Sitting in her Los Angeles home in the spring of
2009, Sunday Zeller, a slim, blond, businesswoman and mother of three, had a
revelation: What India desperately needed, she thought, was a dose of good,
old-fashioned, American manhood.
Zeller had just returned from her first visit to
India, and what she'd seen, she said, disturbed her. While strolling through the streets of Mumbai, she noticed what
she called "very much a feminine energy." There were no little boys kicking
balls around on the street, she said, no fathers roughhousing with their sons. All
the locals she met seemed to be nudging their children toward academics, like
engineering or computer programming, and away from athletic pursuits. "For
little boys who are not intellectually inclined but are athletically able,
there were not a lot of masculine outlets," she said.
By masculine outlets, Zeller
meant sports: an arena where "masculine role
models can actually be heroes," she said. In her opinion, India needed more
than cricket; what India needed, Zeller said, was American football: "the
ultimate manly, gladiator sport."
So Zeller set about bringing the gridiron to the
Two years later, the Mumbai-based Elite Football League of India (EFLI)
was born; five years on, it has just wrapped up its first season and is warming
up for a sequel, which will begin in August, with a series of preseason kickoff
games. The league, which spans India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, is composed of
eight teams with names like the Kolkata
Vipers, the Bangalore
Warhawks, and the Pakistan
Wolfpak. (Like their American counterparts, teams tend to be named after
menacing animals -- with the exception of the Pune Marathas, a reference to the
17th-century Maratha Empire, remembered for vanquishing foreign invaders). It
plans to eventually expand to 16 teams, but that depends on whether it can find
an audience for a sport that remains not just foreign, but thoroughly
associated with the United States. This year will be an important test. Last season,
when they were just introducing the sport to India, the EFLI's founders weren't
concerned about low attendance at games; this year, they want to know whether
their efforts to convince South Asia of the virtues of America's favorite sport
That a strange foreign sport
might find a home in India is not such an odd notion. Cricket -- today a
national obsession -- began as a Western game with confusing rules. Yet 200 years ago, cricket was an easy sell for Indians aspiring to
the prestige of the British elite.
Today's middle-class Indians are very different
from those who took up a colonial sport with abandon. The Indian economy is
exploding; global companies are competing fiercely for a sliver of India's
consumer market, tailoring their products to suit the tastes of Indian people.
five years on, Zeller and her partners find themselves facing a tougher
challenge: They're trying to sell India not just on football, but on
square-jawed American manliness. Are any Indians buying?
* * *
It seemed an easy pitch at first. Zeller -- who
has 25 years of experience building companies, including a shipping company
with outposts in India -- first ran the idea past her long-term business
partner and ex-husband, Richard Whelan, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist.
Whelan quickly got on board, won over by India's growing middle class and the
sports infrastructure, from stadiums to cable stations, already in place. The well-connected
pair reached out to their network of friends and clients and managed to put
together an all-star roster of investors: Actor Mark Wahlberg, former All-Pro quarterback
Kurt Warner, and Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Ditka all plowed funds into
the $8.5 million project (which is not affiliated with America's National Football
League -- NFL). And on Aug. 5, 2011, Zeller and Whelan officially launched the
Elite Football League of India, complete with cheerleaders and imported American
commentators to narrate the games.
Indians, Zeller told me, love America.
"India has adopted every American tradition," she
says. "They love the American culture and anything we have to introduce."
But that's not entirely true -- at least not when
it comes to how Indians choose to spend their money.
Over the last two decades since the Indian
economy has liberalized, the country has been notably resistant to the allure
of American culture. While other emerging markets such as China and Brazil have
embraced McDonald's and Calvin Klein,
American companies scrambling for a piece of India's $1.1 trillion consumer market have struggled to win over customers. Hollywood movies have never been able to compete with Bollywood's offerings, with less than 10 percent of film
revenues in India going toward Hollywood-made films. Unlike almost every other country in Asia, people in modern
India have largely continued to wear traditional attire, which
still accounts for 75 percent of apparel sales in the country, so American
clothing companies haven't found as much traction there as they would like.
American brands that have done well in India have
worked hard to adapt their products to the market. McDonald's, for instance, overhauled its menu to
offer largely vegetarian fare, while KFC created dishes like
tandoori chicken and chicken curry to suit local taste buds. Procter & Gamble
repackaged its shampoos and soaps into small sachets, sold
at low prices, to cater to consumers who earn daily wages.
But the peculiarly American tradition that is
football may have an even tougher sell in India. The Indian league's founders, however, are banking on the fact
that franchised sports are proven moneymakers on the subcontinent. When the
Indian Premier League was formed in 2008 to offer a shorter, more TV-friendly
version of cricket, it was wildly successful. In 2013, 100 million viewers watched
the first five matches of the season; the Indian Premier League's brand is
currently valued at $3.03 billion.
