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.

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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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