We got the view from the players, as Roshan Lobo and Ronit Banda talked to us about their EFLI experience and their journeys through it. But EFLI isn’t just a league, its a concept that has been borne out of a far greater vision as I found out during my conversation with Dr. Venkatesh Movva, President of the EFLI and an expert in Sports Medicine. I got chatting with him as we discussed the league and its operations and also his choice of team:
Doctor, how long has your association with the EFLI been?
You might have known about the origin of the EFLI. We have been with them now for the past couple of years. I was just an investor back then. Also, I acted as the medical director of the league. After the completion of the first season, I took over as the President of EFLI.
So what are the responsibilities you handle in your role as President?
I handle the operations here and also the league’s operations in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The teams were under the EFLI ownership in the first season. Now they are being sold out to individual owners; was this always the plan or was it something that cropped up as the league progressed?
It was always like that. We wanted to auction off the teams once the league attracted huge interest. Since it is happening now, we are inviting interested parties to take over.
So how many teams have so far been taken over by individual owners?
Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – five teams have been sold so far. We have prospective buyers lined up for other teams too. Bangalore has one too!
Alright, does the EFLI have a Board of Directors to oversee operations? Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about the decision making for the league.
Yes. We have Richard Whelan- the CEO, Sunday Zeller – the Co-CEO and the founder, myself as the President and Tausif Shiekh – Director for India. The decision making is done by this committee.
Do you have representatives from the teams in the committee?
We have a sub-committee for that purpose which basically comprises of the state coaches, who implement the programs that we chart out. They take a lead in their own way, they also travel outside the states to train the athletes from other universities as a part of our league university program.
Could you also tell us whether you have investors who are coming up to support the league?
Most of the teams have been sold to such private investors. Some of them are in the league. As we move closer towards the next season, we will have more people coming up to invest in the league. We also had an American media interest recently – 60 minutes and Kurt Warner had come to India. We are experiencing significant public and private interest developing recently.
Talking about the first season, have you managed to achieve your early objective of creating a buzz around the league?
Any sporting league needs a lot of support from corporates, communities, sponsorships and endorsements from real athletes, in our case from the NFL ones. So the support we have received has been a testament to the kind of effort we have put in – the infrastructure, coaching and players-wise. It took a while but it is happening now. One thing that is missing is the interest from the Indian investors as the game being unfamiliar to the country, people are not aware of the potential that lies in American football. We have hope though.
Where did your association with the American football start Doctor? Have you been undertaking similar projects back in the US even before?
I do own a team there – the Oklahoma Thunder, a semi-pro football team. So I am kind of involved with sports not just in football, but both medically as well as business-wise, which made the transition easier when I heard about the idea of the EFLI launch in the Indian sub-continent. The association with the EFLI is an extension of what I was doing back in the States.
As far as the concept and the idea went, who did you first hear from about the EFLI coming to India?
I was in India at that moment and read in a newspaper that there was a plan to launch an American football event in India. Through that I came in contact with Robert from the EFLI, who explained the idea in detail. So that was where it all started.
Before your association with the EFLI, were you making frequent trips to India? And now, with the responsibilities that you have as President, how often do you come down?
It used to be once or twice a year. But after becoming associated with the EFLI, I made 4 trips last year. In 2014, it could be more or even less, depending on the amount of work that needs to be done.
We have seen such league based competitions before in IPL, IBL and I-league. Can you shed more light into how the teams have been auctioned in EFLI?
It is a bit different from the IPL or IBL. Structurally it has been the same though, but since the sport is not familiar, we decided to go in a way which will mean most of the franchise fee gets recovered only at the back end. We let the owners grow with us, taking the pressure off the money being spent upfront.
When it comes to revenue sharing – the broadcast, media, sponsorships and local revenue – all gets shared just like the other leagues.
Can the players switch teams in between? Has that provision been instituted yet?
Being part of a professional league, players are free to move from team to team. But we have not established that rule yet. It will come into play at the end of the season as we frame the salary caps and switching-related rules. Right now we play the players, so it needs to be taken into account as we set-up the guidelines.
Hailing from India, you may very well know the kind of following sport has in the country. Cricket dominates the scene with football, probably coming in second. From a personal point of view, I have seen Indians growing attached to the game of American Football as they move to the US. Was this one of the motivational factors when this idea came up?
