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The Elite Football League of India's (EFLI) window of opportunity into Indian sport

Virendra Karunakar

EFLI players at practice

Wandering through the streets of India, sport is a common sight. More often than not, the game that you would get to chance your eyes upon is cricket, with kids in the streets turning even the narrowest of alleys into makeshift cricket venues. Football too, initially in certain pockets, and over the years gradually all over the country has managed to seep into the sporting realm of kids.

Tune into the now, and there are a whole host of activities that involve good amounts of physical fitness that have become popular, but have not necessarily become mainstream – Beach hockey, ultimate Frisbee, rugby and American football.

I had the opportunity to talk to a few players from the Elite Football League of India (EFLI), America’s NFL-type machination that has been brought to Indian shores thanks to the efforts of a group of enthusiasts of the game. While initially people found it hard to fathom that such a game was indeed played in India about a year ago, after listening to these athletes speak about their experiences, you are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that these players did not so much as get into the game for the money, as for the excitement and thrill that came with it.

Advent of the EFLI and other sport

To many people, the league represents yet another attempt by mainstream American sport to expand its reach to countries outside of North America. American sport hasn’t always captured the imagination of folks in India; basketball and the NBA has its bastions of fans, but they are far flung and less in number, though there is a concerted effort on now by schools, colleges, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) and the NBA to change all that.

It would also be surprising to many to know that games such as ice hockey, baseball, boxing, ultimate martial arts and many other sports based out of America have made an attempt to invade the Indian sport psyche without so much as causing a ripple.

The only American sport-like export that has been a huge success is WWE, which is of course staged drama, so cannot really be judged along with the other proper sports that tried their luck.

They have faced the same fate as breakfast cereal giant Kellogg’s, which made an attempt to gatecrash the Indian breakfast scene close to 15 years ago, only to find that Indians loved their parathas, dosas, idlis and pohas a little too much and managed to not even cause a dent with the most success they obtained being from the Chocos brand which the kids loved.

Kellogg’s, EFLI and saturation of conventional sport

In Kellogg’s’ case, they jumped in a little too early, they tried their hand when the Indian market was only just beginning to open up to new dietary influences. As a result, they crashed and burned.

Now if you’re wondering why I’m talking about Kellogg’s, it’s because there are some important pointers here in how American sport in general and American football in particular are making their entry into the Indian market.

It’s a good time if you’re a new sport trying to make a mark in India, for commercial success is one thing, but gaining critical mass at the initial stage is a lot easier in present time. As the players said during the course of my chat with them, youngsters today want to look at beyond options one, two and three when it comes to sport. If earlier, there was an inclination to look beyond the obvious in careers and go for sport, now it’s about looking beyond the obvious in sporting careers as well.

Fuelling this need, in part, is a certain saturation point that has been reached in other sports as far as India is concerned. The cricket team, playing the single largest, zestfully and passionately followed game in the country, has made a fantastic journey from mid-card players to one of the top teams in world cricket. And for cricket fans who have followed the journey, it has been a truly rewarding one. But, as does happen, when objectives and long-term goals tend to get achieved, there suddenly feels like there is nothing else left to achieve. India have won the World Cups at both T20 and ODI level, and have also been No.1 in the Test arena, though subsequently they have slipped and are currently at No.2. Much of the following for a better state of Indian cricket have seen their dreams being realized and are now potentially more open to entertain other sporting cultures.

And football is one such thing that has benefited too, with a huge groundswell of support emerging for the national football team and local football teams, because there comes a time when you have to move on from supporting football clubs in another country which happened for close to a decade. The love for a game will eventually permeate through the sport lover’s veins, causing them to shift focus to the game at a more local level.

There are a few things that a sport needs to thrive and elicit interest in youngsters – the country should really be good at the sport or it should be a neighbourhood phenomenon – cricket and football respectively, are the beneficiaries of these trends. With football, though the national team is perhaps not doing as well as it could, the interest levels will sustain with the amount of groundwork that has been done in the past four to five years.

Which brings us back to the EFLI and American football, and of course, Kellogg’s!

American Football as more than a sport

Players from the Hyderabad Skykings and Bangalore Warhawks clashing during an exhibition match last year

As Sunday Zeller, co-CEO of the EFLI and a former brand marketing consultant had had echoed during the league’s launch – “What happens when a child isn’t gifted in technology or finance? When they hear there’s an opportunity to be a football player—if they are athletically inclined—we have our pick of the cream of the crop and they are all vying for a place. Hundreds of thousands of hopeful players are willing to try out for the team. They come to us and they are dying for an opportunity to play. Every other sport in India is a club. There are no salaried athletes there either.”

Sport is more than just about the prevailing trends in urban major cities and other semi-urban tier II and tier III cities. It’s about what is easy to get started playing with, and what requires minimal investment, especially for the ones who are financially backward. It is no surprise that that two of the biggest projects that have been a rural success over the last couple of years in Indian sport have come through football and hockey, and not cricket.

Like Zeller mentioned, kids and youngsters who are athletically inclined are now more prone to take up sports that give them a physical satisfaction that conventional sports are not able to deliver. Ronit Banda, one of the players I spoke too, outside of football is also a track athlete who runs the 200m. Roshan Lobo, the MVP of EFLI’s first season, was formerly a rugby player and is also into Ultimate Frisbee and Surfing.

With sport coming to occupy an important role, more and more, in Indian society’s mental makeup beyond something that purely serves as viewing pleasure, the EFLI is also offering a platform for interested athletes to pursue a career in it. The initiative that they have launched in partnership with numerous universities to get an American football program going at the grassroots level displays the right signals to not just the current crop of players, but also those interested in the future. For the ones already in the mix, it’s a sign that the league is going all out to ensure sustainability, because more than equipment and fields and funds, you need a steady stream of players willing to play the game and the league has gone for the roots to try and ensure that. For future hopefuls, it is a sign that this is a long-term project that has been brought in and not just a for-profit league with a new avatar.

Unlike Kellogg’s that made its initial entry at a time when Indians’ tastes hadn’t been whetted yet by Western breakfast influences, American football and the EFLI is coming in at a time when exposure to other sports from around the world and also other ideals in sport have found their way into mainstream thinking, thus making it slightly easier for it to be accepted. Creating a profitable and satisfying sporting career option for the players at a time when global well-entrenched industries are flailing.

As the players and executives of the league have mentioned, it is not just about creating a sport that Indians want to play, it is about creating a consciousness that pervades into people’s thoughts and has staying power for years to come.

It’s about trying to do the same thing as Kellogg’s, bring it up to a level where it gets discussed at the breakfast table everyday.

Edited by Staff Editor

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