Derwyn Lauderdale has played football all his life. But he had never played it the way he did last Thursday when he made his debut with the Screaming Eagles. As the newest addition to the fledgling Indoor Football League, the Salt Lake City-based team decided before the season began it wanted to do things a little differently by letting the fans call the shots.
“It was kind of weird,” said Lauderdale, 25, who played college ball at Southwest Baptist before joining the Screaming Eagles in October. “We never know who’d be picking the play.”
Sean Cotton was one of the more than 8,000 fans at the game Saturday in Salt Lake’s Maverik Center. At age 39, he considers himself a pretty good armchair quarterback, so he downloaded the app that allows fans both in and outside the arena (apparently there is a rather large contingent of Screaming Eagles fans in Australia) call the plays.
“It’s kind of like playing a video game but in person,” said Cotton, who drove 3½ hours to watch the Screaming Eagles take on the Nebraska Danger on Thursday.
For each play, the app aggregates four possibilities based on what down it is and yardage. Then fans are given around 10 to 15 seconds to make the call. The play that gets the most votes then gets transmitted to the quarterback from the sidelines.
Cotton didn’t always have control of his phone. In fact, he said, he let his fourth-grade son and his son’s friend call most of the plays.
“Obviously, there’s me thinking they should pass and they ended up going for a run,” Cotton said, but, “I don’t think there were ‘What are they thinking?’ moments.”
Lauderdale agreed — mostly. He described fans as making calls that leaned more toward “aggressive” play, pointing out specifically a chance when fans could’ve opted to go for an extra point after a touchdown to bring the Eagles within 14 points of the Nebraska Danger, but instead opted for the riskier two-point conversion. It didn’t pay off. The team lost 78-47.
According to the man behind it all, however, the night was a rousing success.
“We had people walking out saying it was the most exciting event they’ve ever been to at the Maverik Center,” said Sohrob Farudi, the CEO of Project FANchise, referring to the arena that hosted Olympic hockey tournaments in 2002, the Utah Grizzlies ECHL hockey team and now the Screaming Eagles.
Farudi, a longtime technology entrepreneur who developed the idea for FANchise over a couple years through repeat conversations with friends, echoed Cotton’s description about it feeling like a real-life video game. Instead of “Madden,” however, which is how Cotton’s fourth-grade son described it, Farudi likens it to the ’90s arcade game “Tecmo Bowl” in that it’s basically foolproof. It’s why kids without much football knowledge can participate, too.
Although fans are calling the shots, Farudi said, all the plays come from the coach’s playbook. (And yes, there is a real-life coach.)
“We want to put fans in a position to be successful because if we go out there and get our butts handed to us every game because fans are calling [bad] plays, very quickly we’re going to lose enthusiasm,” Farudi said, blaming a couple of inopportune turnovers and poor defensive play, which fans don’t have control over, for Thursday’s loss. “We want to empower fans like it’s never been done before.”
Besides Cotton, one such fan who appeared to feel empowered was comedian Norm Macdonald. The former SNL “Weekend Update” host flew to Utah to see the season opener after hearing about the concept through one of Farudi’s business partners. Farudi said Macdonald initially came intending to be a spectator, but wound up providing color commentary during the live stream on YouTube after expressing interest in the gig.
Macdonald could not be reached for comment, but he let his enthusiasm for the Screaming Eagles’ fan-driven system be known on social media.
Cotton, meanwhile, said he plans to attend more Screaming Eagles games going forward. He said aside from the technology gimmick, he also enjoyed the live atmosphere, which he described as “family-friendly.” One of his son’s favorite parts was getting invited to storm the field after Lauderdale scored the team’s first touchdown.
“After each play there was excitement and definitely high-fiving,” Cotton said of the atmosphere. He said he had been expecting to see more people with their noses in their phones, but “there was a good amount of time to celebrate.”
Lauderdale also liked the atmosphere, although he said it was a surprise when fans rushed the field.
“I was in complete shock,” he said, laughing. “We had no clue.”
Lauderdale said knowing a little more about what to expect from fans — not just their in-person enthusiasm but their play calling style — should better prepare the team when they meet the Colorado Crush this weekend. In the end, however, he said it’s up to the players to come through.
“I don’t blame [Thursday’s loss] on the fans. We know the plays and we have to make the plays,” he said, regardless of what the fans choose. “It’s still football.”