One of the hottest buzzwords in the entertainment industry is "interactivity." Hence the rise of choose-your-own-adventure movies like Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, apps where you can chat with real celebrities, and shows like the fan-controlled "You vs. Wild," where viewers’ decisions help Bear Grylls survive in the wilderness.
Now, fans can take part in a real live football game too—with zero risk of concussions.
A new kind of gamified football league called Your Call Football (YCF) lets viewers choose plays, winning cash prizes when their choice is successful or matches the coach’s choice. Fans make their choices via an app that streams with no delay, so feedback is instant.
YCF is the brainchild of George Colony, the founder of tech research company Forrester Research.
“He had this concept he wrote up in a memo in the early 2000s, then shoved in a drawer,” says Julie Meringer, president of YCF’s parent company, Your Call, Inc. “He called me up one day and said ‘I have this idea that’s been stuck in the drawer. Could it work? Has anyone tried it?’”
No, no one had tried it. And yes, Meringer thought it just might work. So she put together a small team of techies and marketing people, and hired an agency to recruit players, mainly young Division 1 grads who made it to NFL training camps but were quickly cut.
The first set of games kicked off (figuratively; unlike regular football, YCF has no kickoff) in May 2018 at a stadium in Vero Beach, Florida. The two teams were called Power and Grit. The coaches were former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman and former Pittsburgh Steelers player and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge.
At the start of each game, app users are offered three plays to choose from, each selected by the coach. They have 10 seconds to decide. After that, the play is communicated to the players in the huddle by supporters on the sidelines. Throughout the game, various winning fan predictions are translated into points, redeemable for cash. The first-ever winner took home $5,000.
“It worked flawlessly,” Meringer says, of the first season. “So we said, ‘OK, we know this can work.’”
The second series of four games was held earlier this year in Jacksonville, Florida, at the indoor practice field for the Jacksonville Jaguars. At stake was a potential $1 million prize, to be given to a fan earning the maximum number of points possible during any game. While no one took home a whole million, fans—about 10,000 a week—were engaged: they watched for an average of 32 minutes, Meringer says, which is “fantastic,” and nearly two-thirds of them shared about it on social media.
Making the app stream without delay was a major technical challenge. Live TV sports have a broadcast delay of a few seconds, while most live streams are delayed 15 seconds to a minute. Your Call, Inc. has five patents on the streaming technology, including one on the system for calling plays in real time and the method for assessing user scores. In December, Your Call technology will be used during the Liberty Bowl, an annual college football tradition since 1959. Fans will be able to predict plays and yardage gained or lost, and can set up leagues to compete with their friends. Everything will be scored in real time, just like a video game.
“[W]e’re excited that the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is providing fans an opportunity to engage in the game in a deeper way,” said Steve Ehrhart, the Liberty Bowl’s executive director, in a press release.
Your Call, Inc. sees YCF as just the first part of a revolution in interactive entertainment. The technology could be applied to other sports, especially ones like baseball or golf, where the pacing is a bit slower than, say, basketball or hockey. It could also transform reality TV: imagine if The Bachelor streamed live, and fans could vote on who deserved the rose.
Sports need to adapt to the desires of younger potential fans, Meringer says. Not only do they crave interactivity, they also simply have more choices for entertainment. Why watch NFL at all when you could cheer at English Premier League games on satellite TV? Or just watch someone in South Korea eat lunch on YouTube?
“Fans just need instant gratification,” Meringer says. “They want to be part of the highlights.”
The NFL itself is trying to address fans’ need for interactivity, says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, a professor of sport management at the George Washington University School of Business. Most teams have some sort of virtual or augmented reality experience at the stadium, she says, which let fans get “up close” with players or watch passes enhanced by glowing heat trails.
YCF is a “fun concept,” Delpy Neirotti says. But ultimately, whether organizations like the NFL will be interested in Your Call, Inc. technology will depend on the buy-in of owners, general managers and coaches. For coaches, particularly, YCF is a very different experience than traditional football.
"What that does for me as a coach is it takes all the pressure off!" said Solomon Wilcots, the former NFL player who took over as Team Grit head coach in 2019, speaking to a Florida NBC affiliate. "I don't have to sit in a press conference tomorrow and be asked those questions -- 'why I ran a certain play' or 'why I didn't run the football.' It's the fans who are calling the plays!"
“Some executives are more marketing-oriented and are more likely to test out creative ideas,” says Delpy Neirotti. “For example, some teams are allowed to invite fans or sponsors into the locker room while others absolutely ban that.”
For players, Meringer says YCF is a win, despite the lack of cheering fans. It allows them a second shot at the NFL or CFL by showcasing their talents for scouts; YCF plays two quarterbacks per game for this reason. Several YCF players have gone on to sign with NFL or CFL teams, including Ashaad Mabry, signed by the Carolina Panthers, and Wes Saxton, who was picked up by the Detroit Lions.
Being part of a streaming game made no difference to the players, Meringer says.
“They’re all gamers—they all play Fortnite, they all play Madden,” she says. “At the end of the day, the technology had no impact on them. They were just there to play football, and so happy to do that.”