"There is enough room at the table for football,
even if cricket dominates. You're looking at the buying power of the middle
class in India, and it is exploding," says Kevin Negandhi, an anchor for
U.S.-based sports channel ESPN and an EFLI investor.
But football faces a double hurdle: It's a
distinctly American sport trying to put down roots in a place that has shown
little appetite for what America has to offer -- and, much like cricket, for
those who did not grow up with the game, it is notoriously difficult to
* * *
"I was not sure exactly what American football
was," says Roshan Lobo, the 22-year-old star running back and captain of the
Bangalore Warhawks. "I had to Google it."
Raised in a family of modest means in Bangalore,
Lobo studied commerce at the university level before taking a job at a
recreation company that offers corporate team-building experiences. He only
heard of the league when his rugby coach urged him to try out in 2012. Two
years on, Lobo has been voted the league's most valuable player and is being
groomed to be the public face of the EFLI, according to Negandhi.
Polite, humble, soft-spoken, and slight in
person, he comes across very differently in an EFLI
promotional video, where he speaks with the
trash-talking swagger of an action-movie tough guy: "People say that I am
India's best athlete, and I think they are right.... Girls running towards me and
asking for autographs: I love them, and they love me." At 6 feet and 176 pounds, he's still about 15 pounds lighter than
even the lightest of the NFL's running backs, but he has at least learned to
talk a big game: "I'm stronger than you, faster than you, and smarter than you,"
he says in the promo video. "If you want to challenge me, come on."
Preetesh Balyaya, 28, was working at his family's
supply-chain company when he heard about the EFLI tryouts from his judo coach.
After many rounds of tryouts, Balyaya was selected to play the mystifying
position of offensive lineman. "At the time I did not know what I had to do,
but I was pretty happy that I was selected," says Balyaya, now captain of the
Mumbai Gladiators. "I was completely lost.... I had no idea what my
responsibilities were or what the hell I was supposed to be doing."
Zeller and Whelan brought in American coaches to
teach recruits the basics of football, but the first season -- in which each
team only played six times -- was what you might call a learning experience. Quarterbacks
struggled to complete passes; players who'd received the ball often looked confused about what to do next. On offense, teams struggled to put
points on the board.
In the championship game -- a rain-soaked affair
played in Sri Lanka between the Delhi Defenders and the Pune Marathas -- the
teams managed a combined 6 points, the lone touchdown scored by Marathas
running back Rugger Sathish, followed by a missed extra point. The quality of
play was about that of a middling American high school football team, but the
games had their own brand of charm -- touchdowns were celebrated with
Bollywood-style dance moves, with teammates pumping their hands in the air and
shrugging their shoulders in unison.
But few fans actually saw these experimental
first attempts. "We would go for the matches and there were no crowds at all,"
says Balyaya. He is not exaggerating: At some games there was not a single
spectator in the bleachers.
Robert Clawson, one of the EFLI's first American
employees, who now runs the league's U.S. operations, said that season one operated
as a more-or-less closed set, with no attempt to bring fans out for live games.
Instead, the EFLI dived straight into finding a TV audience. Worried that broadcasting
a game Indians did not understand from start to finish would be a recipe for
ratings disaster, the league borrowed a page from the reality-television
playbook and filmed the entire first season -- splicing each game's most
exciting moments into episodes of a high-production-value television show called Elite
Football League of India. The show broadcast on Ten Sports, an Indian cable
station whose programming is distributed throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The
episodes string together clips of body slams and players grunting in slow
motion over dramatic music, while American-accented voice-overs draw viewers in
with narration like, "Pune is flexing its defensive muscle as Colombo's rock-solid
ground game runs into a rock-solid wall," and "Warhawks' all-everything man,
Roshan Lobo, fields the punt and he is off to the races."'
The theatrics appear to have worked. In a preseason
kickoff between the Mumbai Gladiators and the Hyderabad Skykings on Feb. 8, 2014, more than 18,000 people showed
up at the Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad to cheer the players on. Although
spectators' knowledge of football was sketchy -- the crowds later peppered
players with basic questions about the rules of the game -- they still went
wild when points were scored.
"We used to think, 'What are we doing? Have we
taken a wrong step by joining the league?'" Balyaya says. But "being on the
grounds, watching people at the stadium cheering for us and coming for
autographs and photos -- that was the best thing that ever happened to me," he
says. He's also convinced that the quality of play is improving. "The second
season will be a really professional one," he says. "We have a lot more
* * *
Exporting sports to foreign lands is a tricky
business. When they fail, they fail spectacularly. In 2007, for instance, NFL Europa
finally collapsed after 16 years of hemorrhaging an average of $30 million a season.
