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American Football League Gets Foot in South Asia

Chief Executive Officer of the Elite Football League India Richard Whelan (C) interacts with Indian players during a press conference to announce the league, in Mumbai, India, August 5, 2011.
American-style football is the ultimate American sport. The game is played elsewhere in the world, but no country comes anywhere close to the rabid fan following that exists in the United States.

Can the sport take hold in South Asia? A new league with huge ambitions is giving it a try.

The Elite Football League of India - the EFLI - is the first professional American-style football league in a region where cricket, rugby and badminton dominate the sports landscape.

The EFLI just finished its first season of play, and league executives, coaches and players took it very seriously. They are excited about what the future holds.

“Actually, it means a lot to me," Pune Marathas cornerback Anthony George said of the EFLI. "It’s life to me right now. It’s my passion, and I just can’t imagine anything else apart from this.”

George's team made it to the first EFLI championship game, in which the Marathas defeated the Delhi Defenders, 6-0, at Sugathadasa Stadium in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

American Coaches

“Touchdown” Tony Simmons is one of several American EFLI coaches who once played in the U.S. National Football League. He said there is a great work ethic on his Mumbai team.

“I always see them training," Simmons said. "They’re doing stuff on the beach. They work really hard. Mentally, they go through plays. They’re starting to get it more and more, and if they keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll get what they want.”

In the first season, the EFLI consisted of five teams in India, two in Pakistan and one in Sri Lanka. There was a seven-week regular season and two rounds of playoffs, and the field was 100 yards long, the same length as a U.S. football field. Many of the players are former rugby stars.

All of the games took place in Colombo. But EFLI senior executive Sunday Zeller said India likely will be the host country by the third season.

Zeller, an American brand marketing consultant, founded the league. Her vision for it came during a business trip to India in the mid-1990s. She saw Indian society had elements she believed would support an American football league, including a huge population and many homes with televisions.

She also concluded that men needed an athletic outlet.

“India desperately needed a sport, a gladiator sport, like football," she said. "Their stars were the `Dancing with the Stars,’ the Bollywood stars at the time. Now it’s changing quite rapidly. But at the time when I was there, they were hardly Rambo, let’s just say that. It was a little feminine in every area. And the Indian males that I was seeing, that I knew in the business and I was seeing all over India, were so hungry to kind of break free of that. They asked questions, `Where can I work out, where do I get muscles, how do I gain a physique, what kind of food do I eat?'”

The League's Success

Zeller is optimistic the EFLI will succeed in South Asia's growing sports sector. Ten Sports, an Indian network, televises the games regionally. The league also has prominent investors, including former NFL stars and current TV analysts Michael Irvin, Mike Ditka, Kurt Warner and Ron Jaworski, and American actor Mark Wahlberg.

According to Zeller, the league may add teams next season in Bangladesh and China.

Akshay Sawai, sports and features editor for the Indian publication Open Magazine, however, is not sure the league will survive. He said only a tiny percentage of India's population is familiar with American football.

“It’s difficult for non-cricket sports to make inroads into India," he said. "India, I mean, it’s all skewed toward cricket, so it’s difficult for any other sport, let alone a sport that is not followed by that many Indians, to make an impact.”

Even so, Sawai said the league's deal with Ten Sports is a major bonus. He added that if the players view the EFLI as a career option with comfortable salaries, the league has a better chance of growing.

Many players in the league admire superstars from the National Football League. Quarterback Mayank Sharma of the Delhi Defenders, for one, likes New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He wears Brady's number 12.

“Tom Brady’s an amazing quarterback," Sharma said. "He plays for the New England Patriots, and I used to watch him before coming to the EFLI.”

Perhaps EFLI players will someday be idolized as well.