Features | From Pivot Magazine

A Canadian CPA is transforming America’s game

Vivek Jain helped found a football league where fans pick lineups and call plays. Is this the future of football?

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Vivek Jain, CPA, playing with footballVivek Jain, CPA, Regina native and co-founder of the Fan-Controlled Football League (Photo by Aaron Cobb)

Ten minutes into the first game of their inaugural season, the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles partied like they’d just won the Super Bowl. Fans rushed the field. Kids swarmed players for selfies. Referees tried—and then quickly stopped trying—to control the chaos. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” an announcer said, laughing with bemusement. “Fans are everywhere.”

This sort of pandemonium doesn’t typically follow a first-quarter touchdown—or, for that matter, any play—in the Indoor Football League, a shoestring operation several rungs down from the NFL. But this wasn’t just a touchdown. It was the Screaming Eagles’ first TD and the first orchestrated entirely by fans. Over the preceding months, as part of a sporty social experiment, supporters had selected the franchise’s hometown, name, logo, players and coaches. And on the evening of Feb. 16, 2017, they used their smartphones to pick the play that scored the first six points in Screaming Eagles history. Never mind that the team was still down by eight; it was time to celebrate.

Somewhere on that overrun field was Vivek Jain, a Canadian CPA who helped give life to this crowdsourced fever dream. Three years prior, he and five friends had resolved to create the world’s first fan-run team, a screwball idea that, in the hands of most sports nuts, would have died on the bar napkin on which it had been drunkenly imagined. Yet: “There I was, this nerdy father of two from Regina, midfield in a packed arena,” says Jain. “It was this crazy moment of, ‘We made this happen.’ ”

Vivek Jain in locker roomVivek Jain (Photo by Aaron Cobb)

It hardly mattered that the Screaming Eagles eventually lost the game. Jain and his co-founders felt like winners. Roughly 150,000 people from 99 countries tuned in on YouTube or Facebook, another 8,000 packed the sold-out Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah, and a total of 3,000 people, both in and outside the stadium, called plays from scrimmage. No Indoor Football League game, much less an expansion team’s first match, had numbers like that. Sitting on the sidelines, Jain felt proud, but not quite relieved. “I was also thinking about what was next,” he says. “It was great we’d done it, but how could we make a viable business with some staying power?”

Throughout the 2017 season, the Screaming Eagles continued to lure an average of 130,000 viewers per game, but the team never felt like the final draft of its founders’ idea. It was too small, too shackled by the rules and structure of an existing league. If they wanted to truly empower armchair quarterbacks—and make a killing doing it—they needed more than a team. They needed their own league.

Their newest project, the Fan-Controlled Football League (FCFL), which is set to kick off this summer, is a mishmash of three American obsessions: fantasy football (worth an estimated US$7 billion in North America), the Madden video game franchise (with global sales around US$4 billion) and flesh-and-bone football (no figure needed). It’s pro sports for the digital age. Celebrities will replace coaches, live streams will supplant TV broadcasts and, once again, the fans will be in charge. Purists have dismissed the FCFL as a gimmick gone wild. But if you believe Jain and his merry band of disrupters, it might just be the future of football.

No one would confuse Vivek Jain for a football player. He stands five-foot-nine, an elfin figure with actor-sharp features (he has 15 commercial and indie-film credits to his name). But growing up in Winnipeg and Regina, he spent countless nights playing pickup with friends, attending Blue Bombers games or playing Tecmo Bowl, a retro Nintendo video game that let him coach a pixelated football team on a 2D field. 

“There I was, the nerdy guy from Regina, midfield in a packed arena. It was a crazy moment.”

By age 14, Jain had two magazine subscriptions: Sports Illustrated and Fortune. “I’ve always been fascinated by business,” he says. “I come from a family of accountants. It was something that my parents nudged me to do. The more I got to know about it, the more it made sense.” He studied business, accounting and finance at the University of Regina, earned his designation in 2002 and spent the next decade at a handful of accounting, investment and venture capital firms. “Becoming a professional accountant gave me the best foundation. It was really crucial to me growing in that world.”

In October 2014, Jain travelled to San Diego for a wireless conference, where he ran into Patrick Dees, an old friend in business development who was working on a new venture. (It’s also where Jain befriended comedian Norm Macdonald, with whom he’s since co-founded a dating app called Loko.) “Patrick wouldn’t give me much detail about it,” says Jain, “but he said, ‘Trust me. You’re going to like it.’ ” Jain humoured Dees and met his business partner Sohrob Farudi, one member of a crew of 30- and 40-something sports geeks who’d all dreamt up identical business ideas from separate corners of the country. In California, Farudi, a serial entrepreneur, was tired of yelling at his TV over the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching decisions. In New York, another friend, digital expert Grant Cohen, had ended a boozy night out by pledging to create a fan-controlled minor-league baseball team. And in Chicago, former Bears defensive back Ray Austin was developing a fan-input app inspired by his experience attending a friend’s semi-pro football game. “I was sitting in the stands screaming at the coach to run better plays,” says Austin, now head of football of the FCFL. “At halftime, I literally went down on the field and got the coach’s phone number so I could text him plays.” Together, this group of entrepreneurs felt they could properly pursue their zany pipe dream. “We all had our own expertise,” says Austin. “We were like the Temptations.”

