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Why Fan Controlled Football Embraced Ethereum NFTs for Its Interactive League


Bored Ape holders and Steve Aoki are among team owners for the physical-meets-digital league, which lets NFT holders call plays and more.

By Andrew Hayward

11 min read

Fan Controlled Football will use NFTs as part of its new season. Image: Fan Controlled Football/Getty Images

In brief

  • Fan Controlled Football, a physical sports league with digital interactivity elements, is expanding into NFTs for its new season.
  • Prominent NFT creators and influencers own new teams in the league, while fans can buy NFTs to help govern those teams.

It’s right there in the name: American sports league Fan Controlled Football was built to give power to viewers, who collectively call plays in live games from afar.

And for its second season, beginning April 16, the league—which has former NFL stars both on the field and behind the teams—aims to boost the sense of interactivity, community, and collective ownership by tapping into NFTs.

In the run-up to the second season, Fan Controlled Football announced that it would add four teams based on prominent NFT collections and creators—from the Bored Ape Yacht Club to Steve Aoki—and then launched its own Ethereum NFTs. Those collectible assets let owners make decisions for their respective team, as well as vote on plays during games.

That pairing of real-life competition and digital governance is one that the arena-based league’s creators and investors alike believe will be a powerful combination—and may lead to other such sports leagues in the years ahead. Here’s a look into how Fan Controlled Football embraced NFT culture to amplify fan engagement as it enters its next season.

Launching the league

Fan Controlled Football debuted in early 2021, with four teams playing in a closed “bubble” setting (due to COVID-19) and streaming live on Twitch. Viewers from all over the world could watch live and vote on the offensive plays for either team via Twitch or a mobile app, giving them a say in how the physical game proceeded.

Sohrob Farudi, co-founder and CEO of Fan Controlled Football, told Decrypt that tens of thousands of viewers called plays for each team over the course of the season. It’s a premise that Farudi and his co-founders dreamed up in 2015, and first brought to life from 2016-17 while running a team—the Salt Lake Screaming Eagles—in the Indoor Football League.

The founders hoped to prove out the fan-driven platform and then license it out to other teams and leagues. But while Farudi said that the pilot season went well—with fans not only choosing plays, but also picking the name, drafting players, and more—the creators realized that other team owners weren’t necessarily keen on giving up control to fans.

“If you think about team ownership in general, it's a very select club. And when you're in it, you buy your team because you want to make the decisions,” he said. “We quickly realized that there were very few, if any owners out there that would turn over control to their fans.”

Instead, they formed their own league, eventually launching Fan Controlled Football last year on the back of a $12 million seed round that included Verizon Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners. The four original teams featured owners like retired NFL star Marshawn Lynch and rapper Quavo.

During that initial season, the owners saw how fans already felt ownership of their favorite teams, congregating in Discord servers to discuss play-calling strategy or changing their Twitter profile pictures to team logos. Farudi said that the pairing of digital ownership and digital identity that NFTs are known for was already brewing around the league—without NFTs in the mix.

An NFT acts like a deed of ownership to a unique digital item, but it can also serve as an access pass into a community. It’s a model that the Bored Ape Yacht Club popularized, providing a sense of ownership and a steady stream of perks for being part of the club.

After going “down the NFT rabbit hole” himself last year, as an owner of a Bored Ape NFT and various Gutter Cat Gang NFTs, Farudi said that the vision of releasing NFTs to enable enhanced participation for certain teams began to take shape.

“It felt like that's exactly what we were trying to create, right?” he said. “These digital communities where people were coming together and all had this shared goal of making something successful. And that's what being a sports fan is all about.”

Into the NFT world

Fan Controlled Football made its NFT plans official in January alongside the announcement of a $40 million Series A funding round led by a pair of crypto industry heavyweights: metaverse investor Animoca Brands and research and investment firm Delphi Digital.

Alongside the four teams from the first season, Fan Controlled Football also announced four new expansion teams, each inspired by the NFT community: Bored Ape Football Club, Kingpins, 8OKI, and Knights of Degen.

Bored Ape Football Club is owned by Bored Ape NFT holders. Image: Fan Controlled Football

The Bored Ape Football Club is not an officially licensed team created in partnership with Yuga Labs. However, it taps into the NFT project's individual commercialization rights via prominent holders in the community, such as tropoFarmer and Josh Ong. Kingpins similarly harnesses the rights of Gutter Cat Gang NFT owners, such as rapper Spottie WiFi and ex-NFL player Jamal Anderson.

Meanwhile, 8OKI came together through the pairing of DJ and NFT entrepreneur Steve Aoki and the pseudonymous NFT collector, 888. The Knights of Degen team is based on the sports-themed NFT community of the same name, with team ownership including founders and former NFL stars Tiki and Ronde Barber, along with actor Jerry Ferrara.

Along with bringing in prominent NFT influencers and creators, and launching NFT-themed teams in the league, Fan Controlled Football also released its own NFT collection for each new team in February under the shared Ballerz Collective brand.

Each team offered 7,500 Ballerz Collective NFTs minted on Ethereum, and each NFT acts like a governance token, enabling holders to exclusively call plays and vote on other decisions—such as the team name and logo, and which players to draft. They can also unlock VIP access to the league’s new facility in Atlanta, where fans can watch the live games for the first time.

