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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

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?

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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

Now this is quite a contradiction, but this form of football is built around one or two star players on each team, even though it is a collective effort. If I had to ask you to name you two or three potential stars who could take EFLI into Indian homes in the next few years, including the Sri Lankan and Pakistan teams, who would it be?

Preetesh Balyaya, of the Mumbai Gladiators, is just an absolute superstar; both verbally, his heart and soul and his play, he is just a very dedicated warrior. He’s somebody who if I was a little boy I would look up to. He stands for everything the EFLI stands for, peace in his heart.

Preetesh Balyaya of the Mumbai Gladiators

You also have Dinesh Kumar, who was the Quarter Back for the Pune Marathas. He lives in Chennai, and he’ll probably play for the Chennai Swarm which is an expansion team. He was just a great leader, very humble and just an outstanding leader. He plays Quarter Back, which is one of the toughest positions. He can run, he can throw, he makes good decisions, he is just an all round star.

And the third person is the gentleman they call ‘Happy’; he is on the Delhi Defenders team and he’s been with us from day one. He is a star in every regard, he is a great leader, very humble, everyone looks up to him. He is a brilliant shining star, little kids just love him. The Delhi team made the final last year, they play very rough, and he really is their leader.

These three are the names that come up in my mind. And of course, there’s the MVP as well, Roshan Lobo.

How do you manage a team around stars like this? Especially in American football, where the effort is collective, but the glory is often ascribed to an individual, the quarter back. What are the challenges in getting the other members to rally around the star player?

That’s actually interesting! I’ve often wondered the same in America; if you’re an Offensive Lineman for example, they don’t even keep stats. Every position has statistics, but an Offensive Lineman doesn’t. And which is surprising because he does a lot of the work, without the help of the Offensive Lineman the Quarter Back doesn’t shine. Those are the boys who for some reason just love being a part of a winning team and they adore the star and they want their team to have a star because he’s going to win the game for them.

The stars, in fact, often let their Offensive Linemen know how much they appreciate their work, because it truly is a team effort. You have 11 different players, taking turns on offense and defense, that’s 22 different players and different kickers. So it really takes a team to win.

So each individual hopes there’s a star; they want two stars, three stars to help the team win. So, it’s never a problem, in fact they just love them. They love the other guy being the star that’s going to help them win the game. That’s what the game is about.

From your experiences so far, how happy are you with the money that has come in from local Indian investors to help the league sustain itself through the first few seasons?

I am ecstatic about where we are from a business front because we really have stabilized the league by bringing in owners. The league owns half the teams, the rest have owners. We’re also into expansion now with 16 teams being lined up with many of them ready to go in a really short time too, ranging from anywhere between 6 months to 18 months. Some of them might even be ready as early as 3 months. The more cities we go into, the more exposure we have, possible TV markets, universities, high schools – all these then trickle down into retail.

So I’m very happy about the stabilization of the league to the point of fully ensuring longevity. I don’t believe we’re ever going away, in like forever. And that’s sincere.

As far as Indians investing or sponsors, we never made a push for sponsorship because it would be premature. It would be bad enough to ask people to sponsor us over something that they didn’t know about. Now, for the first time tonight, we have the product on display here in India and with the connectivity established with the universities and colleges, we now have a package that has meaning – real meaning and real value for the sponsors.

I guess time will tell, but I do know that, without exaggeration, there are hundreds of smaller sponsors who are interested in sponsoring us. We’ve stayed away from that until now because we have not made any effort so far. We will be starting off soon though, and I think that the sponsors will get immense value with the TV exposure and the universities and colleges coming in. And the returns I think will be really good.

Two other things I wanted to touch upon, specific to the Indian context. The first – I know that you have already tied up with 12 universities, promoting the sport, introducing it to kids. So when you go to these universities, what is that you see happening? There’s excitement when an event happens and then the enthusiasm begins to wane quickly. How do you manage to sustain interest?

I’ve actually discussed that with the heads of the universities. We have 12 universities at the moment, 14 in total with 12 officially signed, with many more in the pipeline. But universally, through the biggest and best universities in India, they all agree on what you just said that once the events are done, its over.

But then its not done and over, that’s not acceptable. The reason why they are so transient and tend to dissipate is because there is no record keeping, no statistics and no TV coverage. Therefore by definition, they aren’t chronicled, there’s no record kept and no records to beat in future, no heroes created, there’s nothing to look forward to in future. It’s just an event and it’s over.

We’re going to do more than events. We don’t do events. We’re going to be doing all of those things that I mentioned. We are going to bring statistics so that people know who the best Quarter Back is, who the best Running Back is.

So you believe this model will work and help sustain grassroots development ?

