American Football: An American idea finding its feet in India

The Mumbai Gladiators and Colombo Lions getting ready to face off during a game in the first season of ELFI

There is a wave of transformation that is sweeping across sport in India. City-based teams are sprouting faster than mushrooms in the monsoon, energized by the success of the Indian Premier League. Marooned in the darkness of political machinations, sport is finally finding its feet in the comfortable cocoons of local communities.

Hockey, football and badminton have been some examples of sports that have benefited from this emerging trend. But the arrival of American football symbolizes a new paradigm, representative of a bold new face that is emerging from the shadows out of neo-modern India.

Ask most Indians about the sport and only a handful might relate to it thanks to the annual hyperbole that surrounds the Super Bowl. The annual event draws attention to itself, as the noise from the oversold evening filters out through our many television screens. Apparently, the reception to the event from the country was strong enough to encourage the formation of a league dedicated to the spread of the sport in India.

A new league was born last year, when the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) took baby steps into the burgeoning market of televised sport in the country. It is a sign of the changing times that Ten Sports was eager to broadcast the fledgling series.

Franchise sport has been the staple for much of sport in the developed world for many years now. It is not uncommon in Europe or United States of America for loyalty towards a club to far exceed the desire to support a national team.

American football, along with basketball and baseball, has been the mainstay of consumer sport in America for many decades now. And die-hard fans who swear by their local team – college or club – are not even remotely interested in anything to do with the national team in the same sport.

In the US, the Dallas Cowboys inspire a following that has stretched beyond the city and spread far and wide through the state and country. As per a recent survey by Harris Poll, the Irving-based team remains the most popular team for the seventh year running.

Incidentally, the Cowboys last won a championship in 1995. But the power of community-based loyalties is so strong that the team retains an enviable following despite not winning the big prizes. Their last big success came in January 1996, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-17 to win a fifth Super Bowl.

Another story that has made its way into footballing folklore in America is the stirring success of the New Orleans Saints in the 2009 season. But it was a story that began with devastation many years earlier. When hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city in 2005, few, if any, believed that the city could spring back to life.

But in a show of collective resilience, the city wound back to normalcy, and the fortunes of the Saints were thought to symbolize the resurgence of the city from the depths of the disaster. The victory of the Saints over the Indianapolis Colts in January 2009 was a story of inspiration that energized an entire nation.

It remains to be seen if the passions of our cricket-mad nation can be aroused by the nuanced, yet brutal, detail of this bruising sport, but EFLI has made a confident beginning.

The league has brought together eight teams – six from Indian cities and one each from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. In India there are teams now in Bengaluru (Warhawks), Delhi (Defenders), Hyderabad (Skykings), Kolkata (Vipers), Mumbai (Gladiators) and Pune (Marathas). Pakistan have the Wolfpak and Colombo has its Lions.

Just like in cricket, each team has 11 men on the field at any given time. The field is protected by sidelines on the longer side and the end lines complete the rectangular arena that measures 109.7 x 48.8 metres.

Interestingly the end zone stretches 9.1 metres beyond the goal line that is marked by two uprights connected by a 3.05 metre crossbar. Points can be scored either by kicking the ball through the uprights or by running into the end zone with the ball under control.

There are essentially three ways in which players can score points – a touchdown, a field goal or a safety. However, unlike in rugby where an attacking player is expected to touch the ground behind the goal line with the ball, you are only expected to run in through the end zone with the ball in hand to score in American football.

A touchdown is worth six points and a field goal is worth three. A safety, worth two points, is scored for the opposing team when the ball is turned dead on or behind a team’s own goal line if the impetus came from a player on that team. The field goal is worth three points. A typical game is played over four quarters of fifteen minutes each, with the clock set off and on during any stoppages in play.

The EFLI is divided into two divisions – East and West, each with four teams. Colombo, Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata are part of the Eastern division while the other teams are part of the Western division.

The league is run by Richard Whelan and backed by several investors with experience in commerce and franchise sport.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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