By Deepak Chitnis
WASHINGTON, DC: For decades now, sports like basketball, baseball, soccer, and even racing have been successful at branching outside of US borders and making a significant splash in international markets. But the one sport that has floundered in this regard is American football - until now.
EFLIlogoAmerican football, for practically as long as it has existed, has been just that: American. While there is a Canadian Football League, and other burgeoning cults of American football around the world, nowhere is the sport more rabidly popular than it is here in the US. And the reasons for this are plentiful.
For one, the National Football League (NFL) keeps their schedule short, thus requiring that every game becomes important and "must-see." How many baseball or basketball games do you watch in a year? It's easy not to tune in for the first six months of an 80 or 160-game season. The NFL also signs incredibly lucrative television deals, ensuring that their games get maximum exposure and draw in huge numbers (this year's Super Bowl was the most-watched television broadcast in human history).
Now, India is getting in on the action, too.
The Elite Football League of India (EFLI) has signed a deal with Ten Sports, one of the country's leading sports broadcasters, in the hopes of capitalizing on the country's growing TV viewership. The EFLI is gearing up for the start of its second season, after a somewhat successful inaugural run in 2012-2013. With eight teams currently in the league - five in India, two in Sri Lanka, and one in Pakistan - and a growing hunger for sport in India that aren't cricket, the EFLI may be on the cusp of an explosion.
EFLI co-CEO Richard Whelan has stated that TV viewership is the most surefire way to ensure that the league grows in popularity. By inking a deal with Ten Sports, EFLI can now reach nearly 150 million televisions throughout India, and will expand American football in much the same way that basketball and Formula 1 racing have begun staking out a claim in the Indian market.
The National Basketball Association (NBA) has also begun making a splash on the subcontinent over the last several years. Now that Indian American entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive owns the Sacramento Kings, American basketball has taken another leap forward, broadcasting Kings games in India and hosting India-themed nights in their home stadium.
Worldwide superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have large fan followings in India, as well, and the NBA playoffs continue to get growing media coverage by Indian sports networks. More than any other American league, the NBA is minority-driven, and despite a recent racism snafu involving the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the league has been committed to its goal of globalization.
In terms of Formula 1, the sport has seen an uptick in interest from India, as well. In 2011, the country hosted the first-ever Indian Grand Prize, an FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) sanctioned race that has been held annually ever since its inception. However, the race has been taken off the 2014 and 2015 Formula 1 race schedule, and has no sign of re-appearing, leading many to wonder if the sport needs to be physically present in India in order for it to remain popular.
Even baseball is beginning to make its mark in India, with baseball programs and schools opening up in New Delhi. Northeastern University student Jackson Golden has launched the Grand Slam Baseball program for kids in the country's capital, to teach basic baseball skills and promote the sport's popularity.
If the EFLI really takes off in India, it will likely eclipse the NFL in popularity, at least within India. With more TVs and a much higher population, American football simply has higher potential numbers in India than it does in the US. But it will be a long road to get there; although a substantial television deal has been signed, just because a TV channel is showing a game doesn't necessarily mean that people will tune in to watch. But many prominent Americans, both within and outside of the NFL, are confident in EFLI's potential. NFL legends Mike Ditka, Michael Irvin, Ron Jaworski, and Kurt Warner have invested in the league, as has Brandon Chillar, the first Indian American football player to earn a Super Bowl ring (with the Green Bay Packers in 2010). Oscar-nominated actor and producer Mark Wahlberg has also reportedly invested in the EFLI. The new EFLI season will get underway later this year, as will the NFL season. The NFL draft is set to take place next week.
The EFLI was founded in mid-2011 and publicly announced on August 5, 2011. The aim of the league is to introduce American football to the Indian market and its large consumer base.