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"I don't believe we're ever going away. And that's sincere." - Interview with Richard Whelan, CEO EFLI

Anand Datla
FEATURED COLUMNIST
Modified 28 Feb 2014, 15:13 IST
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The Elite Football League of India (EFLI) recently held its Pre-Season Kickoff event at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad on February 8th, 2014. The six Indian teams in the American football league were involved in exhibition matches against each other and it saw a large turnout for a game that is relatively new to Indian shores.

Richard Whelan, CEO of EFLI

A lot of the main cast behind the concept of this league were present on the occasion. On the sidelines of the event, I caught up with Richard Whelan, CEO of EFLI, to hear his thoughts on this huge sub-continental project that he is overseeing.

Good evening Rich, thanks for taking time out for this little interview.

Good evening. The pleasure is all mine, love being here.

So how long has it been here now in India for you Rich as part of this trip?

I came here towards the end of January, the 25th to be precise and I will be here through the month of February.

In general, have you been enjoying your time in India?

Oh! I love it. I always love it when I come here, the people, the growth, the innocence of it and it’s potential is super positive.

It’s great to know that you’re enjoying it because that would obviously make it more fun to run the league here, wouldn’t it?

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It is, it’s always fun. There seems to be a high level of appreciation across various avenues for what this endeavour of ours is trying to do. So, it’s really nice.

Is it kind of striking for you, the innocent curiosity so to say of these people. I’m pretty sure that even though there is a huge turnout today, about 70% of the crowd don’t really understand the game, yet they seem to enjoy it.

Yes. The inquisitive nature of the people here, I believe, is something that our team in India picked up quite early. Its like it’s just coming out of a shell, its new for people, they really want to understand the game. They’re looking for a new form of entertainment, a good form of entertainment and really get behind their team. It’s really nice to see and reminds me of the origins of the sports industry in America. There’s something very pure about it.

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I’m 49 now, I was born in 1964, and as a little boy, in 1969, I have a very clear memory of things back then. The NBA wasn’t the NBA like how we know it today, that explosion happened only in the late 70s and then the 80s. And much the same for football. So yes, there’s a real sense of purity about this interest. It’s a raw passion for the game that’s there both in the fans and the players, you can see it in them. And I think that pure organic nature, allows, rather lends itself to growth.

It’s like planting a seed in a land where the soil is really fertile.

Economically Rich, franchise sport in India is just about kicking off. We’ve had cricket ignite it, other attempts had failed previously. Post that, other sports such as badminton, hockey, basketball have all been ushered in. Football has gained in popularity and has achieved tremendous following. So franchise sport, though still in its infancy, is beginning to take flight. Do you think that American football will join this bandwagon real fast?

I definitely think so. In fact, at the end of 2009, we had estimated that the sport business in India would grow fuelled by the growth of the private sector and the expansion and distribution of TV. In particular, amongst the male audience we felt that there was a scarcity for authentic programming. We saw it being filled by an American product in the form of a WWE, then later the UFC. So as an American, you see an evolved sports industry and you see which sports are main sports and which of them transcend and become entertainment. So those two are definitely football, American football, and basketball. And we believe that these two sports will become extremely popular forms of entertainment on TV.

Is that something you have drawn from your experience in the US and how the market evolved there in terms of local communities embracing the sport and supporting their teams and forming loyal fan bases?

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Definitely, but it’s actually the inverse. When I come to India, people often equate it to only what they know. And what they know are events and tournaments and grassroots people coming to see the event. But what actually happened in America was, even after 40 years, this game wasn’t popular until TV came in. So, it was that electronic viewership that really raised the sport into a powerful business and a powerful form of entertainment.

This particular product is just made for TV, for viewership. So, the viewership we get from Ten Sports is very significant because there’s apparently 170 million households that they have who can watch the game. And we feel that every time you switch on the TV and flip through the channels, once you see the uniforms and the 22 players out on the field ready to play, with each and every play being fast paced – this game is just made for TV.

And then once the following sets in, then you can introduce Fantasy Football. Initially what happens is you become fans of individual players and individual teams, so then when you introduce the fantasy game, it makes people watch all the teams and all the games. And that then draws the audiences and eventually gets them to the grounds. But that being said, the crowd turnout today is just astonishing.

In terms of how these teams have been built and the support structures that have been built up for them – the trainers, the physios and other support staff – how is that placed at this point of time and how would you like to see it develop?

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I think that it was very, very germane to all of us that we focused on safety, especially to the founder, Sunday. A lot of the investors, especially Kurt Warner, were very adamant about safety and so we made sure that we had the top equipment shipped in from America and the top coaches who also played in the pros. We made sure that they came out and trained.

And we also worked with the physios, one of the first people we hired here in India sometime in early 2010 was one of the physios for the national rugby team. And one of the first team owners, the owner of the Hyderabad franchise, Dr. Movva, was a medical expert back in the States, and in particular owned a minority football team in America in the Gridiron football development league. So he has first-hand experience with the type of injuries, how to prevent them and how to screen for them. So all these things are an integral part of the organization, to train the players while keeping them away from injury.

The equipment, as I’ve mentioned already, also helps. Unlike rugby and other professional sports, even soccer, where there are quite a few serious injuries, here they are really well padded up – the helmets, the shoulder pads – there’s an enormous amount of padding. I think it’s something that we are really looking to get better at every year. We follow statistics, see what the NFL is coming up with, latest state of the art technologies, etc. So we’re on top of things, using over 100 years of experience of playing football in America. And right now, the game being in its early stages is not as fast and bruising and rough as what is played in America, so that also reduces the risks.

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Once they get bigger and faster and stronger, the impact becomes more severe and that’s why its important we lay this foundation down now.

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Published 18 Feb 2014, 13:31 IST
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