Every Ballerz Collective NFT depicts a unique fictional football player, and they’ll play into future league initiatives, such as plans to launch collectible gear NFTs (via a layer-2 scaling solution). The league is also planning a token initiative around its NFTs with a play-to-earn mobile game in the works.

“NFTs are such a unique way for fans of FCF to not only uniquely identify with a team, but also create value with their fandom,” Tiki Barber told Decrypt via an emailed statement. “As the league grows and the number of participants increase, having these early tokens gives fans power—from team management decisions to priority in-game mechanics. Where else can a fan have that kind of influence and impact?”

From ICO to NFTs

This isn’t Fan Controlled Football’s first foray into the crypto world, but it is the first to stick. In December 2017, the league launched a crypto token sale via crowdfunding platform Indiegogo and raised $5.2 million from investors eager to have a stake in the new endeavor.

It happened at the peak of the initial coin offering (ICO) boom, in which scads of new projects popped up and sold tokens for grand visions of crypto platforms—but few ultimately delivered.

“Back then, it was the Wild West,” Farudi told Decrypt. “There were a lot of ideas on the back of a napkin and cash grabs, rugs, scams, and all sorts of things. I don't think it was any different than what we saw with the internet dot-com boom.”

After the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began targeting ICOs, describing them as unregistered securities offerings, Indiegogo apparently got cold feet and canceled Fan Controlled Football’s campaign in July 2018, months after it had finished. The funds had not yet been released to the league.

“We had, I thought, a really unique idea even back then—a use case for what we called a fan token, which was this idea that we had a real working league and you could earn it and use it in our ecosystem,” Farudi said. “Unfortunately, we got caught up in what was happening with the SEC coming down and saying, ‘Hey, we think all tokens are potentially securities.’”

Fan Controlled Football went the traditional venture capital route instead, but now finds itself back in the crypto space in other ways. Farudi pointed to the increasing legitimization of the industry via major participants and growing mainstream awareness. “There’s a certain level of confidence in the ecosystem and the technology,” he added.

“I think that Sohrob has been trying to become a crypto-native company for a number of years now,” said Mercedes Bent, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, which led the league’s seed round and participated in the Series A, as well. She suggested that the interest and fervor around blockchain networks and their uses finally caught up with the league’s vision.

“They really already were operating—even without the crypto infrastructure—as kind of a DAO-like organization,” Bent added, referring to decentralized autonomous organizations, or online communities that can be used to govern crypto projects and more. “I think Fan Controlled Football has that ethos and that spirit built into the core of that foundation.”

FCF 2.0

When Fan Controlled Football returns for its second season in a couple weeks, it’ll have double the teams and a new arena location with in-person fans. It may even have NFL legend Terrell Owens, who is reportedly coming out of retirement to play in the league alongside other former NFL players like Johnny Manziel.

It will also have potentially thousands of invested Ballerz Collective NFT owners tuning in to watch and call plays from afar. But the league may also lose some fans as a result of leaning into NFTs this season. The original teams will still let viewers call plays without owning NFTs, but NFT culture and technology will be a major part of the overall league.

A rendering of the new arena facility in Atlanta. Image: Fan Controlled Football

Fan Controlled Football is positioned as a “real-life video game,” as Sohrob described it, or a merger of sports and video games. While many sports fans are largely amenable to digital collectibles, given their similarity to physical collectibles and memorabilia, that sentiment is less common among video game fans.

Gamers aren’t alone in pushing back against NFT collectibles, but they’ve been especially vocal on social media when game publishers like Ubisoft and Team17 have announced initiatives, citing the environmental impact of Ethereum and concerns over scams. Farudi said that they’ve seen some of those complaints too since announcing the league’s NFTs.

“We're not going to be able to make everybody happy,” he said. “We really felt like this was a great opportunity. We're all about technology and pushing the envelope on the digital side. There's just too much happening in that space, and too many creative things that we could do, to ignore it.”

Amid rising momentum around the metaverse—an immersive vision of a next-generation internet driven by Web3 technology—Farudi sees Fan Controlled Football as a link between the physical world of sports and events and the budding digital world that’s rapidly expanding.

“The real world isn't going away, right? We all live in the real world. We're gonna be here for a long time. We still want to be together,” he said. “There is this really unique opportunity, which most people are currently ignoring, which is not all metaverse and it's not all physical. It's those worlds colliding.”

That’s also the hook that sets the league apart from the NFL. Fan Controlled Football can’t compete with the NFL on top talent, and doesn’t have the eyeballs or funds to try and take on a juggernaut pro sports league directly. But with interactive elements and a sense of ownership among fans, the league aims to hook fans with a greater level of engagement.

“They're looking to deliver a completely new type of experience,” Lightspeed’s Bent added, “not just a better version of football.”

And football is just the start for the Fan Controlled founders, who plan to launch multiple sports leagues in the coming years with the same kind of interactive hook. Farudi mentioned baseball and basketball as options, but said that they haven’t decided which sport will come next.

“It's a blue ocean right now. We don't really have any competition in the space,” he said. “We think there’s an opportunity to own what it means to be a Web3 sports league.”

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