Cohen’s hunt for a baseball team had gone nowhere. And another promising lead, a chance to take control of an arena football team with Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil, spiralled into a legal nightmare. But the third time was a charm. The founders amassed a group of high-profile advisors and supporters—including Andy Dolich, a sports executive who’s worked in each of North America’s four major leagues—and presented their plan to the Indoor Football League, the second most prominent of America’s half-dozen arena leagues, where aspiring NFLers play fast-paced games on matted hockey rinks. “Our pitch was that we weren’t going to change the flow of the game,” says Jain. “We were going to follow the rules.” They positioned it as a win-win: they would get their team, and the relatively obscure league would benefit from scores of curious—and perhaps even loyal—new viewers. When the league gave them the green light, the founders started an Indiegogo campaign that raised $83,000, began building the tech and drummed up press interest. Sports Illustrated and Fortune both picked up the story. “It was 100 per cent full circle,” says Jain. “It was unreal.” 

Football players playing football in stadiumJain and Norm McDonald (in cap) at game (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak)

In the summer of 2016, Rob Walker, an engineering student at a community college in Pennsylvania, was scrolling through sports scores on his phone when an ad popped up. “You could control a real football team,” it read. “Immediately, that got me,” he says. Walker had been playing since high school, but a concussion in his freshman year had sidelined his college football ambitions. “I just wanted to stay involved in any way I could.” He filmed practices and games, but it didn’t compare to being part of the action. When he saw the ad, he thought managing a team sounded more enticing than watching from the bench. “It was such a crazy idea that I couldn’t keep my eyes away,” he says. “I told my friends: this is either going to go decently okay or monumentally bad.” 

Either way, he wanted in. Walker signed up to be one of the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles’ official scouts. Through the Indie­gogo page, 60 or so diehards paid up to US$100 to have a say in which players would make the roster. They scoured YouTube clips, compiled scouting spreadsheets, consulted with management, and posted player interviews and tryout footage for other Screaming Eagles fans to review when picking the roster. “Some players bought in and loved the fan-run concept,” says Walker, now the FCFL’s football operations manager and a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. “And some players were against it.” Other prospects seemed interested, but reneged when they found out how much they’d be making: the minimum salary in the Indoor Football League is $225 per week; in the NFL, it’s over $9,000.

The trepidation didn’t faze Jain. He knew many players would never trust fans with their careers. But he also wagered other players would see the silver lining: the buzz, the novelty, the GQ articles and ESPN segments. “There are so many guys who don’t get into the NFL because they’re six-foot-two instead of six-foot-four, but they’re still amazing athletes who are entertaining to watch,” says Jain. The Screaming Eagles, the founders assured, would give them exposure—and, with it, a valuable opportunity to prove to scouts that maybe they do belong in the big leagues. Sometimes, that was enough. “At the end of the day, these guys just wanted to play.”

Take Don Unamba. After playing for Southern Arkansas University, he signed with the St. Louis Rams, then spent a couple of seasons in the Canadian Football League. He was ultimately ousted by a new coaching regime. Unable to find another team, he started working a door-to-door sales job, hawking roofing services and attic installations in Dallas. “One day, I was on break and I got a phone call from the coach of the Screaming Eagles,” he recalls. Within days, Unamba had quit his job, signed with the team and booked a flight to Salt Lake City. “I wasn’t doing what I loved, and this was an opportunity. The way they pitched it, I was like, ‘This might be kind of dope.’ ” 

The Fan-Controlled Football League is a video game come to life.

Because of his major-league experience, Unamba was the roster’s veteran. He mentored his teammates and became a fan favourite, known for celebrating interceptions with a trademark dance—crouching and flapping his arms like an eagle’s wings, dreadlocks flailing from his helmet. “It was cool. The fans were on top of you. I’m talking about being in the game and high-fiving them,” he says. “I have literally tackled players into fans.”

Then, about halfway through the season, an old college teammate playing in the CFL called Unamba. “He had seen my Screaming Eagles highlights, that I had been doing good. He was like, ‘We could use you up here.’ ” Unamba signed with the Montreal Alouettes, and is now in his second season with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In October, the Ticats’ defensive coordinator told the Hamilton Spectator he was the best player in his position in the CFL. A few NFL teams have shown interest. “If it was not for the Screaming Eagles, I probably would not be playing football right now,” says Unamba. “I had this taken away from me, so I just enjoy playing the game.”

