Frank Novak was retired from the National Football League and spending the winter in Florida when he fielded an out-of-the-blue phone call in 2013.
Sue Develin wanted to get him involved with her Newton startup. The idea: Let anyone with a smartphone pick the next play that would be run in a real, live football game.
Novak, who stepped down as a special teams coordinator for the Green Bay Packers in 2005, says he “was a doubter” when he first heard the idea. “I was skeptical about losing control,” says Novak, 79. “These plays are your babies. You know they’re gonna work. And now, I’m letting guys at the bar or the bowling alley tell me what play I’m gonna run?”
Novak’s wife convinced him to give the concept a chance, and he eventually became a consultant to Develin’s startup, Your Call Football. The company already has run several scrimmages to test its technology and plans to organize three or four games in Florida next spring to tout the idea to fans.
Just how long of a Hail Mary pass is this?
I got a demo of the app earlier this month, synced to pre-recorded footage from a college game. On each down, you’re shown three play options and you pick one. With a live game, the coach on the field would select those three options using a tablet, and also note which one he’d run in the situation. After the fans are given 10 seconds to vote, the play picked by the majority is relayed to the quarterback. If it does well, everyone who chose it gets points. But if it fizzles, you can also earn points if you picked the same play the coach did.
“It’s like the video game ‘Madden NFL’ in real life,” says Julie Meringer, president of Your Call Football. “This is where the millennials want to go. They’re used to using a second screen like a phone or tablet while they’re watching TV, and they want to be in the action. They want to make things happen.” One key feature from an advertiser’s perspective: Because you need to watch the game live to participate, you can’t use a DVR to record it, or start it late, to skip past the commercials.
But Meringer and Develin, Your Call’s vice president of marketing, acknowledge that it isn’t worth trying to persuade the NFL or the National Collegiate Athletic Association to adopt the technology — at least right now.
“You pay the coaches a lot of money to call the plays in pro sports,” observes Isaiah Kacyvenski, a former Seattle Seahawks linebacker and now managing director of Sports Innovation Lab, a Boston research and advisory firm. “There’s also a lot of concern around protecting the integrity of the game.”
What if the Your Call system got hacked, or a group of players banded together to pick bad plays to influence the outcome of a game?
So that has led Your Call to the conclusion that it needs to stage its own games to showcase the technology. Already, they’ve run scrimmages at the Latitude sports complex in Peabody and at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They recruited former high school and college players, hired college referees, and invited a few fans to watch and use the app.
“We ran about a half of a football game, so we were confident the system would work and the timing would work,” Develin says. It was important, she says, that the fan voting mechanism didn’t slow down the game; in the NFL, there are 40 seconds between plays, and Develin says at the scrimmages, Your Call hit its goal of 45 seconds.
Novak became a convert: “I was jacked up about this. It didn’t matter that the fans were calling the plays. I’m the one that crafted those three plays to fit that down and distance.”
One thing that Your Call learned from the scrimmages: Players are passionate about offense, not defense. So the app will let you coach offense and score points for both teams. If you are a good enough virtual coach to end up on Your Call’s leaderboard, there will be cash prizes, Develin says.
Next spring, Your Call will organize three or four games in Vero Beach, Fla., ideally broadcast on television with a partner. The goal is to get a few hundred thousand people to download the app, Develin says, so that it can prove to advertisers, networks, and prospective investors that every fan wants to prove that he or she has an undiscovered Belichickian brilliance. Your Call eventually hopes to generate revenue from advertising, sponsorships, and premium features in its mobile app.
But will the lure of interactivity be enough to get fans to tune in, even when there aren’t familiar players or teams on the gridiron? Novak says his biggest concern about Your Call is the “quality of the player that we’ll be able to attract.”
But another consultant who has been working with the company, Randy Vataha, a former Patriots wide receiver, contends that there are plenty of players in each year’s NFL draft who don’t wind up earning a spot on a roster, as well as longtime NFL players who get injured and want to work their way back into the league.
“There are just so many guys who want that opportunity to get back to the NFL,” says Vataha, who now heads the sports consultancy Game Plan LLC in Miami Beach. “They can play for [Your Call] in the spring, and be eligible to play for NFL training camps in the summer.”
Bob Higgins, a venture capitalist with Causeway Media Partners, a sports-oriented investment firm in Cambridge, acknowledges that hiring coaches and players, organizing games, and promoting them to fans will cost some serious coin. But it could eventually pay off, he says: “It may take a well-placed firecracker to start an avalanche.”
Causeway isn’t an investor in Your Call; so far, the entire project has been funded by one individual — George Colony, chief executive of Forrester Research, a publicly traded technology forecasting firm in Cambridge.
“At a high level, the idea is absolutely amazing,” says Kacyvenski, the Seahawks veteran. “In reality, there’s a ton of challenges in implementing this. But that’s the beauty of innovation — you have to go define what the future is going to look like.”