I think TV coverage is critical for the university games. It worked in America and I’m confident it can work here. You put people’s names on TV so that the younger children can watch, then they want to try and emulate that.

Richard Whelan (second from left) at the launch of the EFLI in Sri Lanka

The second thing is, even though I spent very little time in America – it is easy to see, for instance that a team like the Green Bay Packers were like a religion, irrespective of whether they won or lost. All that people care about is watching them play. In India though, as you’ve pointed out yourself, we see a bigger event loyalty rather than a team loyalty. For instance, I could be in Hyderabad, but I could support a player from Mumbai and a team from Delhi. Do you see that as something about the nature of sporting affiliations in the country that will change over time? What’s your take on that?

I really feel that the customer preference and taste that predominate are very similar to America, whether its food, technology, automobiles, gadgets. There is a huge following of the American culture with a unique Indian angle to it. A lot of American imports such as the iPhone and WWE have been a success here and I don’t see any reason why American football can’t do extremely well. And I believe that the way in which the audiences appreciate it would be similar to that in America.

So you would have favourite players who may or may not be from your city, likewise for your favourite teams, based on a lot of things such as their style of play, things they say in the public and in interviews. Then people begin to adopt heroes, not necessarily from their own team. There might be a player who people just really love watching, like Michael Jordan. Who doesn’t like Michael Jordan?

So you believe that banking on the local communities is not necessarily a key part of a sport like American football to survive?

No, not at all. In India, we’re all about getting as many people to watch it as possible. Its not about just penetrating the local market. However, at the same time, the local connections are also important – you need the local press, you need the interest to be created locally. When you talked about the Packers, there are deep roots to the team, especially since they’re not on top and not competing at the highest level. So, you need your roots to go wide and go deep. We’re trying to do just that here, what’s taking time is to go reach out to the schools and universities and create the logos, reach out to the local press and radio stations.

We take time to go deep because we feel that is our anchor. So that’s very important to us. At the same time, we’re going pan-India and I hope we’re doing it right and hopefully this helps us grow exponentially.

Coming to the teams, obviously these teams are raw at the moment. How much time do you think it’s going to take for the coaches to skill these teams into becoming stronger units?

Physically, I would have to say that they are currently at a low American college football level. Not bad, but probably at the level of the smaller schools. Technically, they are equivalent to say high school back in the States. But high school football is very good in America, they put high school games on national TV. So, that’s not to be condescending, and it’s getting better. And there’s also fluctuations in these levels that happen.

Kickoffs and returns, the level is not acceptable, but other areas such as the passing game, the defense, the rushing are all quite spectacular. Not NFL quality, but real good. So we’re really proud of these boys, they’re getting better on their own even without any American coaches being here. We have, of course, lined up a few American coaches to come here sometime this year and we’re also planning to take the boys to America for training camps. So those efforts will continue, but the most important thing for everybody, including the coaches is that the players here in India, in the American eye, have gotten better without any coaches being here, just by studying, watching and observing each and every play.

That was so encouraging for me because I really thought that when the American coaches left, that there might be a drop in the levels, but it’s gotten technically better. That’s shocking! Probably it’s also testament to the coaches we picked. And I’m really happy to tell you that we haven’t lost a single coach to date. They live and breathe football and they’ve translated that to their players. That’s how it happened in America too, the competition drove the game’s success.

Has the league right now already got the critical mass to sustain itself?

Let’s actually talk about that. The head coaches are all locked in, they’re not going anywhere. With our ability to be on national TV, we are attracting great athletes. Some of these athletes are paid more than others, some other volunteer. That’ where it is now, it has kind of evolved itself to a point where each player knows that if they can improve their performances they can become stars and there’s a lot of opportunity for them to grow. And we’re really driving through a philosophy to make sure that no player gets left behind, that the money is properly utilized and that everyone gets the exposure.

Finally, coming to the teams, there are six Indian teams and one each from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Where do you see that going three years down the line?

We’ll be in 32 cities, 32 cities playing pro-ball. We’ve actually expanded and announced the Chennai team and Punjab. Jaipur’s just been picked up by a very prominent family in Chicago. We have picked up Jaipur National University and a second and third team from the city are also going to be signed. So there’s going to be a lot of competition in Jaipur. It will help retailers to start distributing merchandise and footballs. So that market will grow.

Chandigarh and Haryana will be the other pro-teams and Ahmedabad and Surat will also have teams.

And fantastic reception here in Hyderabad for this game, would you want to come back here when the main league kicks off later this year?

It’s a great stadium and great audience, and I would love to come back here. It’s been a fun interview too, you put forward some really good questions. I just hope that everyone enjoys the product that we have here, turn up and support the teams and enjoy the games.

Edited by Staff Editor

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