Losing Unamba was a blow to the Screaming Eagles, but it was a boon to the founders. “If we could ever get a guy to the NFL, that would sell our idea better than anything,” says Jain. It’s not unprecedented: more than 30 Indoor Football League players have graduated to the NFL, including recently retired Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson. A Cinderella story like that would have only attracted more attention—and more talent—to the fan-controlled escapade. 

They could have used it. Though the Screaming Eagles earned plenty of press, there was no consensus on whether their scheme would actually work. On the sports debate show Pardon the Interruption, commentator Michael Wilbon was scathing. “This is so dumb,” he said. “What you need to do is keep the fans at arm’s distance as often as possible. Win the games while they’re sitting there stuffing their faces.” (In fairness, Wilbon’s on-air foil, Tony Kornheiser, rebutted, “If they want knowledgeable fans to call plays, I’m all for that . . . This is smart.”) There were other hiccups. Despite spending $100,000 on stadium Wi-Fi, connection cut out occasionally—the coach, not the fans, chose the team’s first-ever play. And that coach, William McCarthy, was fired after two games due to “philosophical differences” over fan control. Plus, supporters nearly named the team the Stormin’ Mormons or Teamy McTeamface, and came alarmingly close to signing Greg Hardy, the former NFLer who was found guilty of assaulting an ex-girlfriend (50.1 per cent of fans chose not to offer him a contract—a difference of 12 votes). “They ended up making the right decisions,” says Jain. “But for us, the founders, there was a lot of heartache until that happened.”

Man standing looking up with hands in air at football gameJain at a Screaming Eagles practice (Photo by Scott Sommerdorf)

And what about the fans’ most important job: calling good plays? Everyone has some version of the same grievances, often accompanied by a chuckle. Jain: “I don’t think we kicked one field goal all season long.” Walker: “Even if it was fourth and 40, fans would still call a pass.” Austin: “Our special teams sucked.” Unamba: “Don’t nobody want to see you running the ball.” Each down, when the fans were presented with four coach-selected plays via an app or streaming service, they almost always picked the most aggressive option. They wanted buzzer-beating Hail Mary passes, not four-yard gains. They would rather an entertaining loss than a boring win. To some extent, it worked. The team had the second-most passing touchdowns, the league’s third-best overall offence and an offensive rookie-of-the-year quarterback. But the fan’s offensive gambles backfired on the defence. If the team failed to make a first down, it left their opponents with great field position, making it easier for them to score.

The Screaming Eagles finished with five wins and 11 losses—a lousy sports team, but a promising business. By the end of the season, the founders had already resolved to expand their fan-controlled team into a fan-run league. To make it happen, they signed deals with Twitch, Amazon’s popular live-streaming service, and IMG, the entertainment management giant that handles UFC and EuroLeague, Europe’s top-tier basketball association. “We thought of all these cool things that we could do to get fans engaged, but we couldn’t do them in an existing league,” says Jain. “We needed full control.”

The Fan-Controlled Football League is a video game come to life. Instead of controlling avatars on a screen, you will direct seven living, breathing athletes up and down a 50-yard field in a tricked-out, 500-seat Las Vegas production studio. On Twitch or the league’s app, fans will have about 15 seconds between every down to select one of four plays—an experience not unlike Tecmo Bowl, Jain’s boyhood go-to. The coach relays the most popular option to the quarterback, who in turn directs his teammates. When the play dies seconds later, the process begins again. If it sounds chaotic, it is. But the Screaming Eagles mastered the art, and the time crunch had the serendipitous effect of keeping fans entranced—turn away and you risk missing out on a potentially game-changing vote. 

Fan engagement is the lifeblood of the FCFL. Its modified rules (for example, no single-point conversions or field goals) cater to fans’ offensive habits, and each of the season’s 16 games will last a mere hour, in deference to online attention spans. Because none of the league’s eight 18-player teams are tied to a particular city, the founders will introduce other ways to match supporters with particular squads, such as celebrity “fan captains” and team “archetypes.” Once they pledge allegiance to a team, the fans decide everything, from jersey colours to the members of the cheer squad. In exchange for their participation, the faithful will be rewarded with Fan Access Network Tokens, the FCFL’s official blockchain-based currency. (Voting will also operate on the blockchain, which the league says will ensure accuracy and transparency.) If you scout a player, submit a logo design or engage with the league in any number of ways, you earn tokens. The more tokens you earn—or purchase—the greater your influence over the team.

The NFL is already thinking about doing the things we’re doing. But they can’t. It would take years because there’s so much red tape.”

