Fannect in the Kansas City Star - Smartphone app, created in KC, keeps sports fans connected
March 3 – Sports
When Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger watched the Super Bowl at home with his sons Luke and Jake and a couple of their friends, he was amused and intrigued that the kids’ enjoyment of the tense Ravens-49ers game wasn’t complete without social media.
“They’re watching the game and following Twitter, looking at the funny things their friends were saying,” Zenger said. “That’s how they experienced the Super Bowl.”
That’s why Fannect exists.
Fannect is a smartphone app created by a pair of tech-savvy sports enthusiasts — Hunter Browning, 19, less than a year out of Blue Valley High, and Will Coatney, 24, a former football player at MidAmerica Nazarene — with the objective of measuring the knowledge, passion and dedication of fans.
After downloading the app, which is free and became available through Apple’s iTunes and Google Play last month, fans earn points for showing up at games, tailgating, road-tripping, guessing the score or having a photo taken with an athlete or coach.
That last measure of fandom, the photo pose, served as something of an inspiration.
Coatney had a friend, a Kansas fan, who had a photo taken with Thomas Robinson, an All-American forward who helped the Jayhawks reach the national-championship game last year. The friend posted the photo on Facebook, and, to the horror and embarrassment of early-21st century youth, did not receive a comment.
“There was zero interaction, zero engagement,” Coatney said. “No one ‘liked’ it. And this was a popular kid, lots of friends. What that told us was there’s a huge need for a social platform, where something like that happens and the fan gets due credit.”
Ah, but why stop at credit, thought Coatney and Browning. Measure the fan’s interest and compare it to others to see how it stacks up within his school or among other fans of the same team.
Then, pit schools and teams against each other. Compete. Rack up points. Taunt your rival. Get after it.
“People do such unbelievable things for their teams,” Coatney said.
Fannect is betting those fans are willing to prove it on their smartphones.
For a startup housed in an airy office on Grand Boulevard, near the Sprint Center, what better rivalry to help kick things off than the one right under their feet?
“If you ask a Kansas student and a Missouri student who has better fans, you know their answer,” Browning said. “But there’s been no real way to quantify that.”
Fannect made its first inroads at Kansas, setting up an information table and handing out business cards at Allen Fieldhouse for the Jayhawks’ game against Texas, which was featured on ESPN’s “College GameDay” last month. Soon, Jayhawks coach Bill Self is expected to spread Fannect’s brand from his Twitter account. The company also plans marketing forays into other colleges and the Chiefs, Royals and Sporting KC.
These costs will come out of the $500,000 Fannect has raised through investors, including employee family members and friends and a mid-January trip to Silicon Valley, to get things off the ground.
For Fannect to connect, like anything else in the social media world, it must happen organically.
“If this goes viral, it won’t be because we spent a lot of money on marketing,” Coatney said. “We’re going to spend enough to give it a chance. And then at some point, you let it go, and it either goes or it doesn’t.”
Ideally, Fannect’s founders say, their app would become something of a Foursquare for sports fans.
Foursquare is a social networking site that awards points for posting your location. Walk into Starbucks? Check in using the Foursquare app on your phone. Simple as that. If you check in to that Starbucks more than anybody else playing the game over a certain period, you’re the “mayor” of that venue and receive five points.
“What’s insane is that millions of people are doing this thing for points, and they really don’t mean a (darn) thing,” Coatney said. “People just love doing it.”
In April 2012, Foursquare announced a user base of 20 million since its 2009 inception. Users had checked in 2 billion times in the previous two years. Today, the app has used the information gleaned from check-ins to create a locator guide and rating system for restaurants, nightlife, and in Kansas City, barbecue joints.
Fannect has a similar idea, tapping into sports fans and the edge they bring. Earn points, climb a leader board, taunt your rival — all with a few thumb strokes. Fannect’s goal: 2.5 million users by the end of 2013.
“Our goal,” Coatney said, “is to see cricket fans on this.”
If Browning’s name sounds familiar, it should. He was featured on a May 6, 2012, cover story in The Star as a high school senior with provisional patents, now up to 10, to protect the technology involved with his creations. The story ran a week before Browning donned his cap and gown and walked with his fellow Blue Valley High graduates.
Today, Browning is scratching a sports itch. He played soccer for the Tigers, his senior season ending with a loss in the Kansas 5A championship game. He looked into playing at some smaller colleges and decided against it, but longed for competition.
“I was kind of going into withdrawal from not getting to play,” Browning said.
While watching a game on television, Browning thought about how to remain engaged in sports without stuffing shin guards into his socks.
“If there’s a way to figure out a way to let fans get back into the game, that would be huge,” Browning said. “Fannect started from that.”
Self-described as “not a 4.0-student,” Browning enrolled at Kansas and planned on finishing the fall before working on Fannect full time in the spring. But his dorm room “was a rave 24-7” and he moved into the basement of a neighboring dorm just to work. He made it to 15 classes before bailing to devote his energy to Fannect.
Coatney was a defensive lineman and deep snapper at MidAmerica Nazarene, where he also had developed websites.
The company needed help, so it doubled its staff. Blake VanLandingham, 20, is the senior technical officer. He went to Olathe East and spent a year at Kansas State. Like Browning, he’s not old enough to order a beer at the bars neighboring both sides of Fannect’s office.
Chris Anning, 50, is “just the old guy who tries to give them a little wisdom and business insight.” Anning has the fund-raising contacts.
Fannect looks to generate income by having unobtrusive brand logos on its screenshots and is in discussions with IMG College and Learfield Sports — the major players in college-sports branding business.
“We didn’t want to go the whole ad route with pop-ups that no one really likes,” Coatney said.
Attract and engage users, sell ads, create value. Hey, major companies with sports websites are always on the lookout for properties that bring eyeballs. Also, the detailed information Fannect offers about fans, where they are, their level of dedication, passion and knowledge is information teams would find valuable.
Especially information about young fans.
“Even during the action, they’re looking at their phones,” Zenger said. “Older folks are watching the game. Younger ones are watching the game, looking at their phones, punching in a comment.”
They’re connecting and engaging, and Fannect wants them to prove their fandom.