The Elite Football League of India

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India's Opening Kickoff: Featured in Time Magazine

Lured by the booming business of television sports, the nation's first professional football league tries to turn amateurs into gridiron heroes.

BY ELLIOT HANNON/NEW DELHI

IT'S FOOTBALL SEASON IN INDIA, AND the music is thumping as the Delhi Defenders and the Pakistan WoIfpak prepare for kickoff. This is the first season of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI), and the match is being beamed by satellite to some 70 million homes across India. "This is a very potent Delhi squad. They should score a lot of points: the announcer predicts. Delhi would score three times to win 21-0. “Today a new rivalry in a new sport is born."

So new, in fact, that this was only the third game anyone on the field had ever played. And yet this fledgling football league, showcasing players who have never played the game professionally to viewers who have never really watched it, sold the broadcast rights to the whole season to the satellite channel TEN Sports. The EFLI's founder, Sunday Zeller, and CEO, Richard Whelan, had just one notable sports venture behind them the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League-but the promise of tapping into India's huge potential fan base was enough to lure investors, including NFL Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. ”With no TV, there’s no money there," says Zeller. "Our focus was, we need the league in every home, every living room, in India.”

The EFLI's fast start is the latest sign of the country's expanding appetite for televised sports. The number of Indian households with a television has almost doubled over the past decade, to 116 million in 2011, surpassing the 114 million U.S. homes with a TV. The market for advertising on Indian TV, meanwhile, is expected to double, to $4.4 billion, by 20I5, and advertisers are desperate to reach viewers with any programming available-even gridiron football. The result is a mix that's part SportsCenter highlight reel and part reality TV. "That's the only way it's going to be successful." says Whelan. "If you want to make money in India, you have to make sports that are TV-worthy."

A Cure for Cricket Fatigue

THE FIRST OF INDIA'S MADE-FOR-TV SPORTS was cricket-not the meandering, fiveday-long matches between gentlemen in white but the Indian Premier League (IPL), which repackaged cricket as entertainment. It shortened the games and relied as much on star quality as quality play, selling several franchises to Hollywood stars .Before a single match was played, the league signed a I0-year, $1 billion broadcasting deal with Sony in 2008. "The IPL brought on a sea change in the perception of the business of sports," says Jamie Stewart, head of Commune Sports & Entertainment, a sports-marketing firm in New Delhi "Suddenly people saw potential for sports as a business."

Broadcasters used that advertising base to expand into other sports. The audience for soccer, for example, almost doubled from 2008 to 2010, reaching 155 million, according to Mumbai-based TAM Media Research. The English Premier League consistently ranks second in weekly sports-TV ratings in India's cities. The cost of broadcast rights in South Asia for the soccer World Cup rose from $2.5 million for the 2002 Cup to $42 million for 2010. That cemented soccer's reputation as the best way to command an audience of young, affluent Indians, who are most likely to show signs of cricket fatigue and switch to another sport. "That's the generation that spends the most time watching TV and buying products," says Smita Jha, head of entertainment and media at PricewaterhouseCoopers India. "This is the same set of people whose incomes are rising, and this extra income is spent on leisure."

Who Needs Spectators?

IF YOUNG INDIANS WILL WATCH ENGLISH football, why not American football? Whelan figured that they care more about the entertainment value of a game than whether they grew up playing it. The EFLI set up five teams in India's biggest cities, as well as one in Pakistan and two in Sri Lanka, so it could sell regional broadcast rights.

The U.S. broadcasting model views live sports as programming, but the EFLI turns that notion on its head. The entire season of 23 games, plus playoffs and championship, was played during August in an empty stadium in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The EFLI taped all the games and then created programming out of them. EFLI broadcasts resemble U.S. pro games in a hurry, edited so there are no huddles, no time-outs and no waiting around. "Live is an old-fashioned model," says Whelan. "We didn't give a damn about selling tickets. What? Are we going to sell 20,000 tickets?"

TEN Sports was already experimenting with new sports and saw the EFLI as a low-cost, low-risk investment, says CEO Atul Pande. In exchange for an initial 75% share of the advertising revenue-in EFLI broadcasts, unlike NFL ones, commercials appear as a crawl or to the side during play-the network agreed to a five-year deal to air the games to 14 countries in the region and reach some 170 million homes. The league expects to generate profits after the first two years.

It's an unproven strategy. Because fans did not have a chance to watch the games live, it's hard to build local support for the home team. The EFLI is betting that's not the only way to create a football hero. Its answer to Tim Tebow is a 20-year-old native of Bangalore named Roshan Lobo. Before joining the Bangalore Warhawks as a backup running back this year, Lobo had never seen an NFL game. Everything he knew about the sport, he learned from Hollywood movies like The Waterboy and YouTube clips of the NFL "When you have the ball, you just need to run away from people," Lobo says. When the EFLI's first games aired in September, Lobo was the starter-in no small part because two other running backs quit after they got full-time government jobs.

What the players lack in experience, the EFLI makes up for in production value. The league brought in its own camera crews, announcers and producers, so the televised broadcasts, unlike the actual play, have the slick professionalism of Monday Night Football. The league has also packaged preview clips, including interviews with Lobo and other players, as well as coaches, who talk about Lobo as if he is the next Lionel Messi. "Lobo is like Bo Jackson. Lobo knows football," says a coach. A commentator gushes, "The coaches told me this guy's going to be a star, and he has become a huge star."

There is another way to create a hero: develop a real Indian Messi or Yao Ming from the ground up. That's what the global sports consultancy IMG is trying to do with basketball in India. In 2010, IMG partnered with the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries in a 30-year deal with the basketball federation and a 15-year deal with soccer's governing body to invest more than $200 million in sports infrastructure. In return, IMG owns the commercial rights to the domestic soccer league, including the TV licensing rights, and the right to sell basketball in India.

Developing enough players to fill out a professional-quality league will require a vast increase in participation. Basketball has one advantage: it's played widely in Indian schools, so IMG is giving hoops a boost, offering scholarships to promising players to live and train in the U.S. In a country of 1.3 billion, IMG needs to find only one Yao. "A single athlete can singlehandedly create an entire industry that didn't exist before," says Bobby Sharma, head of worldwide basketball development at IMG. "That's not lost on us."

Lobo is hedging his bets. He will train for next season but has a backup plan. "I'm searching for a job because I'm not sure about football getting famous in India," he says. Lobo may not be much of a football player yet, but he is already a star. Soon after the Bangalore Warhawks' EFLI debut, he signed his first autograph.

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