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Investors see lots to like in Fan Controlled Football. Players have a harder time.

Fan Controlled Football, an interactive league in which fans choose each team's offensive plays, will conclude its second season with Saturday’s championship game between Bored Ape FC and the Zappers. (Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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In May, Johnny Manziel, now 29, lined up in the shotgun behind his three-man offensive line on a narrow, indoor football field. He looked at the seven defenders in front of him as an overlay of the play diagram flashed across the screen of tablets positioned in front of fans in the arena, just like in a video game.

Manziel took the snap, spun, then rolled left before hitting his target crossing the middle of the field. Terrell Owens — yes, the 48-year-old Hall of Famer — hauled in the 30-yard pass and crossed the goal line, triggering a touchdown celebration under a flashing strobe light.

The game Manziel and Owens are playing these days differs a great deal from their time in the NFL. The jerseys they wear look as if they were designed using the create-a-team feature in the Madden video game series. The games are only an hour long and take place on a 50-yard field. The vibe is more dance club than Lambeau Field. But this is precisely what Fan Controlled Football, a professional league in its second season, hopes to provide.

The league, known as FCF for short, brings a revolutionary degree of interactivity to pro football, allowing fans to vote, via a mobile app, on which play their team should run next, with available options picked by an algorithm based on down, distance and other variables. The votes are quickly tallied, and the top choice flashes on a coach’s tablet. The coach sends the call to the players in the huddle.

Fans also can vote on instant replay reviews of controversial plays and get a taste of front-office work by voting on which players their team should pick during multiple in-season drafts. Even team jerseys are decided by fan voting.

In concept, it is a blend of two of America’s favorite pastimes — football and video games — joined with the tech world’s biggest buzzwords: cryptocurrency, blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Such terms have cropped up everywhere from pro sports to video games and serve as a kind of catnip for Silicon Valley investors.

On the strength of this model, which aims at appealing to fans and investors, FCF raised $40 million of venture capital funding following the conclusion of its first season. The league has attracted numerous investors, including team owners such as former NFL star Marshawn Lynch, current Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, DJ Steve Aoki and rapper Quavo.

The second season concludes with Saturday’s championship game between Bored Ape FC and the Zappers, and audiences have responded well. Over the course of its seven-game regular season, FCF said it generated 250,000 downloads of its app and received more than 2.4 million live views per week across its distribution platforms, which include Twitch, NBCLX, DAZN and fuboTV. The newest version of the USFL, which plays a game with rules akin to the NFL and also began its season April 16, averaged 1.57 million viewers per game, according to Sports Business Journal. USFL games are carried on Fox, NBC, Fox Sports 1, USA Network, Peacock and other streaming services.

FCF’s co-founder, Sohrob Farudi, referred to his league as a “content business” and said investors would benefit from the model he and co-founder Ray Austin, a former NFL player, developed.

“We built something we call a league in a box,” Farudi said. “There is a different cost model — [all games are played] in one location, shared services, no travel, no production crew. … We reinvented the cost model.”

While FCF has made gains in terms of investment capital and viewership, it has had a tougher time maintaining another key component of the league’s model — its players. According to league-provided data, only 40 percent of players from 2021 returned for the second season, even as the league added four teams and offered returning players a $100-per-week raise.

FCF’s 150-plus players earn considerably less than their counterparts in other pro football leagues. FCF offers $750 per week as base pay for quarterbacks, $550 for offensive linemen and tight ends, $350 for running backs and wide receivers and $450 for defensive players. They can earn hundreds in bonuses each week for winning and via fan voting for individual categories such as best end zone celebration. (In May, an FCF quarterback celebrated a touchdown by and smoking a joint.) The league estimates between 50 and 70 players are awarded bonus money in some amount each week, with increased totals during the playoffs.

In addition to games, players under contract with FCF are required to participate in a combined three hours of film review and practice time Tuesday through Friday and must attend the league’s weekly two-hour live drafts Wednesday evenings, which air on Twitch. Most players hold full-time jobs in addition to FCF, according to the league.

Manziel and Owens are compensated slightly differently, according to the league, with their deals composed of “a mix of salary, team ownership and FCF Ballerz NFTs,” the league’s digital collectibles. Both of them also have roles with the league’s streaming partners and content teams.

They are outliers. Most FCF players come from the margins of the football world, many with some college experience but not much of a professional résumé. Some cling to NFL dreams, while others are happy to cash a check playing a game they love.

Former NFL running back Robert Turbin, 32, a Super Bowl champion with the Seattle Seahawks, played in FCF’s first season and decided not to return.

“I don’t think it’s worth anybody playing as an adult for $350 a game,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it all. … Where does that $40 million go?”

Turbin said he was incentivized to join to get footage of himself playing in hopes of returning to the NFL, which did not pan out.

“It makes much more sense to play 11-on-11 ball, be on Fox and national networks, and you can get paid handsomely,” Turbin said, referring to the USFL.

According to FCF data, using the standard pay scale, the most a player could make by winning every game is just over $10,000. Most earn less. A running back, for example, whose teams won three of seven regular season games would earn $2,750.

The USFL received a $150 million commitment from Fox Sports, which owns the league, and reportedly pays its players a minimum of $45,000 per season before bonuses. Players in the USFL partially pay for their housing, but FCF, which stages all of its games in Atlanta, covers room and board. The USFL regular season is 10 games per team, all played in Birmingham, Ala.

Despite the pay rate, some players see other benefits from FCF. Roman Tatum, 27, a second-year defensive back who played at the University of Delaware and Southern Illinois University, said the league helped him arrange a pop-up store for his clothing brand outside the stadium.

“There are so many things you can do outside of football here: TV shows, clothing brands. … It brings exposure,” Tatum said.

FCF does not have a players union, something Farudi mentioned in a January interview with Forbes as one of the factors that would allow the league to evolve.

“We are experimenting,” Farudi told Forbes. “We don’t know exactly what’s going to work and what’s not going to work, but we don’t have a players union. We don’t have 30 owners around the table telling us no. We have one agenda. Our agenda is to be successful. We’re going to experiment to the nth degree to figure out what works and what fans love.”

Ekeler, the Chargers running back and FCF team owner, said he “absolutely would support” a collective bargaining initiative from FCF players should one emerge. He also noted that the risk to players’ health is consistent with other football leagues. FCF provides health insurance to players and has a nine-member athletic training staff.

“We’re playing full-contact football, and it’s safer [than the NFL] but not because it’s any less dangerous. It’s because the [FCF] season is not as long,” Ekeler said.

FCF games have no kickoffs or punts, and Sam Schwartzstein, a former offensive lineman at Stanford who helped create the XFL’s rules in 2018, said FCF has some inherent safety benefits based on the number of players on the field and its smaller dimensions.

“The fewer people you have on the field, the fewer injuries, just because of numbers,” he said. “When you have more offensive linemen on the field, bigger guys, there is a higher likelihood to have injuries.”

Overall, Schwartzstein was positive about the league’s innovations from a fan standpoint.

“They’re taking a true re-imagination process, finding new ways to innovate with football,” he said. “I love what they’re doing.”

In addition to pay and injuries, players have expressed dismay with fan play-calling. In an interview with NBC, FCF quarterback Deondre Francois said he wishes teams had options for adjusting fan-made calls that feel off. Turbin echoed that point and called the gameplay “unrealistic” compared with the NFL.

“I think the league is really cool, especially for the fan,” he said. “But I don’t think it creates as much opportunity for players as they sell.”

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