When you hear the word ‘sports,’ what comes to your mind first? You’d be correct in assuming that it is a physical exercise, coupled with a strategy to oust your opponent – all while experiencing an adrenaline rush. You’d also be right if you said – they are either played individually or by forming teams. Doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to come to these conclusions.
Sports also unites people from different walks of life. It is a mixed medium aiding engagement with people from different ethnicities and countries. ‘Boundless’ might be the perfect word to describe sports, as just about any person from any part of the world can indulge in any sporting activity. All one needs is the resolve. It obviously helps if the resolve is backed by a healthy faculty of rational thought. That is precisely what we are going to be talking about in this column – a North American modification of rugby that was introduced to the Indian terra firma called gridiron football, or American football in simpler terms.
American football was first played in 1869. A professional league was formed in the year 1920, named the American Professional Football Association (APFA) before being rechristened to the National Football League (NFL) ahead of the 1922 season. The American football league has been called the NFL since then.
After 91 years of enamoring the American (and later European) audience, in 2011, the NFL decided to spread its branches to the South Asian market. The aim was to target a large amount of population in the subcontinent in particular.
In 1960, Pete Rozelle, the-then commissioner of the NFL, stated that the advent of television would be a great way to generate revenue along with the profit-sharing of gate receipts.
A majority of the renowned investors were NRI businessmen, supported by highly esteemed people such as Mike Dikta (a Super Bowl-winning head coach), Michael Irvin (Dallas Cowboys wide receiver), and former NFL quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Ron Jarowski. Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg was another notable personality to invest in the EFLI project.
They aimed to project a voluminous viewership of 500 million. “India is beyond doubt a great market for the sports and entertainment sectors. A concept like EFLI presents a huge opportunity and the perfect platform for brands to get visibility and reach out to their potential customers,” proclaimed Richard Whelan, the CEO of EFLI, at a news conference. Oh, Richard, remember what we said – faculty of rational thought.
Eight teams – five from India, two from Sri Lanka, and one from Pakistan – participated in the inaugural season of the EFLI. The investors had high hopes from the competition, expecting it to become a breeding ground for the young players as well as a gateway to gargantuan monetary benefits.
However, being a cricket-crazy nation, the competition was a big flop despite the hype surrounding it. EFLI failed to garner the sort of appeal the investors had expected. To this date, the second season of the EFLI is yet to be announced. The goal of transplanting the American football competition in and around India was to make it the second-most-watched sports league in India behind the Indian Premier League. The investors and organizers wanted to exploit the dramatic fall in viewership of sports on television. But that never worked out, unfortunately.
Thanks to a financial crunch and withdrawal of players from the competition, any hopes of EFLI finding a footing in the Indian sports biome were crashed.
EFLI spokesman Sandeep Choudhari conceded, “After the first season in Sri Lanka, we couldn’t maintain the tempo. It’s not like we won’t attract players again, but we’ve largely invested in grassroots over the last two years.”
Not only could the organizers fail to get permissions for the stadiums – which is why the matches were held in Sri Lanka instead of India – but were also paying the coaches and players half salaries for months.
Was this a simple case of jumping the gun and being too early to the market with the product? Could they have been a bit more prudent and done some actual on-ground research before launching a glitzy league that was never going to go anywhere?
The EFLI started as a promising project, but will probably go down in Indian sporting history as one of the biggest what-ifs.