Any Mumbai Sunday

One woman is on a quest to sell American football to India. Is anyone buying?

Courtesy of EFLI
Courtesy of EFLI
Courtesy of EFLI

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.

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 subcontinent.

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 have delivered.

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.

And so, 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 Amer
ica has to offer — and, much like cricket, for those who did not grow up with the game, it is notoriously difficult to understand.

* * *

"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 experience now."

* * *

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 European stars.

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 whe
n 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 like.

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."

Could 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."

<p> Elizabeth Segran is a freelance writer. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in South and Southeast Asian studies, with a specialization in women, gender, and sexuality. </p>

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