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You are the coach: Call plays for this indoor football team with an app

By Alex Butler
You are the coach: Call plays for this indoor football team with an app
Salt Lake Screaming Eagles quarterback Verlon Reed runs for a touchdown on Feb. 16, 2017 at the Maverik Center in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Melissa Majchrzak)

Feb. 24 (UPI) -- Derwyn Lauderdale felt fans pounding his shoulder pads after they raucously rushed the field Feb. 16 at the Maverik Center.

Referees felt helpless as their whistles blew into an abyss amid an avalanche of Salt Lake Screaming Eagles supporters posing for selfies with Lauderdale and his teammates on the field, as everybody danced and leaped with glee. All of this before the extra point was even attempted after the first score in franchise history.

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But, the feeling is mutual for the Screaming Eagles. The Indoor Football League is about to become the Interactive Football League.

But in many ways, it already is.

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The Screaming Eagles' groundbreaking experiment became reality last Thursday during its first game in franchise history. If you looked down at the sideline, you noticed athletes playing familiar positions, a head coach, and a defensive coordinator.

But the offensive coordinator is a different story. That's the job of the fans. Fans from all around the globe are in charge of calling the offensive shots for this unique football 'Fanchise.'

"It was absolutely insane," Screaming Eagles wide receiver Juwan Dotson said. "I think every fan that was in the stadium was on the field within like 30 seconds of us scoring the touchdown. They went kind of crazy."

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The most interactive team in the most interactive sports league boasted more than 150,000 people live-streaming its loss to the Nebraska Danger. More than 5,000 devices downloaded its free mobile app and between 3,000 and 4,000 users called 33,000 plays during the contest. Users participated from 99 countries.

Tickets for the games at the Maverik Center can be had for between $5 and $85. But the most loyal fans are so close to the franchise that they now sit in the front office. Before the season began, voters decided on the team's uniforms, concession stand items, dance squad, and its DMX warm-up music. Fans also voted for William McCarthy to coach the team. When it came to the Screaming Eagles' roster, the top-two fan voted players for each position made the team. McCarthy selected two additional players for each position to fill out the depth chart.

Fans invest into the franchise to be named co-owners, scouts, and even assistant to the general manager.

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A group called Project Fanchise owns the Utah-based team. Grant Cohen, co-founder and co-owner of the Screaming Eagles, formulated the idea 10 years ago while sitting at a bar with friends in New York.

"We had this idea of what would happen if fans took over a team and a full decade later we owned an arena football team," Cohen said.

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About 10 parties, including investors, now operate the Screaming Eagles.

"On Thursday night our fans actually called plays," Cohen said. "They called the plays well and did a pretty good job. We lost but it certainly wasn't the fans' fault. We lost because our defense couldn't get a stop and that's the one part of the team that our fans don't control. But it's pretty crazy that we scored seven touchdowns on Fan play calling."

The Screaming Eagles scored 47 points against the Danger's 78.

"It's kind of awesome to be the first," Dotson said. "There is something about being the first that makes everything exciting and makes everything kind of worth it. I actually think this is a great idea and going to hit off. Being able to be the people that did it first is kind of special."

Cohen's vision didn't start smoothly Thursday. On the Screaming Eagles' first possession, it fumbled in its own end zone, resulting in a Danger touchdown. On its next possession, the Screaming Eagles had a field goal blocked and returned for another score.

The first score in Screaming Eagles history came with 4:38 remaining in the first quarter, when quarterback Verlon Reed fired a short pass to Lauderdale.

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The Colorado Crush, another team owned by Project Fanchise, and Salt Lake have its first battle on Feb. 26. The Screaming Eagles are back at home on March 13 against Spokane. Cohen said when the Screaming Eagles host the Crush on March 31, both teams plan to have fan play calling in place. The Crush plans to implement the Screaming Eagles' system at midseason.