Much like the EFLI, NFL Europa tried to sell
football to a new, untapped market. One major difference, though, is that NFL Europa
consisted largely of third-string American players rather than local athletes,
which, Negandhi, the ESPN anchor, says, was the source of the league's downfall:
"In any sport, we connect to people that we relate to. I don't think you can
have success in a new country with a new sport from America without local
players." Rather than focusing on creating a product to succeed in the local
market, NFL Europa largely served the interests of the mothership. It was intended
both as a promotional exercise and as a training ground for young American
talent. Kurt Warner himself played for the Amsterdam Admirals before returning
to the United States to become a two-time MVP; other big names like Jake
Delhomme and Adam Vinatieri also spent time in the league, but it produced few
Negandhi says the EFLI is aiming for a model
closer to Japanese baseball, which though a quintessential American game, is
arguably Japan's most popular sport. First introduced to Japanese students in
1872 by Horace Wilson, an American professor teaching in Tokyo, the game first caught
on at universities and among office recreational teams before a professional
league was formed in 1936. In 2013, when Japan went to the finals of the World
Baseball Classic, 40 percent of Japanese households tuned in to
watch it on TV.
Japan's professional teams fill their rosters
with local players and have rules limiting the number of foreigners on a team. There
is also an elaborate set of rituals that accompanies Japanese baseball games: Fans
create unique chants for each player and sing anthems when their team wins. (William
Kelly, an anthropology professor at Yale University, believes these chants are rooted in medieval folk
songs that Japanese farmers would sing to harvest gods.) Over the last century,
the game of baseball in Japan has transformed into a uniquely Japanese
experience, offering glimpses of what an Indianized football game could look
When introducing a new sport to a foreign
audience, the key is building an "authentic connection" to the country and its
people, says Bobby Sharma, a senior vice president at IMG, a global sports-marketing
company that has been in India for 30 years. This is the story of basketball in
India, Sharma says. Basketball was introduced to India in 1930 by the YMCA,
only a few decades after it was invented in the United States. The game has
been widely played at the high school and college levels for generations and is
a part of everyday life in India. In schoolyards and public parks, it is common
to see Indians playing basketball for fun. "That's something impossible to
fabricate, but rather something which has to be nurtured from genuinely organic
roots," he says.
As a step toward integrating football into Indian
culture, Zeller and Whelan are trying to introduce the game to a younger
audience. Whelan has been working with the Indian government to develop
extracurricular football programs at universities around India, Zeller said,
and the league is trying to expand at the collegiate level, hoping to create an
Indian version of NCAA football, and recently formed a partnership with the
Association of Indian Universities. "Right now, it's all about the education of
the game," Negandhi, the ESPN anchor, told me.
The league has also made clumsy attempts to add indigenous
touches to games. Before the season one championship, for
instance, the trophy was brought out on a palanquin by a bevy of women dressed
in ceremonial saris, led by what appeared to be a holy man playing a conch
shell -- a sort of synthetic nod to the traditional method of transporting
Hindu deities in religious processionals. Through the stadium loudspeakers,
Indian drum and flute music filled the air, as an American-accented commentator
delivered the introduction: "A trophy, which may be delivered in style with
beauty and grace, but will have to be won with toughness and skill."
Even the EFLI's players don't seem to be
convinced by these attempts at Indianization; for them the game remains
thoroughly foreign. "I can never neglect that fact that this game is from
America," Balyaya says. Still, their passion for football is real enough. "I
love the game. I really love it," Lobo told me. And when it comes to comparing
football with India's most popular game -- cricket -- Balyaya is emphatic:
"Tell me, is it so interesting to hold a bat in your hand and to watch 10 stupid
guys running behind one ball?" he asks. "No, it is not. But see, American
football, it's like a gridiron gang. There are big tackles. That's what a young
crowd wants to see."
the EFLI teach young Indians the ways of American manhood? After one season, Balyaya,
Lobo, and their teammates strut and trash talk their way through games; fans
gather by the field during practice sessions, ooh-ing and aah-ing particularly
aggressive tackles. For her part, Zeller is thrilled. "I wanted to give the
younger generation more heroes to look up to," she told me. Thousands of fans are
turning up for the kickoff, and the market for the sport is starting to develop
in larger cities like Mumbai and Chennai. After years of putting in 24-hour
days, she says, a breakthrough is finally on the horizon. "They're starting to
fall in love with football," she said. "Just like we did here in the States."
Courtesy of EFLI