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"I love watching the players on the field picking up this new sport" - Interview with Sunday Zeller, co-CEO, Elite Football League of India (EFLI)

Venkatesh Ravishanker

Sunday Zeller is the founder and co-CEO of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI). The league came about as a result of her desire to bring the game of American Football to South Asia and through it bring about a change in the lives of youth, especially those from the underprivileged sections.

Sunday is a brand marketing consultant who founded the league after an idea that struck her during a business trip to India back in the 90s. And hence was born EFLI, as she looked to combine providing another athletic opportunity for the Indian male to pursue along with trying and establishing a program to develop American football at the grassroots level.

I caught up with Sunday to talk to her about the progress of the fledgling league and her larger plans to develop the sport in the years ahead.

Sunday Zeller

How does it feel to experience the success that the first season had? Did you have any reservations about the success of EFLI at first?

There is nothing that compares. For everyone in the EFLI, the whole experience was incredible and was the culmination of many small things. There were so many blessings (If I may call them that). The last 4 years running the league has been an uphill battle, but every single moment has been gratifying. It’s one thing to step into Mumbai and select your team and start playing, but when you see kids travelling from great distances to be a part of this, seeing them bring back not just the financial benefit but ‘The Hope’, the excitement and the joy, the joy that the league has brought to whatever we touch has been incredibly gratifying.

Did you expect such a response or were you kind of overwhelmed with what you got?

We never expected what was actually going to come our way. If we had known, we probably would not have taken up the challenge. We were after all just a small group of business-minded people looking for an investment opportunity. We did have years and years of professional intervention experience – like the Arena Football League (GIVE LINK) which we took public. We had a lot of experience, but didn’t have any idea about this whole new market. In India, where the government is a lot different, the time frame for doing business is much slower and more meticulous. We were faced with all the challenges as not many people had heard of football – a lot of the younger kids knew about it, but the older public didn’t even know what a football looks like. We wanted to target this market and put it on their TV stations; broadcasting this as the biggest sport was a real battle.

We overcame a lot of things and in spite of having the most talented team in place nothing would have come to fruition without some sort of a ‘divine plan’. I just believe that all this comes from the impetus, our foundation and goal which is not really to make a billion dollars by playing football; it is more about giving people hope.

How do you see the outlook of sport in India after the first season? What is different about this second season?

We are kicking off the second season with, ‘Dosti–The Evolution Revolution’, which is an India-Pakistan tournament to kick off proceedings on August 22. We knew that the India-Pakistan rivalry is one of the biggest and oldest in the sporting arena and thought this would be a good opportunity to bring all these people together and launch our second season with a bang.

The initial goal with the first season was to package it up in a form that would be understood and loved by the Indian market. We started off as a prototype in Sri Lanka without any crowds to wet our feet in the whole challenge.

What were some of the main challenges that you faced?

Part of the challenge was to educate the people on football, ‘A Football 101’, to teach them about the game from ground up. We had our players visiting all the grade schools, handing out footballs and getting them to play and get a feel for the game.

We moved on to middle and high schools to set up a feeder system for the college level in India. This whole process from scratch took up to 9 months and then we had to work with the AIU (Association of Indian Universities) to infiltrate it into the curriculum. We even offered the first ever athletic scholarship in India and plan to increase their number with time as part of AIU’s requirements.

And did you find it tough to convince these universities of the benefits?

Most of these universities are not sure of this opportunity to approach sport as a revenue spinning opportunity which is very prevalent in the United States. The universities are in the process of understanding that in addition to ticket sales for these games, there is a great opportunity with merchandising which we are trying to bring to the college sport. In this process, we are also trying to develop a culture and enhance the love for your university team which will reflect across the entire board and show a united front as one team. Another initiative which is in the works is to develop a sister program where a US university would adopt one from India and work with them to develop the sport.

What are the other plans that you have in place, and are you looking at 5-year plans, 10-year plans?

We are always shooting from the hip but we are answerable to the investors and certainly have a business plan detailing our long term goals which outlines the bigger picture. There are already two expansion teams in place – Chennai and Punjab - and we are working on further expansion while being wary of overselling the concept. There is a definite plan to take this to other parts of Asia, Australia and finally to Africa; to make it a global sport. Ultimately, we will never do anything based purely on financial reward, it’s always in line with "Are we keeping our eyes on the prize?", where everyone gets together to play and celebrate the success of the sport as a whole and not just about another player becoming the next Gatorade video spot. Although I applaud that and hope that happens, there is a bigger picture to it.

There is nothing laid in stone, but it is a fledgling brand in India and we definitely are looking to take it as far as we can.

What are the marketing challenges in India compared to the US?

To tell you the truth, we were in a huge marketing hole. With a small set of employees working round the clock, the goal was to package it up the first year and marketing was not at the forefront of our plan. Now we have started focusing on huge sponsorship deals to get the whole India-Pakistan football event –“DOSTI” - off the ground.

