Hey India, Are You Ready for Some (American) Football?

A new eight-team league hopes to hook India on American football. Will the game sell in South Asia?

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Courtesy of EFLI

India is in love with football, sure. But we’re talking fútbol, not its burly, hairy-eared U.S. cousin. But a new venture, the Elite Football League of India, or EFLI, is betting that South Asia will fall for the American game. With backing from high-profile investors like former NFL head coach Mike Ditka and movie star Mark Wahlberg, the EFLI has built an eight-team league, with squads representing Sri Lanka, Pakistan and various India cities. Its goal is to build the game from the ground up, carving a new niche in the region’s growing sports sector.

Television viewers got their first glimpse of Indian-inflected American football last weekend, when the Pakistan Wolfpak squared off against the Bangalore Warhawks. In terms of play, the game was reminiscent of a U.S. high school matchup. The stands were rather empty, some of the passes woefully off target. Since most locals have never played the game, the league targeted rugby players in the region, as well as athletes playing other sports. Amit Lochab played for India’s national rugby team before suiting up for the Delhi Defenders as a running back, linebacker, tight end and kicker. Bangalore’s star running back, Roshan Lobo, only got the position after the team’s top two running backs took jobs with the Indian government.

(MORE: ‘They Need TV Product’: Why American Football Is Coming to India)

But where the players fumbled, production value prevailed. To make the game quicker and more viewable to a novice Indian audience, the full EFLI season was played, shot and produced ahead of time to try to make it more exciting for viewers who didn’t grow up with the sport. The games were also shortened to cut out lengthy delays and then edited such that they resembled an extended NFL highlight reel. Making the sport slick and fast-paced, even if the players aren’t yet, is part of the league’s strategy, says Richard Whalen, EFLI CEO. “Money comes from TV viewership; if you want to make money in India, you have to make sports that are TV-viewer worthy,” he says.

The prospect of American football, no matter how pure its form, was enough to lure Indian network Ten Sports to sign on to broadcast the games. The network is experimenting with new sports to meet growing demand in India and saw the EFLI as a low-risk investment, says Ten Sports CEO Atul Pande. “The key with products like this one is not to get overambitious in what it wants to achieve.” The network agreed to broadcast the EFLI to 14 different countries in the region and reaches some 170 million homes, says Pande. But the games don’t yet merit a prime-time slot, and the league’s first game aired at 8:30 a.m. in India. And while the games’ production value increases with pretaping, it also poses challenges. “We had recommended doing it live because nonlive ratings drop by 90%,” says Pande. “If you want to create a new sport, then it’s better something happens locally, to get people in the stadium and build local heroes.”

(MORE: In Cricket-Obsessed India, Soccer Soars in Popularity)

Most franchises in leagues in any sport around the world rely on live events to sell tickets, hot dogs and merchandise. Playing the games ahead of time, packaging and broadcasting them, however, keeps costs down. Rather than renting stadiums, paying for teams to travel and stay around the country for months, playing the games all at once at one venue cost $2.5 million for the entire season, says Whalen. The EFLI, however, is betting that the reality-show-meets-football approach will make up for the fact that all the games were played in a single stadium in Sri Lanka earlier this year. “Live is an old-fashioned model, where people go to the stadium,” says Whalen. “TV is the only way it’s going to be successful. We didn’t give a damn about selling tickets, what are we going to sell 20,000 tickets?”

The new league faces some tough competition, especially from soccer. The sport has been growing in popularity in India, and the world’s top leagues broadcast there now regularly trail only cricket in TV viewership. To build support, the global sports consulting firm IMG was brought in to help overhaul the country’s grassroots infrastructure for soccer. The idea was that not only would more fields and more youth teams boost the level of play in India, but also that those who grew up playing the game would watch the sport as well.

Persuading nonplayers to watch semiprofessional players may be tough. But that hasn’t dimmed the optimism of the league’s backers. “Our timing is dead-on,” says Whalen. “One day the Mumbai Gladiators will be worth more than the New York Yankees.”

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27 comments
Aditya Vikram
Aditya Vikram

I'm an Indian, and a sports enthusiast (basically, it comes down to Cricket in particular, of course , being an Indian ;)).Anyway, I think this is really stupid and lame. Before starting such a league, they need to have some kind of promotion or something where they at least teach some of the basic rules, point system or something. Why would a Cricket or Football fan watch this sport, when he can relate nothing to American Football?? M friend say the inaugural match and he told me how funny it was! they just shouted 'hut, hut' and couldn't even catch the ball during the first throw-or whatever its called. 

The best thing is they broadcast at least one of them popular NFL team's season matches, like ESPN broadcasts Baseball. Believe you me, I do wake up at 4 30 am to watch some post season matches. It is just natural to watch/follow an 'exotic' game, especially when you see packed stadiums with 50,000 odd fans, and not a dull match where, this Indian (American Football) league where you realise after a few minutes that you're the only person watching it! 