JOIN THE SCREAMING EAGLES

Fans of all ages are involved in the operation of the franchise. To take part in fan play calling you just have to download the Screaming Eagles App. To become part of the team, you can join its Virtual Front Office. The Virtual Front Office allows fans to work with former NFL players Ray Austin, Al Wilson, and Ahman Green, as well as former San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Athletics, and Memphis Grizzlies front office executive Andy Dolich. Fans can choose to be a scout, assistant general manager, or assistant coach. The highest rank of general manager can be purchased for $39.99 per month.

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Play calling is still free of charge. In fact, Cohen plans to test out its range when he is in Spain during the Screaming Eagles' next contest.

When making play calls, users are prompted pre-snap with a screen similar to a Madden video game. For kickoffs, you get the option of regular or onside. For first and second downs, you can choose between four plays. The playbook includes a mixture of pass and run options, based on down, distance, and game situation.

A sports analytics team scores the possible plays based on their expected outcome of success given the situation.

"The system basically chooses the four plays that will most likely be successful for the situation," said Cohen, who runs the application. "So it can be some combination of runs and passes. They choose the play, whichever play gets the highest percentage of votes, our coach stands on the side with an iPad that shows a real-time feed as they come in of each play made. Then at the last chance on the play clock, he calls the play that has the highest percentage of votes."

The quarterback can still audible the play call before the snap or improvise for a scramble if the play breaks down.

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LEAGUE LANDSCAPE

Most players enter the IFL out of college at about 21-years-old, while the oldest players are about 30-years-old. The majority of the athletes use the league as a stepping stone to future opportunities.

The most famous IFL alumni is former Super Bowl MVP and two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner. Former NFL running back Fred Jackson also spent time in the IFL. The league was formed in 2009.

Players in the 10-team league make about $250 per game.

"They certainly don't make a huge salary," Cohen said. "That's one of the things that attracted me to the league is that the cost structure is fairly low. Unlike the AFL, which has been hemorrhaging, the IFL should be in pretty decent shape as a league. The players typically work. Some of them work in season, if they are local. But a lot of them work. They don't get paid a lot in terms of salary, but we do cover a huge amount of cost for living expenses, food, room and board and all that good stuff."

Some IFL athletes are personal trainers, bartenders, or work part-time as Uber drivers.

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Cohen said it was about a year or two ago when an ownership group approached him from the AFL that loved his idea. That was when he was introduced to Austin, among others, who were working on a similar concept.

The Screaming Eagles now have about 12 general managers who operate with the franchise's executive team and speak once a week on the phone.

"Those guys are privy to a lot of the insight and private H.R. related matters. Team discipline, player cuts and that sort of thing."

Fans can also earn points based on their football knowledge, reading articles, breaking down game film, calling plays, and more with the FanIQ feature. By earning points, fans can achieve new levels, from water boy to Hall of Fame. By achieving the more prestigious ranks, fans can earn special play calling privileges, ticket and merchandise specials, and VIP experiences with the team.

National exposure has caught the league's eye regarding the impact fan interaction can have on its future.

"We were on SportsIllustrated.com, they were debating us on [ESPN's] PTI last week. Our model is providing more opportunities for these players than virtually any other team in the league," Cohen said.

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Dotson said it gives all of the Screaming Eagles a better chance to get to the next level, one of the main reasons players are active in the league.

"That's probably the biggest plus from the players' perspective," Dotson said. "A lot of us do have aspirations of playing on bigger stages as far as football is concerned. So getting an opportunity to have a lot of fans see us and a lot of people check us out is probably one of the more positive things about our situation."

Cohen believes it's a matter of time for the rest of the league to follow his franchises.

"It's highly likely. Everybody has agreed to join the Virtual Front Office."

In fact, you can join any one of the IFL's front offices through its website.

"You also find that not everyone has agreed to do play calling yet, but everyone has agreed that if all goes well, and we aren't terrible at it, they will integrate play calling into interactive features for next season," Cohen said. "There is really an opportunity for us to rebrand this as an interactive football league. Our ideal goal is that by this time next year, all the teams have fans competing against each other. There is an ownership committee in the IFL that has already approved that..."