Our website is finally up and running where we are able to sell EFLI merchandise courtesy of our relationship with American Needle who produce all our hats and t-shirts.

Our prior experience with merchandising was not good as the orders weren’t up to the mark in terms of quality. We didn’t really pay attention to it then and have learnt a valuable lesson.

However, going forward, we feel that this is a huge money maker and our financial stability has solidified with the many endorsements from industry leaders. Our focus gradually shifted to marketing because of demand from supporters; there was a huge ask to be able to show off their support and we just started catering to them.

Sunday (left) with Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg

Are most of these sponsors coming from the US? Do you have global reach in terms of sponsors/endorsements?

We have a lot of deals coming in from China and India. The United States has been aware of our presence in India for the last nine months, and rather than waiting around for them, we would like to provide an opportunity for others to become the next ‘Gatorade’.

We have also kept it under wraps so as to fit into the long-term goal and not commit to an endorsement which wouldn’t represent us in the right way.

It is really difficult to break into the Indian product space and being associated with a sporting venture just presents the opportunity to do so on a silver platter. I am sure Coca Cola and Pepsi started off in the same situation and now are among the biggest brand endorsements in the world.

EFLI has often spoken about the grassroots development. With universities all around the country accepting this, do you think this is gaining popularity? How different is this setup compared to NCAA football in the US? Are you planning a similar model in India?

Quite frankly, there are not many significant differences other than lifestyle and maybe the Indian calendar, (laughs) the numerous holidays and of course the IPL. The economy in India is developing far more rapidly than anywhere else and the open-minded nature of the society is a massive shot in the arm to help capture people’s imagination.

Obviously there are naysayers – the hardcore cricket fans who do not want any erosion of interest; India is after all a cricketing nation. On a larger scale, people are very welcoming towards the sport and they would like to see it succeed.

One exception maybe, is how kids from the under privileged societies in the US view sport as an equal opportunity to make a living as compared to education. In India however, there is a greater push to recognize education as the primary source of livelihood. I don’t think that sport is going to occupy the same position in terms of a career option at least until the next 10 years.

How is the interest in India amongst

a. Private investors?

One thing that I would love to see though is more of a local investor involvement in the sport. Our intention when we started out was that it was going to be all Indian owners, coaches, referees and players involved in the sport. For India to really fall in love with the sport and embrace it, all the team owners need to be locals and not be just an American franchise playing in India. Interestingly, there has not been a movement in India to take part to that degree. I love all the current investors who are in it for the same reasons as me.

If you think about it, it is hard to invest in a new market, but it would be great to see Indian ownership grow into the EFLI. I don’t know if there is a certain apprehension to entering the market of ‘American Football’ because of the nature and origins of the sport or if it is the nascent status of the sport in the Indian market. It would be nice to see that trend developing, although it in no way harms our overall goals.

b. Sporting associations

EFLI has been branded as the official Football league of India. As a result, we have not really approached all the smaller organizations at the grassroots level for tie-ups. For college football, we are in talks with the AIU, which represents the parent level of the college sports organization. On the professional front, we work with the SAI in different states to work on the logistics for the stadiums and facilities. As we work with these organizations, we have also offered a lot of improvements– installed floodlights, camera equipment etc. at stadiums at our expense to help them grow as well.

What potential do you see of these EFLI players someday being involved in the American/European professional leagues?

Roshan Lobo – 2013 EFLI MVP - was invited to compete with players from some of the top football programs in the country, like the Florida Gators. He was flown halfway across the world to Alabama to compete in a special game called the Prograss International Scout Bowl. The game is meant for college players in the US to get a chance to showcase their skills for pro scouts from the professional leagues.

But we have left that decision to the individual team owners if they want to help their players learn about the game by visiting the US or through special coaching camps.

What makes you the happiest about the whole EFLI experience?

I love watching the players on the field picking up this new sport. It was a surreal experience seeing the fruition of all our efforts over the last 9-12 months. The whole feeling of seeing the sport make a difference in people’s lives and helping them become better people is tear-jerking.

How has travelling and working all over the world with different people from various cultures influenced you in terms of business as well as a person in life?

When I initially went to Nairobi on a mission, we were trying to start a business in the slums. It was an enlightening experience as we saw people walk more than 2 hours to get to our location every day in their best clothes. During every break, they would sing, dance and laugh and enjoy life with each other. That put things into perspective for me – a California native, and made me want to bring the happiness back home. This was the case in India as well – it just taught me how to live my life in the moment and on my own terms.

I just feel really grateful that I learnt how I could live life the right way and I promise to dedicate the rest of my life for finding a platform to be able to do that for me and all the people around me.

Edited by Staff Editor

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