Bollywood beware. American football is bringing a hint of Hollywood and some star-spangled celebrities and former players to India to battle for a share of attention in this cricket-crazy country of 1.2 billion.
The Elite Football League of India, with supporters including actor Mark Wahlberg and former Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, is planning a launch in November with 12 teams — and has grander plans for a 52-team league by 2022.
Some of the former NFL coaches who have stakes in the league are former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys and former Green Bay Packers linebacker Brandon Chillar.
Ambitious? Consider this: cricket is THE sport in India, drawing more than a quarter of the country’s total advertising revenue of $2.41 billion last year, when it won the World Cup. National team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni signed a $39.7 million contract with a management company in 2010.
The Indian Premier League has given cricket an even higher profile, with billionaires and Bollywood beauties falling over each other to buy stakes in the teams, which then bid at auction for the hired guns from all over the cricket world for a six-week season.
“There is relatively no competition on air in the sporting landscape of Asian TV,” EFLI founder and chief executive Sunday Zellar told The Associated Press. “In addition, given the lack of alternatives, we are finding the biggest, strongest and most agile athletes from all over India and Sri Lanka to participate in this new game of chess played by the ultimate gladiator.”
Organizers haven’t finalized a TV deal and negotiations with the kind of wealthy local industrialists who back the IPL are ongoing, but talent scouts have been raiding rugby, wrestling and volleyball to unearth talented prospective players for the EFLI.
“India has a host of very talented athletes and they are honing their skills very quickly and adapting to the game as though they have played for many years,” said Zellar, a brand marketing consultant who is hoping the trial season in Kolkata in May will generate more exposure for the main tournament.
“We hope to introduce the heroes, the players and educate the public on the rules and format of the game. It is our intention that it will spark interest and develop a following that will be sustained through to the opening game in November.”
Unlike the IPL, the American football backers are trying to build a group of stars from scratch.
Among them could be 19-year-old Santu Sardar, a soccer player who had little hope of a regular job or football contract while he languished in the second division of the local Kolkata league. He now has a monthly salary of 15,000 rupees ($300), a significant boost for a poor family which had survived until then on roughly the same amount earned by his cabdriving father.
“My life has changed after I signed up for this league as it promises me a better life and financial security,” Sardar told AP in a telephone interview. “I’ll now give my everything to ensure my team Kolkata does very well in the competition.”
But the question remains: will the best efforts of Sardar and dozens of young men from similar backgrounds be enough to get even a glimmer of attention in a sports landscape so dominated by cricket?
Other sports, including field hockey and soccer which already have a history and profile in India, rely on government handouts to keep afloat.
The EFLI is starting with an initial investment of $5 million, with another $3 million expected to be raised through the first season. Backers like Wahlberg are committing only endorsements and effort toward building the brand.
The Salt Lake Stadium, a massive 120,000-capacity venue in Kolkata, is the hub of activity where coaches from the United States are drilling hand-picked Indian coaches and players.
The Stadium will host the inaugural tournament, with teams from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh lending an international flavor. The nine Indian franhcises in the 58-game regular season are Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, Rajasthan and Punjab.
Each team will have a pool of five coaches and 40 players, excluding support staff. The salaries will be comparable with soccer and field hockey, in which players are generally contracted to teams but paid through government departments or banks they notionally work for.
“The next five years will be revolutionary in the sporting arena for India. As the talent grows and people become familiar with the game, you will see children tossing the football around,” Zellar said. “Attendance at live games will increase dramatically and the culture of the American football game will have planted itself on the ground and in the hearts of the Indian people.”
Zellar has recruited sports producer Sandy Grossman to help put together a TV coverage that will help sell and spread the league’s appeal.
“It’s very challenging to introduce the game to Indian cameramen and producers,” said eight-time Emmy Award-winning director Grossman. “American football is fast, a contact sport, and involves a lot of strategies.”
Grossman says programming in India will have to be different because the game has to be introduced to viewers.
“They will be like tutorials. An Indian announcer will talk with coaches, explain the game. My job is to guide the producers and cameramen and then leave them to decide how to cover games,” he told AP on telephone.
The U.S. National Football League, which folded its European competition in 2007 after 16 years spent establishing a league on the continent, has no direct stake in the EFLI.
The inaugural Indian season will run in winter, sparing the need to expose heavily padded players to the searing heat on the subcontinent.