By Grant Cohen
In our pilot season owning the first-ever truly fan-run team the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles, we were faced with a handful of decisions as an ownership group / management team where we had to question if it made sense to actually open it up to the fans. Each time we looked over the cliff into the scary abyss of letting the Internet decide the fate of our business, we had to collectively remind ourselves that this project only works if it’s authentic and the fans are truly in control.
There were a handful of times however that even in our attempts to give the fans control, the limitations of our operation and technology left many fans feeling like they had been duped.
The first case of this was with our first big vote that garnered a lot of attention: the name of the team. The structure of that vote was two parts – the first round enabled fans to submit as many nominations as they wanted and then upvote their 10 favorite names. There would then be a run-off for the top 10 where every fan would get to vote on just their favorite one name, with fans who had contributed to our original IndieGoGo campaign (which helped us get the fan voting app built) getting a boost in the power of their vote corresponding with how much they had contributed. Not surprisingly the trolls came in hot and at the end of the first round “Teamy McTeamface” was the clear leader in total upvotes. To be honest, as an ownership group we were kind of happy about it. We were getting a ton of press and we figured the merchandise sales for a team name that unique would be off the charts, even if it didn’t seem like a traditionally great football team name. Once we got into the run-off though, the true fans all went hard in for the Screaming Eagles which ended up easily winning. As you can imagine many of the original voters were disappointed to learn of the name we ended up with and since we didn’t have an open ledger to show both the voting and the standing of the fans who received the voting boost, it was pretty hard to prove the final tally was legit. To this day even my wife doesn’t believe that we didn’t rig that one.
The next occurrence – which was easily the most surprising upheaval – actually came during the vote for the final four spots on our dance team. Would you believe that the lovely ladies of the SLSE dance team were actually the most vicious competitors of the bunch – as that vote, more than any other we held last season, was wrought with the most fraud. Luckily the members of the dance team were pretty basic in how they attempted to stuff the ballot box, so it was easy to spot fraud and remove it from the system. There was one competitor who always seemed to get a huge surge in voting between 10:30-11:30pm each night from a series of generic emails all from the same IP address, which of course was mapped back to the street she lived on. There was another competitor who was either adding in fake emails or had the most impressive rolodex of friends you’ve ever seen (my personal favorite was when she received a vote from firstname.lastname@example.org). We weeded out the fraudulent submissions through the course of voting process, but since it was in a closed database there was no easy way for the participants (and more importantly their mothers) to be able to see this. So when the totals came in and one gal who had done more than her fair share of voting early and often didn’t make the cut, her mother was irate and let us hear about it via email and social media. The inability to validate votes and publish the results publicly made for a tricky situation and a very angry Dance-Mom.
The second time we struggled with handling a fan vote was the firing of our first coach and hiring of our second. I won’t get too deep into the personal details, but suffice to say that original coach selected by the fans had become a “locker room problem” before we ever even took the field for our first game and we all felt he needed to be replaced as he was creating a difficult work environment for many of our other employees… not to mention he didn’t seem at all interested in actually following through on the decisions that our fans were making – despite the fact that they were the ones who hired him. After our second game we had a two week bye so it was the ideal time to make a change at head coach. However, out of respect for him and with the understanding that it would have only worsened the situation for the team as a whole, we couldn’t simply open up a vote saying “Should we fire the coach?” nor could we publicly announce “Fans, pick your new head coach!”. So we brought the topic to our Virtual GM’s, which was a group of approximately 12 of our top fans who had subscribed to our premium tier of fandom and participated in weekly video conferences with the team’s actual GM and members of the Ownership group. We explained the situation to them and gave them the resumes for our potential replacement coaches who we had been vetting privately. And we gave them the power to make the decision – which was a unanimous one. However, once we announced the news to our broader fanbase, we received a myriad of complaints that the owners had decided to go against the wishes of the fans – who has originally voted for our first coach. The problem was that there was no transparency as to who exactly got to make the decision or even what determined it.
The final decision where we really got heat from the fans was when we opened up a vote about us bringing on former NFL player Greg Hardy. For some background, Hardy was a Pro-Bowl Defensive End still in the prime of his career. But following a serious charge of domestic violence in North Carolina and a DUI arrest in Dallas, he was released by the Cowboys and had not been picked up by any other teams in the league. It was clear that it wasn’t his lack of ability that kept him off an NFL roster, rather it was the concern of team management that their fans and sponsors would not want him on their squad. We were connected with Hardy through some mutual acquaintances and he expressed interest in coming to play for our team. At that point in the season our lack of pass rush was by far the biggest weakness with the Screaming Eagles and he would have instantly made a massive difference on that side of the ball. However, we too were concerned about having him on our team due to his off-field issues. So we decided to open it up to a fan vote – figuring this was a decision that real NFL GMs and Owners had just made and it was a fantastic case study to see how the fans felt. Amongst our ownership and management group we were divided almost evenly on both sides of the decision. And, as it turned out, so too were our fans – with them eventually voting against him joining the team 50.1% No vs 49.9% Yes. We got quite a bit of publicity from this vote and the result was many of our die-hard fans who had voted Yes claiming that we had rigged the vote as part of a PR stunt and that we never were going to get him anyways. Despite us insisting that we had a plane ticket booked for him to fly from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City the next day had the vote gone the other way, we didn’t have the technical capability to prove the results of the vote were kosher – and thus we lost a handful of great fans who just no longer believed in the authenticity of our fan-run concept.
So, when the season ended and we began to plan out the FCFL, it became strikingly clear what we needed to do: Build it on the blockchain.
The ability to use blockchain technology to deliver a distributed ledger for ensuring transparency in the fan voting process was a critical element to making sure the foundation of the the league is built on a trust between fans and the owners – something which is currently lacking from virtually every other sports league.
All votes that take place in the FCFL will be done “on the chain”. There is currently a technological concern with real-time votes (eg: playcalling) taking place on the blockchain due to limitations in speed and scale with the major blockchains like Ethereum. So we are investigating using side chains for handling real-time votes and publishing results onto the core chain, as well as looking at other blockchain projects that seek to deliver massive scale improvements in the coming months (eg: EOS, XCHNG, etc).
The technology is still very new, but so too is the notion of putting fans in control – and ultimately we are seeking to build the future of sports, so we figured using the future of technology as the underlying platform for our league only made sense.