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BSM Exclusive: Hoge on YCF, ESPN, Concussions and More

With the growing popularity of eSports and video games, could the future of professional sports incorporate a combination of both? Leagues are in search of innovative ways to increase fan interaction and appeal to a younger generation. Your Call Football (YCF) has the technology to embrace the modernization of sports. YCF president, Julie Meringer, and former ESPN analyst, Merril Hoge (Q&A listed below), spoke exclusively to Barrett Sports Media about the new venture.

Your Call Football is a startup professional league, but in recognizing the failures of past leagues’ ability to compete with the NFL, YCF came up with a unique business model to separate their attempt at pro football.

“Sports are decentralized businesses, Warren Buffet is never going to start a company in a decentralized business model, we looked at it like we’re not starting a sports league…because you can’t do it, so we looked at it from a business perspective and our audience’s perspective and that’s how we came to this,” president of Your Call Inc. Julie Meringer told BSM.

Your Call Football transforms traditional spectator sports into an interactive and competitive fan experience. It’s professional football, but through its app fans will be able to control the on-field action by voting on three coach-selected plays. Fans will then get to watch the majority vote be implemented live on the field by YCF professional football players

YCF also has a patented scoring algorithm used with their app, connecting play calling with the popularity of fantasy sports. Through the scoring system, if a fan votes with the majority and that play is deemed successful on the field, that fan will gain points, if you did not vote with the majority and the top-voted play is unsuccessful, you also gain points. If a fan’s vote matches the coach’s choice, that fan will get bonus points.

Fans will be able to compete with everybody in the app as well as start their own league with a smaller group, or go head-to-head with a friend. The app will be free, but starting in 2019, consumers will need to pay $4.99 to be eligible for cash prizes.

Games will be live-streamed through the YCF app as well as their YouTube channel, both consisting of Fox talent providing commentary. Media partner, Barstool Sports, will also live-stream the game with Big Cat and PFT Commenter providing the call.

The inaugural season of YCF consists of just two teams playing one three game series from Historic Dodgertown at Vero Beach, Florida. A second installment for this fall is a possibility, with the goal of playing three series’ of 6-8 games each in 2019, meaning there could be up to 24 weeks of Your Call Football next year. The future of YCF depends on its success. More games, more teams, even seeing this technology enter the NFL are all possibilities.

“We would no doubt entertain licensing this, we would license this to the NFL for the Pro Bowl or exhibition games,” Meringer said.

The YCF president continued, “Could I envision in the next 5 years that the NFL will license this and they could have each team do a 1st and 10 at the beginning of each half in this way? Sure, because at the end of the day, over the next ten years I think the face of football, technology and the fans is this, because the next generation of fans, they’re not going to the games, they’re barely even watching the games. These kids are playing fortnite, they’re doing eSports, if our product can help keep this great pastime of football alive and this is where the future is, then that would be a huge success.”

Ex-Green Bay Packer head coach Mike Sherman will coach one team, former NFL running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge will lead the other team. Hoge spent 21 years with ESPN before being let go as part of an infamous round of layoffs last April. In an interview with BSM, Hoge spoke about his involvement coaching Your Call Football and his post-ESPN future.

BC: The league has two teams and three games…as a coach, how do you sell the players on this being something more than just an exhibition?

MH: This is a professional level and you need to conduct yourself that way, a lot have players have had someone in the NFL make an opinion of them, the only way to change that opinion is to get the tape and show your improvements.

It’s like anything in life, you want to constantly try to get better at what you’re trying to accomplish. We have a lot of great coaches, great experience and great wisdom. We have a lot that we’re teaching and we’re going to compete, people will watch and you don’t want to be embarrassed, I’ve been impressed with the effort of these players.

BC: Usually the head coach isn’t calling the plays, but how does having fans make the ultimate decision on a play-call affect your job?

