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INNOVATION ECONOMY

‘An epic failure’: Your Call Football and why sports are hard to disrupt

An interactive startup based in Newton wanted fans to be able to watch a game live and vote on what they thought the plays should be. So what went wrong?

Your Call Football never made it over the goal line.Your Call Football/Damian Strohmeyer

How hard could it be to reinvent a sport like football for the era of Xbox and PlayStation — creating a version that would allow fans to play a more active role in the game, including by deciding what plays are called?

What if you had a successful and wealthy CEO to bankroll you, veteran coaches on the sidelines, technology from a top-notch Boston digital agency, and promising players who wanted to take the field to show what they could do?

Harder than kicking a field goal from your own 20-yard line, it turns out.

Making live football more interactive was the concept behind a Newton company called Your Call Football, which began taking shape in 2013. Yes, they actually hired coaches, recruited college and former NFL players to take the field, and organized games — streamed live to the web — in Florida.

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Your Call Football was the brainchild of George Colony, the founder and chief executive of Forrester Research. Forrester is a publicly traded company that sells analysis and advice on technology trends to big corporations. Colony says that at a conference organized by Forrester years ago, Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner of the NFL, was on stage talking about the future of football.

Colony, having made millions predicting the future, is not one to keep his opinions to himself. “I blurted out, ‘I know how to compete with you guys,’ and I talked about having fans call the plays. He said, ‘That’s a really fascinating idea ― an idea the NFL would never do.’ They’re steeped in tradition. The coach has all the power.”

Colony spent several years ruminating on and researching the idea. “You had to build a professional football product that had a massive difference” from the NFL, he told me in 2018. Your Call Football would combine sports, technology, entertainment, and gaming.

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Colony drafted a former Forrester colleague, Julie Meringer, to run it. They hired Cantina, a Boston agency that had built mobile and web software for clients that include Harvard, Zipcar, Cisco, and Forrester. They wanted fans to be able to watch a game live and vote on what they thought the next set of plays should be, which required very little delay, or “latency.” Pretty much everything you see broadcast live on television, Colony explains, is shown between seven and 20 seconds after it happens. They found former NFL coaches and coordinators like Mike Sherman and Frank Novak of the Green Bay Packers, as well as Solomon Wilcots and Merril Hoge to put together playbooks, assemble teams, and run football games in Florida with a modified set of rules.

“The defense couldn’t blitz, and the offense had to go for it on fourth down — there was no punting until you’d crossed the 50-yard line,” explains Hoge, a running back who played eight seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears. “The ultimate goal is to score points, so we wanted to make it an offense-friendly environment.”

The coaches “would create these bundles of three plays you could choose from,” Wilcots says. Two might be passing plays and one a running play. “We’d put the option up, and the fans would pick one, and we’d send it to the quarterback. The speed at which that occurred felt like a natural sequence of play-calling,” even for a normal football game where fans weren’t playing a role. Wilcots says the quality of play on the field was comparable to a Division I college game.

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Your Call set up two series of games in Florida, in 2018 and 2019, to demonstrate the technology — and try to attract fans. That second year, the company put up $72,000 in prize money for fans who rose up the leaderboard and consistently picked the plays that performed the best. Fans could either watch the game in the stadium — Colony says a few hundred showed up — or on a computer or iPad from home. They could set up a group of 10 friends and compete to see who called the most successful plays.

Wilcots says he knew the prospect of the NFL one day letting fans choose plays was highly unlikely. (“Can you see Bill Belichick letting some fan call a play for him?”) But he thought the interactive technology could be used in exhibition games like the NFL’s annual Pro Bowl, or by a rival league such as the XFL, USFL, or Canadian Football League. The former XFL commissioner Oliver Luck came to Florida to observe some of the Your Call games; Meringer says the company also had some early conversations with Brian Woods, president of the newly reconstituted USFL, which hopes to play games this spring.

There were also conversations about using the technology in golf, baseball, and poker. “At one point,” Colony says, “we were going to play the No. 1 poker player in the world against the world.” But those deals didn’t come together. The highest-profile outing that the company had was as a sponsor of the 2019 AutoZone Liberty Bowl, a college football bowl game. Fans weren’t allowed to choose plays, but they could try to predict which plays the teams would run, and how many yards they’d gain or lose. Your Call also bought advertising time to promote downloads of the app.

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A screenshot from the Your Call appYour Call

“We had absolutely no issues” at the game, Meringer recalls. Upon returning to Newton in January 2020, she was thinking, “This is going to take off.” Then, COVID descended.

Meringer thought that as NFL teams worried about losing revenue without having fans in the stadium, rolling out Your Call’s app to let fans make predictions might give them a new place to showcase their sponsors. But, she says, “no one wanted to take the leap or do the work. There was always an unknown, or an excuse — ‘we don’t know how to tackle this right now.’”

Colony had been the company’s sole investor, and after putting more than $10 million into the venture, he was finally getting frustrated. He says he met with 60 or 70 venture capital firms, and other potential investors, but no one wanted to help fund it.

One of their concerns, he says, was “the concussion problem” — Your Call’s potential liability for injuries that happened during its games. But the other issue was that investors preferred startups like Uber, “where you don’t own anything — you leverage other people’s assets,” such as the cars that Uber drivers own. “We had to hire people, have teams, have infrastructure,” Colony says. Even the successful fantasy sports companies like FanDuel and DraftKings were “leveraging the assets of the NFL and other leagues” — not organizing their own competitions, he points out.

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Josh Walker, a former Forrester executive who runs Boston-based Sports Innovation Lab ― a research firm focused on sports ― says Your Call “would’ve been much better received had they launched now.” Why? “The old guard [of established leagues] has been gut-punched by the pandemic,” Walker says. “There’s a much more receptive audience for these big ideas.”

Meringer says that by fall of last year, she and Colony agreed that it was time to turn out the lights. They put the company’s patents, trademarks, and technology into a limited liability company — in case someone expresses an interest in licensing any of it at some later date.

“I’ve been successful in my life and career by doing good research and analysis and putting together a good product,” she says. “I haven’t had an epic failure before. This was an epic failure.”

Colony calls it a “humbling” and “extremely educational” experience. “I think someday, history will look back on Your Call as like the early Nintendo” gaming systems, he predicts.

Another startup, Fan Controlled Football, is giving it a go. The Los Angeles company lets fans not only call the plays but also help manage the teams. It has plans to play its second season this spring, with eight teams, and will announce a new round of venture capital funding this week.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.