Bend it like the americans

Last Updated: Fri, Jan 18, 2013 20:20 hrs

Season one of the Indian American football league passed by mostly unnoticed. Ranjita Ganesan finds out what its promoters are doing to get more eyeballs for season two

E very now and then, a scuffle seems to break out among the 22 players on the field. Dressed in elaborate gear — helmets, shin and thigh pads, and broad shoulder guards — they tug at each other and wrestle for a while. Then, suddenly, an oval ball flies out from the pile of brawn. To the untrained eye, American football can be pretty mystifying.

Launched in 2011, Elite Football League of India, the first men’s professional American football league in the subcontinent, has not garnered much interest. With six Indian teams and one each from Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it managed to land a television broadcasting deal with Ten Sports. However, the league’s first season, with 51 matches played between July and August in 2012, went mostly unnoticed. The games, which were played in Sri Lanka, were slickly edited but the frenzy of activity on the screen only confused the viewer.

“It is an action-packed game but it is really technical,” says Abhijith Mandya, an environmental researcher who plays the sport. The 24-year-old knows American football and watched EFLI matches but feels that spreading awareness of the rules and tactics is key to luring viewers. “It is not a sport we have grown up watching.”

After the tame first season, the league management now plans to air short instructional videos before and after matches to explain the rules to viewers.

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A 1.2 billion-strong pool of potential fans and a largely untapped market for televised sport other than cricket led to the formation of EFLI. Its co-founders, Richard Whelan and Sunday Zeller, are venture capitalists in the area of sports — in 1997, Whelan is reported to have helped put together a team of investors to buy Orlando Predators, a team in the Arena Football League, and later take it public.

EFLI also has a number of investors, notable among whom are Mike Ditka, former National Football League player and now head coach of Chicago Bears team; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski; former players Michael Irvin of Dallas Cowboys and Brandon O’Neil Chillar of Green Bay Packers. Incidentally, Chillar is a second-generation American-Indian — his father left India at the age of 18 — one of very few Indian origin Americans to play in the NFL. Also among its investors are NFL player Kurt Warner, defined as “American football’s Sachin Tendulkar”, and Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg. EFLI is also backed by the Sports Authority of India, and will share 15 per cent of its revenue with the ministry of sports.

Undoubtedly, EFLI’s founders and investors have reason to be optimistic. For one, there are the large number of Indian houses with TV sets. Two, while there’s no beating cricket in popularity, in recent years, international sporting events in football and F1 racing have gathered healthy TV viewership in India. Three, increasingly prosperous and aspirational Asia, particularly India, has become a hotspot for international outfits looking to expand — American football is only the latest in a series of entrants in the world of fashion, automobiles and lifestyle brands.

Sports is a billion-dollar industry in the United States, employing one in twenty Americans, says Whelan. “Sports business in India lacks as professionals. For an American, it is easy to see that,” he notes.

American football’s domestic league, National Football League (NFL), is one of the most valuable sports events in the world and has a fanatic following in the US, with more than 172 million viewers tuning into matches in 2012. By spreading out to the Indian subcontinent and other areas, the league hopes to grow to a $100 billion valuation by 2030 — 2.5 times larger than the current NFL.

In India, however, TV revenues for EFLI’s first India season were “negligible” says Ten Sports CEO Atul Pande. He expects the sport to gain momentum over the next five to 10 years.

“The biggest challenge, quite frankly, has been ignorance of the entertainment value and potential for revenue, based on the US-model and the history of NFL” says Zeller. “In a country where sport has merely been a hobby or an Olympic event, this concept has been difficult to take root.”

To create a fan base, the league plans to take the sport to schools and universities. It will enlist eight universities in the beginning that “will compete in their own league and act as a feeder service for the professional league,” says Sandeep Chaudhari, vice president of operations, EFLI. As for expansion, there is the plan to launch a team in Bangladesh. All teams are owned by EFLI now buyers will be invited once the format becomes popular.

The second season, which was to start in February, has been delayed in order to finalise match venues. This time, the matches will be played in India and broadcast live. Wahlberg will fly in for the opener. To boost interest, an all-stars India vs Pakistan match is expected to be played at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata.

“India has traditionally welcomed European sports. American sports like basketball, baseball or American football have not really been big so far,” says Abhishek Takle, a Bangalore-based financial journalist and sports writer. “But it might catch up with niche audiences in big cities — urban youth who are familiar with terms like touchdown’ or quarterback’,” Takle reckons.

The league has also begun an initiative to train Indian sportsmen, Whelan says. According to him, with the right training and nutrition, EFLI players like Bangalore Warhawks’ Roshan Lobo can outpace international stars.

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As for the Indian players in EFLI, most of them have had to battle scepticism to take up the sport. The American football league, they say, has helped them support their families financially.

“My parents were worried as it was a new sport,” 21-year-old Nishant Chaudhari, linebacker for Mumbai Gladiators, says in Marathi. “But when they heard that I would earn Rs 15,000 a month for playing, they were moved to tears.” Chaudhari, also a college-level wrestler, works as a security guard in the off-season, when players are not paid.

EFLI wants to hike salaries next season and have different grades of pay according to performance, pushing players to train harder.

Coaches and players of American football in India mainly came from sports such as rugby, wrestling and football. They were trained by international coaches for a year before the first season. The players now train once or twice a week, raid YouTube to watch NFL videos and enthusiastically swap trivia.

“In rugby, there is no protection, so all this gear makes me laugh,” chuckles Shailesh Devrukhkar, former national rugby player and head coach for the Mumbai team, as he watches his players practice on Juhu beach. “I broke my shoulder, arm and back playing rugby and got nothing. This sport has changed things for me.”

Ashutosh Rathod, Mumbai Gladiators’ quarterback, laments, “A lot of people give up sports because of the politics. Only select players are invited for soccer tryouts, while others are not informed.” So far, EFLI has been fair and a player’s promotion is decided by his skills, the 22-year-old says.

Players admit that they need to improve their game to be as good as their international counterparts. Rathod’s passes covered a total of 166 yards in the first season, while NFL quarterbacks cover that distance in a single game.

But they are sure the league will gradually see success. “If we stop believing in it, we will never be able to convince the audience,” says 22-year-old Mayank Sharma, quarterback for Delhi Defenders. The boys, it seems, are raring to go. But it could be a while before India warms up to football with helmets.

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