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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)

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.

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