The FCFL will rely on the same revenue streams as other leagues: ticket sales, merchandise, advertising, concessions. “But we can also do things that other leagues can’t,” says Jain. For example, did you call a play that led to a Screaming Eagles touchdown last season? Congratulations, you were entered into a draw to have Buffalo Wild Wings delivered to your home. “There are so many different directions you can take that.” Not just pizza and wings, he says, but apparel and coupons—anything that rewards viewers for watching and participating in real time. “We’re opening up a world of sponsorship opportunities because we have an engaged audience in a world where everyone DVRs everything.” Need more than chicken wings to keep you invested? The FCFL champion will win a minimum US$1-million pot, split 50-50 between the team and its highest-performing fans.

It may be the most outlandish idea since, well, the Screaming Eagles. But the FCFL has clout. Joe Montana, arguably the best quarterback of all time and now general partner at the venture capital firm Liquid 2 Ventures, is an investor and the league’s chief strategic advisor, responsible for branding and input on day-to-day operations. “Joe wanted to be embedded in the league,” says Austin. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and just have this be something that I put my name on.’ ” Dolich, the seasoned sports exec, is the league’s chief operations officer, while Manish Jha, the former general manager of the NFL’s mobile division, and Steven Nerayoff, Ethereum’s chief strategist, are also on board as investors and advisors. The Screaming Eagles saga even inspired an imitator: Massachusetts-based Your Call Football.

Football is, after all, the perfect laboratory. In other sports, fans could conceivably decide when to yank a pitcher, call a time out or pull a goalie, but those games rely more heavily on improvisation, quick thinking and lucky bounces, not play diagrams. In football, you have time and control. Time to engineer the perfect play, time to set it up, and time—just one time—to execute.

The founders see the FCFL as a laboratory in another way, too. It’s meant to be a farm system not only for players, but also for ideas. Both in and outside the world of sport, entertainment is going interactive: a soccer team called United London FC lets fans choose its starting lineup, and Netflix is reportedly working on a new slate of interactive titles, including a choose-your-own-adventure episode of Black Mirror. The league’s founders intend to be at the crest of that wave. “We want to make our league so technologically advanced that it becomes an accelerator for sports innovation,” says Austin. Filming games with drones? Embedding data-fetching wearables on players? Asking fans to choose the Super Bowl halftime performer? “If companies want to try things out, we want to be able to use our league for that,” he says. “The NFL is already thinking about doing a lot of these things. But the problem is that they can’t. It takes years to get technology into the NFL. There’s so much red tape.”

Before the blockchain tokens and beta tests, though, simpler things will decide the fate of the FCFL. Is it entertaining, high-quality football? Is there really a big enough audience for a whole league? “It’s doomed to fail,” one observer opined on a football fan forum—admittedly one of the crankier corners of the internet. “The chances of success are practically zero.” Some NFL devotees will surely decide fan control is blasphemous, or a burden—why tap your phone every down when you can relax and enjoy the game over beers with friends? Others will simply stick with the hometown teams they’ve watched for decades. But perhaps, somewhere among the fantasy-drafting, Madden-playing masses, there are just enough football fanatics to treat every play like it could win the Super Bowl. 

Out of the norm

How Vivek Jain teamed up with Saturday Night Live alumnus Norm Macdonald to create a dating app
Jain: “Norm was the entertainment one night at a conference I attended. I ended up chatting with him after his stand-up set and we decided to keep in touch. Months later, we ended up on the same flight. He had just done a show in Regina, and I was headed to L.A. So we ate lunch together and got to know one another. He’s an incredibly intelligent, hard-working guy with great business instincts.

One night when I was in L.A., I was hanging out at Norm’s house talking about dating. I’m divorced and have been single for a while. My schedule makes it hard to date, and I wasn’t really into dating apps: some people just want to hook up, others look nothing like their profile pics, and you have to text a War and Peace-length novel before you may or may not even meet someone. Norm and I were trying to figure out how to fix that, and we realized the problem is first dates. They generally don’t go well. So we came up with the idea of a video-dating app called Loko, where you have a video chat before you decide whether or not to go out with someone. Its users get a real sense of the person they’re interacting with in the safe, comfortable environment of their own homes. You’ll only agree to meet in person if you know there’s a connection that points to a meaningful first date.

We built Loko several months ago and now have 10 employees scattered through Regina, L.A., Las Vegas and New York. I met some of them through football; some know Norm. He oversees the team that writes our video content, people who worked on Saturday Night Live and Wayne’s World. Another perk of working with Norm is his ability to call up people like Howard Stern and get on his show. Who wouldn’t want him? We are also scheduled to be on Anna Faris’s podcast. My daughters love her movie Yogi Bear, so I told them, ‘Daddy’s going to meet the girl from Yogi Bear.’ They were pretty stoked about that.”