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 (EFLI), 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 US$2.41 billion last year, when it won the World Cup. National team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni signed a US$39.7 million contract with a management company in 2010.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) 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 said. “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 have not 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.
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 soccer contract while he languished in the second division of the local Kolkata league. He now has a monthly salary of 15,000 rupees (US$300), a significant boost for a poor family that had survived until then on roughly the same amount earned by his cab-driving father.
However, 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 US$5 million, with another US$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 US 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 franchises in the 58-game regular season are Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, Rajasthan and Punjab.