MH: It just widens my scope, instead of having one play for a down I need to have three plays and I need to think about who is playing. The difference for me is we need to have different bundles for each player based on their strengths. So if we have different runners in the game I need to have a different bundle for each one, if we use two quarterbacks I need different bundles for them too. Let’s say quarterback A throws out-routes and comebacks very well, but let’s say quarterback B likes to attack screens and throw verticals, then I don’t want to put bundles up that A had. I need to do that to help our fans too because they won’t know our players, so we need to evaluate our players right and bundle plays correctly to help the fans so our players are running plays they’re comfortable with and trust.

BC: Do you foresee it being frustrating? If the fans call a play that you wouldn’t have called and it doesn’t work, will that bother you?

MH: If you go into it with the wrong perspective then yes, but with the perspective I’ve been using…no, I don’t envision that. It’s a new journey there are things we’ll learn along the way and we need to be willing to make adjustments, but I don’t envision it bothering me.

BC: Is coaching something you always aspired to do? When you were at ESPN did you have coaching opportunities presented to you?

MH: Yes and yes. I still coached, I’ve coached eight to 18 for about 15 years. I’ve been in many camps, training camps and meetings with coaches so I’ve been in that environment. I coached the USA team against Canada so I’ve done a lot of this, I have not coached at the professional level, but I’ve been around a lot of head coaches in a lot of different environments. In my experience and being at ESPN, what I’ve found out about a new head coach is…a new head coach doesn’t necessarily know how to be a head coach. Just because you have the title head coach doesn’t mean you automatically know everything, but I’ve used this time to learn. I can watch Mike Sherman and I have Kurt Schottenheimer here to help. I have to make certain calls, I have a certain responsibility, but I am not the type that says I’m the head coach so I know everything. I go to some meetings where I don’t say a word because I’m learning too, but there are times when you see everything pay off and kids get better and that’s what I love, helping kids and young men get better at all positions.

BC: What’s your goal? Are you looking to build on a coaching career or get back into broadcasting?

MH: I would like to grow this league, I think there’s a real strong possibility that this becomes a great league. I’m working on a new book right now that I’m passionate about which has to do with all of this stuff about concussions and the nasty, wrong, evil narrative that’s come from it. So I’m working on that and [Your Call Football] and I do a lot of motivational speaking which I love. So all of that has really consumed my time and I’m very at peace with what I do. I loved all 21 years at ESPN, there’s not a day that I regret, but I love where I am now, I’ve been kind of sitting on these things for a while and it’s given me a chance to really go after them.

BC: A lot has changed at ESPN since you left, there’s even a new president there. Could you see yourself going back?

MH: I would never say no to that, I’d never say no just because I enjoyed it so much and I have a great respect for a lot of people in that industry so I would never say no to that. Never.

BC: You mentioned you were working on a book that deals with the concussion issue in the NFL, what are your thoughts on how concussions have hurt the NFL and what might happen to football going forward?

MH: There’s a lot there, but I’m going to tell you this, football is safer now than in the history of the game. What’s really wrong, nasty and evil is we’ve let incompetence drive a wrong nasty evil narrative. For 100 years we’ve been playing football, for about 90 of those years we did nothing for head trauma, equipment was crap, instruction was wrong, I would fire more coaches because of poor technique, keep in mind this is all they knew then, I remember I used to tackle my coach in practice, think of how ridiculous that is. This is where they have manipulated people in our society because they keep acting like nothing has changed

I spoke in front of congress nine years ago and I challenged them at that time because we had no protocol for ages eight to 18 and I asked that we establish a protocol to help keep kids out of danger within that two week area [of getting a concussion].

The NFL and football are the leaders, the pioneers, there is no area better at taking care of head trauma in the country with how it’s evaluated, cared for, treated, therapy, equipment and instruction.

Is there a mistake every now and then? You know what? There is, but when those mistakes are made they’re addressed, there is going to be mistakes, but every time there is, it’s evolved in the right direction.  How we care for players…the treatment is outstanding.