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Thom Carter, the president of the Screaming Eagles, echoed Cohen's thoughts.

"We are very optimistic about it," Carter said. "We see that Colorado will be doing it halfway through the season. We are working closely with a number of the other teams as well. We hope within the next year to see everybody doing some kind of interactivity and changing the name to the Interactive Football League."

PLAYER REACTION

"At first I didn't really know what to expect, but once everything got going and we got comfortable for a little bit, it was actually kind of exciting," Dotson said. "I think the fans did a really good job of calling plays. I like that aspect of it because you really have to think about what is called and what was going to happen. I liked it and I think we did well. I think we had a little lack of execution. But as far as the fans go, I think they did a good job of calling plays."

Training camp was the first big stage for the fan play calling conversation with players, before it had its true test run.

"I'd say the first time we started talking about it at training camp a couple weeks ago and there was certainly some skepticism from the players and the coaches," Cohen said.

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"We did a media day where we had the team run a couple drives in front of a handful of media in the arena during a practice walk through."

But last week's sold out crowd in the 8,500-seat stadium let the players know about their excitement after its inaugural score.

"Once it started moving you could feel a type of buzz," Cohen said. "Once it got to the end zone...one guy actually came running over to the fans and said, you guys did this. Great call, great call. I think it's going to be like any player/coach relationship. When they call the right plays, they are going to be thrilled. When they don't, players are going to be pissed off. But I don't think it varies any different from a typical player/coach relationship. It certainly made for quite a fun atmosphere Thursday night in the arena.

"It became a close game and all of the sudden the crowd was really into it. I haven't been to a lot of arena football games, but I'm pretty sure this is the most into it fans have ever been at an IFL game because of the control and power they have."

Think about Super Bowl XLIX, when coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks decided to pass the football instead of handing it off to running back Marshawn Lynch. Carroll has become the scapegoat of that game because of his team's interception and eventual demise to the New England Patriots.

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But there is no scapegoating this massive amount of fans. When the play comes in, it's up to the players to execute to the best of their abilities.

"I think it has been interesting to watch our guys," Carter said. "As I talked to them, they are fully bought in and they rise together. They want to try and figure out the best ways to make sure they are successful on the field and fans are successful in calling the plays. It does bring them together as they talk to us in the office and the coaching staff and say well, ok, lets make sure the fans are getting these kinds of options to choose from. They are finding solutions to put the fans in a position to succeed."

"There isn't a scapegoat or a coach or somebody institutionalized they can gang up against," Carter said. "They want the fans to succeed when there bread is buttered."

UNIVERSAL IMPACT

While nobody is questioning the NFL's model of a moneymaking behemoth, it could still borrow some of these innovations. Other leagues could also use an interactive boost, according to Cohen.

"I think all sports are missing out," Cohen said. "I wouldn't limit it to the NFL. I think that we live in a two-way digitally connected world. There are no successful brands that won't be leveraged with social media and customer engagement to improve their product in the coming future, if they are going to be successful. I think that's pretty well established. Sports are unique in that unlike almost any other brand, sports teams' customers are literally fanatics."

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Most sports are seasonal and regional, meaning when they are out of season, franchises are missing out.

"At the end of the day, the 49ers and the Golden State Warriors make virtually zero dollars off of me when it's not in season," Cohen said. "I live in LA, when it's out of season they have very little ownership over me. I think what is interesting about this model...a lot of it is focused on play calling because its sort of unique and different, but really what we are doing is in the middle of the summer, six months before we let the fans call a play, before we had jerseys or a logo or field, our fans were helping us scout players and engaging on the phone on a daily basis. That's the unique piece and I'm not convinced that the NFL is going to allow the fans to call the plays live in real-time. But there are certainly things that we can do that they can all adopt to create a better and more engaged fan base."

Carter said this model is the next step in sports evolution.

"Sports in general, fans, they want this," Carter said. "I was blown away as I watched every age group and all genders as they interacted with our fans and called plays Thursday night. From our league standpoint, this is the next evolution. As sports evolve, this will be a logical next step in general."

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