Roshan Lobo never played football before he turned pro earlier this year. Growing up in Bangalore, Lobo often played soccer or cricket with his friends at school. He even tried his hand at riflery before moving onto rugby. But when it came to his new profession, Lobo's only football role model wasn't Peyton Manning or Barry Sanders - it was Adam Sandler in the movie the Waterboy.
It's not your average pedigree for a pro football player at any level, anywhere. But when Lobo heard that an American football league - the Elite Football League India (EFLI) - was set to open in India this year, he decided to try out. And when Lobo was selected for the Bangalore Warhawks team, it set the 20-year-old on an unexpected trajectory that the upstart American football league would like for itself.
For the Warhawks, Lobo was initially a third-string running back, but when the two players ahead of him opted for jobs with the Indian government, Lobo found himself as the franchise's starter. Without any experience, to learn to play the position, he turned to the internet. "I would go on Youtube and watch the best running backs and the best running plays. That's how I learned to do the high step," says Lobo. A quick study, when the EFLI's first games aired on national television in India in September, Lobo was not just in the backfield, he had become the posterboy of the league itself.
A matchup between the Bangalore Warhawks and the Delhi Defenders, however, is a long way from the glitz or talent of a Thanksgiving Day Redskins-Cowboys grudge match. But the EFLI is banking on stars, like Lobo, to propel the sport from a curiosity to must-see TV in India. "We'll do what India doesn't know how to do, we'll build stars," says EFLI CEO Richard Whelan.
First, however, the EFLI had to build a league from the ground up. With eight franchises across India, as well as in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the league set out trying to lure viewers to their TV sets, rather than fans to the actual games. The EFLI is the latest entrant into the growing market for sports in India, particularly on television. Driven by advertisers looking to woo India's new generation of young, more affluent consumers, Indian cable networks are on the prowl to find sports beyond cricket.
But trying to sell a new sport featuring players that are as new to the game as the viewers isn't easy. To make the games more suitable to the Indian audience, the EFLI shortened the games. To cram a full 3-hour American football game experience into a one-hour time slot, the entire season was played in a single empty stadium in Sri Lanka, recorded and pre-packaged for TV. That meant that the EFLI could keep the games short by cutting such frivolities as huddles and timeouts. With the entire season in the can, it also made it easier to pick which players it should promote. To help create a season storyline from scratch, the league also produced slick documentaries of each team.
On the Bangalore Warhawks team video, one coach compares Lobo to Bo Jackson, one of the NFL's most-talented, if short-lived, stars. Lobo isn't quite there yet. The level of play on the field looks more like a high school game than an Indian equivalent of the NFL. On TV, however, the EFLI makes the most of it. A dozen camera angles with earnest play-by-play announcers make it feel like the Monday Night Football crew went to the wrong stadium.
On the field Lobo's first season was a success. He won the league's MVP award. He even signs autographs. That may not put him in the glamour class of Indian cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar or on the playing level of Bo Jackson, but Lobo's hoping that with enough viewers, the league will stick and he'll got another shot next season. If not, he says, he'll go to graduate school.
By Elliot Hannon Nov. 28, 2012