There is absolutely no evidence that concussions cause CTE, none, yet I read it all the time, I see it all the time, people use it all the time. There is no correlation there, because something is present, does not mean there is a correlation. A lot of people that signed the Hippocratic Oath violate it every day when they get into the media and start running their mouth, saying foul things. There is no correlation to that, there is no correlation to subconcussive hits, it’s a made up myth.

Concussions don’t cause CTE, subconcussions don’t cause CTE, anybody you ever talk to that’s medically qualified, you ask them, is there a correlation…a direct correlation, if they say yes to you, hang up the phone.

CTE is present in people who never played sports, how do you answer that? CTE is present in people that never had a concussion, well that’s why they came up with the subconcussions, they had to create something. To cover themselves, they say we don’t know, we need more research. They should just stop at we don’t know, but instead they draw a conclusion and say football’s got a problem. Really? Then you don’t know football. You don’t know football because where we are now, where we are today…I never dreamed we would have the protocols and treatment like we do.

You can’t take one study and draw a conclusion…that is the most moronic thing. What has been done with CTE in the science and medicine industry may be the most grotesque and evil thing ever done to society, it’s unheard of in medicine and science to have a group look at something, create a problem and nobody else has a chance to even look at it, or observe it.

BC: What do you think when you hear a former NFL player say they don’t want their kids, grandkids playing football?

MH: It’s sad, the biggest thing is the millions of people that are just so confused, that don’t understand, or they’re robbing their kids of activities and they’re doing it out of fear and they’re doing it out of awful science, awful messaging, but very crafty how they’ve messaged it, there’s just no substance behind it whatsoever. And then yes, those people who have played football who now are in this awful fear of something that there shouldn’t be any fear of…if they understood the real facts of things.

If you don’t want to get hurt, shut everything down. More people are dying everyday swimming then any other thing we’re doing until the age of 18 when we get in the car. I don’t see us closing up pools, you make things as safe as you can, let’s not live in fear, let’s make things better, lets improve in every area we can and we have done that on extraordinary levels and that has gotten squashed. We’re letting a bad narrative scare people and that needs to be put in the right perspective so people can have the truth and make choices off of the truth and not fear.

BC: Does it bother you that there’s a need for a league like Your Call Football, that sports and video games need to be connected to appeal to the younger generation?

MH: It gives us a chance to grow the game and show the improvements. If it’s a way for us to connect to young people and the importance of activity and the enjoyment in ways they like it, you’d be moronic not to do it. This is a way for them to get engaged with the game through the technology we have, it’s a great way to evolve the game and make it more exciting for fans in ways they like.

I’ve heard a lot of different options in attempts at playing football outside of the NFL at that level and all of them have been absolute debacles and failures, this is the only time that based on my experience at ESPN and how things were evolving and how people were consuming things in different ways, I said you know what? You have something here because of the way they’re doing it from a football and technological perspective.

BC: Could you foresee this technology being used by the NFL in the future?

MH: One way right now, this would be a great way to make the Pro Bowl better, the NFL is so secretive and rightfully so, if you understood the details of this game, the talent is so good and that’s why coaching is so critical and vital, but in the Pro Bowl there’s no mystery deal, they just try to have fun with it so I think getting the fans involved like this could make the Pro Bowl off the chart.

BSM Take:

Hoge spoke very passionately about concussions and CTE, and came across as well-informed, having clear experience and research on the subject. Regardless of your opinion or knowledge of the topic, Hoge’s go against the grain take should make for an interesting read when his book is released.

Merril was also genuine in his belief in Your Call Football, a league that absolutely has the chance to build a following based on its ability to increase fan interaction while connecting live sports, video games and wagering.

While YCF president, Julie Meringer, did not discuss or allude to gambling having a role in the league, the fact that cash prizes will be awarded to users opens up the possibility of wagering on individual plays. The patented algorithm and technology within the app separate this league from past attempts at creating professional football outside of the NFL.

Brandon Contes is a freelance writer for BSM. He can be found on Twitter @BrandonContes. To reach him by email click here.

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