The Salt Lake Screaming Eagles played their first game last Thursday, and their head coach didn't have much to do--all of the team's offensive plays were voted on by fans using a smartphone app. Though the 50-yard Indoor Football League field and rough-edged play didn't make for spectacular football, the team's approach to tech-enabled fan engagement could play a major role in shaping the future of sports.
The team's owners include comedian-turned-sports-guru Norm McDonald and Los Angeles tech entrepreneur Sohrob Farudi. Farudi, previously an owner of a failed Arena Football League team, let fans make choices for his latest team right from the start, with online polls determining the team's hometown and name, entry music, players, and even head coach.
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But the real draw is the play-calling. On offense, fans can choose between a few play options, with the results transmitted to the head coach, then to players on the field. Fans don't even need to be in the stadium to vote--though because of the need for snap decisions, defensive plays are called traditionally.
The experiment seems to have been a success in terms of fan enthusiasm, with Screaming Eagles fans rushing the field after the historic first touchdown made on a play they called. The team says their opener attracted 150,000 viewers from 99 countries, mostly through a stream hosted on Facebook Live by Sports Illustrated. NFL games attract in-person audiences averaging around 70,000 and a TV audience averaging 17.6 million per game.
As Slate's Seth Stevenson runs down in depth, the Screaming Eagles' experiment opens up a spectacular array of both options and questions. Football, perhaps more than other sports, thrives on fan debate over strategy (there's a reason it's called "armchair quarterbacking" and not "armchair point guarding"). Now fans will have the chance not just to vote, but to drum up fellow fans' support for their own tactics, creating a complex game-behind-the-game. Teams could, Stevenson speculates, capitalize on that by letting fans pay fees for their votes to count more, or even to call particular plays solo.
On the other hand, making sure fans don't get fatigued by the constant demand for engagement could be a challenge. With voting apparently open to pretty much anyone, there's a window for sabotage by the opposition. And if fans themselves wind up making bad decisions, the team might be tempted to nudge them through design tweaks in the voting app.
Farudi isn't content with one team, and says he's turning the IFL's Colorado Crush into a fan-run team next. Long-term, he envisions converting the entire league to his interactive ethos, making it a kind of real-world Madden NFL video game. That could turn it into, if not a challenger to the NFL, at least a novel arena for experimentation with how sports works at the most basic level.
Of course, at least part of attracting fans comes down to winning games (with notable exceptions). The Screaming Eagles struggled with that on Thursday, losing their inaugural game to the Nebraska Danger, 78-47.
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