That is a great point. We, for one, never had a doubt that when done in a proper way, the game would take off in India. There is a tremendous entertainment value in the game. Indians love action, adventure and entertainment. There is no other sport that can provide that on the field. One thing we understood was that we needed to be patient. Make people learn the game, watch more of them and as there is an abundance of youth in India, once the foundation is laid, the game will take over. We are absolutely confident about it.
Do you feel that the success of the league depends more on the way you market it in the first few years, than on the game itself?
Say if the game concerned is hockey or cricket, I would say so. For us its two-fold, since the game is new to the people of India, we will have to educate it to the target audience as well as try marketing it effectively. Right now, we need to grow the game in the country. Marketing will take care of itself as the
So, this program in place with the universities is a part of the two-fold objective?
Absolutely. One – Teaching the game. Two – providing the ground and facilities to motivate the athletes to take up the game professionally. We have around 200-300 universities interested in the program. We will have to look at what happens at the university-level games as well and not just with the EFLI teams. There is tremendous entertainment value, and there are chances chances of a passionate fan following and profit.
Do you think that American football is more saleable in Asia and Africa for that matter, as compared to Europe or South America?
I would, say let us take England as an example – the country has its share of inherent sports like football and tennis, which are so very popular, and the athletes are professional, which makes the idea of bringing in a totally new game more challenging. Take in comparison India, where we really have only cricket and IPL. Couple of leagues are coming up, yes, but there is so much scope with the younger audience craving for some real action. The youth here is abundant, they will have different expectations which cricket alone can’t satisfy, and who knows, this might be the one they are looking for.
Trying to convince Indian youngsters is a challenge in itself. Trying to convince their parents takes it to a different level. Do you find that the people are more inclined to take up cricket and tennis in comparison with football, as the latter is more of a contact sport? If so, how hard has it been to get them into a gruesome sport like American football?
Parents are actually happy that their kids are getting a chance to excel in such a field. While there are injury concerns, it is more to do with the bad techniques than the nature of the game. The awareness programs are going on with respect to that and we can see the rates dropping down. In a way, it helps that India has just started to learn the game as they can learn it the proper way. Moreover, we have up-to-date medical facilities and hardly will there be a career-threatening injury. Also, given the vast range of youth here, you cannot really generalise their interests. I mean, you do have people who are interested in sports like Kabaddi and Wrestling, which are contact sports as well. One advantage we have is there is no particular requirement in this sport, you don’t really need to be skinny or fat or muscular. You could be anything and still have a realistic chance of getting into the team as there is a role for everyone.
Being a doctor helps, I would like to believe. As people will realise and pay more heed to you believing that this man knows what he is speaking about?
Yes. We have trained our players to recognise concussion, dehydration and cramps by themselves. We are working with various manufactures in USA to incorporate sensors into our helmets. We are prepared to do anything and everything that is required to make the game safe and reach the masses.
Are exchange programs in place? I understand that Roshan was sent to US last year to train with the teams up there. Can we see an escalation in the number of players getting the chance in the upcoming years?
Our immediate plans are like that. We have brought in American coaches here. There are all kinds of possibilities. Not just the players but the coaches too. We can have exhibition matches.
Coming to your association with the Hyderabad Skykings, what led you to take up the ownership of this particular team?
Well, I am from Andra Pradesh, so it made the decision easy for understandable reasons.
In terms of building a team, last year the Kolkata team had players not just from the state but from all over India. Now that Hyderabad are the newcomers to the league, what are your expectations for the season?
Our coach Praveen is doing a fantastic job in recruiting the local talents. Being a new team, we have our own culture and way of doing stuff. We anticipate getting better and better. The results are showing. When you take the league in general, the guys are getting fitter and tactically aware, which are great signs.
Can we expect all the teams to find their owners before the season gets underway?
Yes, right now with the exception of Kolkata and Bangalore, all the teams have been taken over. Even for the two states, we have prospective owners. We also plan to add more teams next year; cities like Chennai, Ahmedamad and Surat are in the radar.
So, with one final question doctor to conclude -What would you say was one of your most enjoyable moment in this wonderful journey of EFLI thus far?
It has been a dream come true for me, to see the Indian kids play American football. To see the happiness in these athletes’ faces, would be what I will single out.