready to move into a second and a third sport over the next couple of years.

Equally intriguing, though, is that Farudi thinks football could just be the start. Other organisations such as Formula E have previously dabbled with letting their fans have some element of control over the action they are watching, but never before has it been done at this scale. The gamification of sport was happening before the pandemic, and the past year is only likely to accelerate demand for more interactive content and experiences. That could ultimately be to the advantage of FCF, which Farudi reveals is already exploring how it can take its technology into other sports like baseball and cricket.

“There is esports and gaming on one side, there’s traditional sports on the other, and we’re the ones melding those two worlds, and there’s nobody else doing it, and nothing in front of us except open water,” Farudi says.“We’re obviously laser focused on execution for Fan Controlled Football, but we are very ready to leverage the platform and move into a second and a third sport over the next couple of years.

“We look at ourselves almost like a publisher. We think we can become the leading publisher of interactive sports, of these real life video games, and we want to own that ecosystem. 

“We think we’ve got the opportunity – if done right – to own the whole thing.”

Fan Controlled Football

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