SBJ/July 23-29, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

With little history to back it, American football kicks off in India

This week, eight teams will square off in a stadium in the capital city of Sri Lanka, playing American football in the first of seven quartets of games, culminating in a championship game on Aug. 28.

The fledgling league operating the games will film them, package the production for TV, and send it to Indian cable giant Ten Sports to televise to the subcontinent by September.

Thus will begin the first American football league in India, a country with no foundation for the sport but a cultural passion for many things American. One of Ten Sport’s top-rated regular programs, for example, is WWE programming.

Retired quarterback Kurt Warner is among those who have invested in the Elite Football League of India.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“We are introducing America’s top sport to 1.8 billion people,” said Richard Whelan, chief executive of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) and whose job it is to convince a legion of skeptics that the league can succeed.

Some big names have bought in, including Ron Jaworski, Kurt Warner and Mark Wahlberg. Warner invested $1 million of the $8.5 million in first-year startup costs.

The model could not be more different, and foreign, to a Western audience. The games are not played in the teams’ home cities, even though the names of the clubs include the Bangalore Warhawks, the Delhi Defenders and the Mumbai Gladiators. Plans call for at least the first two seasons to be tape delayed, with the first games likely shown after the season ends.

Questioned about how the lack of a vibrant local stadium crowd and fan base would affect the production, Whelan pointed out that there would be local Sri Lankans in attendance at the multipurpose stadium currently used mostly for cricket. The facility, which will hold all of the first season’s games, holds 15,000.

His larger point is that in India, the audience is the whole country — not a few thousand people in a stadium. The second season of the popular Indian Premier League of cricket, for example, was staged in South Africa.

So can EFLI, which has been training players since last year, succeed? India not only has no football background, but it has little background with organized team sports leagues of any kind.

“Sports interest in India is so skewed towards cricket that even familiar sports find it difficult to get an audience,” said Akshay Sawai, sports editor of Open magazine, an Indian current affairs publication. “Making an impact will be even tougher for an unfamiliar sport like American football. Also, when things aren’t really part of your culture, it is that much harder for them to get embraced by the locals.”

Sawai agreed with Whelan that Ten Sports, in 90 million Indian homes, is a big plus. And with little history of being able to earn a livelihood in sports, Sawai said, Indians might look to play football if they thought EFLI provided a realistic chance of earning a living.

League founder Sunday Zeller got the idea after visiting slums in economically developing countries. Married to Whelan, who had been working in India since 2004, her idea was that football would be a good outlet for boys.

One intriguing aspect to the league is that one team is from Pakistan, India’s bitter rival. This plays into what Whelan calls the philanthropic mission of the league: to provide opportunity and — to use the league’s own terms — to spread love.

As Zeller wrote in her mission statement: “India’s adoption of the Elite Football League of India will draw worldwide attention to the unifying power of love.”
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