Can the typical sports fan make better decisions about the management and coaching of a professional franchise? We’ll soon find out.
Project FANchise is a new Santa Monica, Calif.-based startup that just bought an expansion team in the Indoor Football League. But while the company, backed by veteran tech entrepreneurs and former NFL players and execs, will technically own the team and its arena, it is doing something rather innovative in the sports world by allowing fans to essentially run the franchise.
At first glance, the idea sounds far-fetched. Some professional teams, like the Seattle Sounders and other European soccer franchises, have included fans on important decisions — deciding whether a general manager should keep his job, for example.
Project FANchise takes it to the next level.
“On some levels, this is a big, grand social experiment,” said CEO and co-founder Sohrob Farudi. “This is about asking if the collective fan base can make positive decisions for an organization — and we wouldn’t do this if we didn’t believe that.”
Farudi, a long-time entrepreneur who sold his device trade-in startup to Brightstar in 2011, told GeekWire that “every diehard sports fan has always dreamed about owning a team” — and now he’s helping make it happen. It’s an idea that builds off the momentum created by fantasy sports, which gives fans the ability to create their own lineups and compete against others doing the same.
“The concept came from wanting to be an owner and wanting to have a voice in what’s going on with the team,” said Farudi, a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan who always dreamed of owning the team.
On Thursday, Project FANchise will announce where the team will be based — Salt Lake City or Oklahoma City — which was decided by, of course, a fan vote.
From there, fans will decide on everything from the team name, logo, uniform design, field design, cheerleading squad, and more. They’ll also be responsible for helping hire a general manager and the coaching staff, while also deciding which players will ultimately make the final roster before the upcoming IFL season kicks off this February.
Technology will play a key role for Project FANchise, which is building a mobile app that will allow fans to vote on specific decisions and engage with team-related content. There are also plans to have helmet cameras and worn-microphones to help fans enjoy a more immersive experience, potentially through a platform like virtual reality.
The company is also developing something called FanIQ, which will serve as a barometer that grades fans on their play-calling ability — yes, fans will be able to call plays in real-time during live games, given that they have a high enough FanIQ.
“We’ll allow fans that are more engaged and that have more knowledge and experience to move up the rankings and have more influence than just casual fans who would love to vote on certain decisions, but aren’t interested in scouting players and calling plays,” Farudi explained.
The team will still have an actual head coach, even though he or she won’t have the ability to call plays. Farudi said there are certain aspects like locker room speeches that still requires an actual coach.
“The head coach is going to still be a head coach and expected to do the job,” he said. “We don’t see the role being reduced very much.”
Farudi, who was a minority owner of an Arena Football League team last year, has brought together an impressive list of partners to help manage Project FANchise. His co-founder is Ray Austin, a former NFL defensive back who met Farudi after he came up with an idea to allow fans to call plays in real-time. Former Denver Broncos linebacker Al Wilson and Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green are also advising and investing in the company.
Other advisors include Andy Dolich, who has more than four decades of experience in the sports industry working in executive roles for teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Memphis Grizzlies, and Oakland Athletics. There’s also Manish Jha, a former ESPN exec who was general manager of ESPN Mobile and later joined the NFL to run its mobile platform.
These former players and accomplished executives will help fans with play-making and personnel decisions, whether it’s Austin providing strategic insight for the defense or Dolich teaching folks about putting together a successful front office. All that content will be available in the form of video, podcasts, and more via the team app.
“This is about support and education,” Farudi said. “Part of the reason why you see the names associated with this project is because we want to put fans in a position to be successful.”
The hope for Project FANchise is that fans will use this idea to demonstrate that they have the chops to manage a professional sports team.
“I think fans will want to prove that they have the knowledge and skill, collectively, to be able to compete at a professional level with other organizations that are run ‘the normal way,'” Farudi said. “The vast majority of people that spend time on this will take it very seriously and rally around each other.”
Here are some comments from IFL Commissioner Mike Allshouse Jr.:
What do you think about the strategy to let fans manage and control the team?
“One of the main duties as Commissioner of the IFL is identifying industry trends and exploring the opportunities that they create for our business. We are seeing a new wave of Fantasy sports, eSports, etc., in which the way users consume our product is changing.”
What’s unique about the IFL that makes something like this possible, or even perhaps successful?
“The IFL’s product is football, but we are in the entertainment business. At this level of minor league professional sports, we are constantly exploring new and innovative ideas to gain market share and brand awareness. Many of our teams have and continue to utilize certain fan engagement elements that Project Fanchise plans to implement (i.e. name the team contest, choose the mascot fan polls, contests involving uniform designs, etc.). As with any new endeavor, I am sure that there is going to be a learning curve and some trial and error, however, I do not think it will affect their ability to operate a successful organization within the IFL framework.”