Billy Brantingham
Billy Brantingham

I don't know about how they've done the presentation (pre-recorded?  Really?), but I see no reason why American Football won't work in India.  A great deal of Indians have come over here for education, and many have fallen in love with the game (I still keep in touch with an old friend who went back - he still catches the Cowboys' and Aggies' games.

jatindershoon
jatindershoon

To make American football popular in  India you need players 6-ft  or more in height weighing over 220 lbs or more, which itself will bring thousands  of Indians out to see these giants as a freak show.Average Indian is 5-ft-6-inch or less weight 130- lbs or less, hence excellent chance for food companies to get involved.It is a expensive support not to many Indians can afford and also the schools or colleges, hence corporation sponsorship is a, "MUST."It will be the cheapest and most productive engagement for companies to sell its products with a minimum overhead.You have to create, FOOTBALL FATHERS, encouraging there sons to learn the game and win football scholarship to any best university in U.S.A that it self will do the, FOOTBALL MAGIC." Start with two or three states, like Punjab, Bombay and Delhi. AND LAST OF ALL BUT NOT THE LEAST POMP POMP GIRLS, OH BOY! WILL THAT BE A CROWD DRAWING SHOW OR WHAT?

wandmdave
wandmdave

I don't see it happening but who knows.

zaglossus
zaglossus

Good grief. Let's hope it doesn't spread. It's a violent game and very expensive (equipment-wise and the fact that a team has many players) to play.

Choking Kojak
Choking Kojak

“One day the Mumbai Gladiators will be worth more than the New York Yankees.”

Aforementioned sounds crazy-insane, yet -- to me -- also strangely plausible.

6Cobra
6Cobra

That name is a perfect example of why this venture will fail.  "Mumbai Gladiators?"  Why would that name resonate even the slightest bit with people on the Indian Subcontinent?  It would be like starting a cricket team in Oklahoma and calling them "The Fort Sill Janissaries" or the "OK City Maori Warriors."  Does India really not have any examples of tough/aggressive warriors, heroes, or archtypes that could be used to establish some kind of connection?  Or did the big-bellied football guys who birthed this venture just not give a darn?  Maybe they thought that Indians all live on a reservation in Arizona..  I'm surpirsed they didn't name them the Mumbai Redskins. 

Choking Kojak
Choking Kojak

People in India apparently take in a lot of cinema.  My guess is a ton of Bollywood and Hollywood movies with gladiator-type warriors/themes have hit theaters/airwaves there in the last decade.  Public in Mumbai hears "Gladiators"  and probably can't help but visualize Russel Crowe spearing tigers...

Approximately 1.24 billion people in India!  With that number of people, you know that India has got to have a fan base for American Football somewhere (Especially given all the business that companies in India are doing with the U.S. these days).

nubboi
nubboi

whoops, double post

nubboi
nubboi

Are you kidding me? The EFLI has done extensive research of the country while starting this league. Plus, the team names are awesome!

Mumbai Gladiators

Kandy Skykings

Kolkata Vipers

Bangalore Warhawks

Delhi Defenders

Pakistan Wolfpak

Colombo Lions

Pune Marathas <--- there's your archetype

The logos are pretty sweet as well: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-jTmw...

Deep Raj
Deep Raj

efli will definatly rocks in India ..!!!!

Wrestlingroots
Wrestlingroots

Why not?  A couple of years ago the Pirates scouted a couple of cricket bowlers for a chance to be baseball pitchers.  Plus, with recent Olympic success in wrestling, India is  starting a wrestling league (the real kind of wrstling, not WWE).  

Prashanth D'Souza
Prashanth D'Souza

American Football is a good way to go for India ;) There aren't as many countries playing it in the first place, just like cricket. You can start showing off top-10 finishes within years...unlike soccer (the real football) which is represented by over 100 countries... and India is a miserable 134th overall, even with decent support from fans.

Having another sport like cricket where we can show we are among the top-10 playing nations will be good for the collective sports psyche of the nation. ;)

Also, soccer has not "been growing in popularity". It has always been popular. It is one of the few "foreign" sports that the locals took to willingly, and has remained popular at grass roots levels. In some villages of Assam in India, soccer tournaments are played for the prize money of a goat. In other places like West Bengal, specific types of fish are cooked by the supporters of different teams when their team wins the league championship. So there has always been a "national" interest towards football (soccer) totally removed from the international eye and it is primarily in the states of West Bengal, Goa, Maharashtra (mainly Mumbai/Bombay), Kerala and almost all of the 7 north eastern states (Nagaland, Mizoram, Sikkim, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh amp; Tripura).

And American football will have a difficult time getting past field hockey which has always been popular and will continue to remain so as there is tremendous public outrage when India doesn't perform well or qualify for the Olympics, where they have won 8 gold medals in the past for the sport. It is not acceptable that India doesn't perform well in the sport, which is part of the Indian psyche in many ways, evoking as strong emotions as cricket from many sections of the country.

luvv4all
luvv4all

Well lets see what happens, "you never know how good the book is, until you read it." To our surprise it might be a great one.

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Better to teach Americans to play Cricket.

Adnan7631
Adnan7631

I don't see this working. I don't imagine it catching on with masses for several reasons. Football is very complicated. 

Most people will never play football because there is no infrastructure for it. Furthermore, it is very costly to build up the sport. Each team requires a large amount of players. Those players will hopefully have experience playing (or else it won't ever improve). However, I don't see the skinny little kids playing football. It really doesn't make sense. Kids don't play football now until they are teenagers. What do they play instead? Basketball, baseball, and soccer. All of those sports are WAY cheaper and have fewer injuries and require fewer players. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, soccer and cricket are already ingrained (well, sort of. they don't really play soccer though they do watch it. Cricket is still supreme). 

Epidi Magica
Epidi Magica

My son played football since he was 5 or 6.  He started in our Township's peewee league and played all the way thru til middle amp; high school, etc.  I guess it depends on where you live.  I live in eastern PA.

oethel
oethel

the real question: how are the refs?

BlakeCole
BlakeCole

like Janet replied I'm startled that some one can profit $6835 in 1 month on the network. did you look this (Click on menu Home)

surfy6
surfy6

Well if the Lingerie League can supply the NFL with qualified refs (according to Rog) then they should be in good shape finding officials. ;o)