The story of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI), an American export, drummed up its fair share of feature-headlines at the NYT, CNN and Time magazine besides the usual Indian reams, propped by photos of anonymous locals bounding about in gladiatorial kits. But the EFLI experiment, an attempt to transplant American Football onto the Indian sportscape and on a booming television market, is tottering in its third year still uncertain about slots for its second season, similar to an afterthought.
Hopeful reviews after the inaugural jaunt in Sept-Oct 2012 had pegged Season 2 next spring. Approaching autumn two years since, EFLI is stuttering owing to a financial crunch and hasn’t quite taken off like its promoters’ bombastic claims had promised. Four rugby players who had ditched their primary sport in favour of the professional league, which handed them monthly salaries for a year, returned to representing India at rugby’s Asian 5 Nations last week.
“We’ve managed to get owners for all our teams, but we faced a financial crunch in transition,” says EFLI spokesman Sandeep Chaudhari. “Earlier, it was just the promoters who had invested in this but now the eight franchise owners will have to sit and decide if the second edition can be possible in November-December.”
Big names, teething troubles
EFLI was announced with much fanfare and has some high-profile names attached to it. The 8-team league also enjoys the backing of Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Ditka and material support from serial-sports investor and Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg. Its owners are a mixture of NRIs and American businessmen.
“After the first season in Sri Lanka, we couldn’t maintain the tempo. It’s not like we won’t attract players again, but we’ve largely invested in grassroots over the last two years,” Chaudhari says. Former players, who turned out for the inaugural season, insist that there were plenty of teething troubles during take off.
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“They couldn’t manage permissions for stadiums, so it was held in Sri Lanka,” a rugger-turned-EFLI player says. EFLI players were paid for the duration of the training and tournament during Season 1, but players and coaches say payments have stopped for a year now. “Once that happened, it was difficult to hold onto players,” says a coach who’s operating on half-salary the last two months while awaiting the new dates.
While coaches have been asked to convey to that players could earn up to a lakh in two months, a lot of
“I believe players are full aware that this is an American sport and in a cricket-loving India, it is going to take time to develop,” says Delhi Defenders owner Nick Patel.
Retainership fees of up to Rs 15,000 were paid with the highest going to Delhi’s Amit Lochab.
“Rugby has medals, not money, and EFLI has money, no medals. I’d like to play both but since the last year nothing much happened. I have decided to return to rugby. I’ve committed to playing for India but if there’s clash, I’ll represent India at Asian Games,” Lochab says. The hulking, speedy back, who doubles up as running back or linebacker in the EFLI, picked up the highest cheque of Rs 38,000 for a few months, but has now signed an affidavit that he is not contracted by any other sport that can wean him away from national rugby camps.
The EFLI website still features its star prominently, boasting he had signed a “20 year 1 crore contract” — one of the many hyped up projections by the EFLI.
One owner had smugly proclaimed at the start of the venture: ‘Our highest goal is to make sure that in a very short period of time, all of india will be talking about the Mumbai Gladiators and EFLI. The progress we will make in the coming two or three years is going to shock the world’.
While the Mumbai-based players are often spotted at Juhu beach jogging for the benefit of freelance photographers, a large number of players are dropping their padded shoulders with just 1 season in two-and-a-half years.
“They are yet another set of promoters who waltzed into India believing among a population of a billion, a market for American football will fall at their feet,” says a rugby player who refused to be lured by the cash thrown around.
In what has been branded a desperate measure to grab attention, the promoters, armed with a TV deal, are milking the India-Pakistan rivalry with a couple of All-Star exhibition games, branded the ‘Unity Ball’, in Hyderabad on August 23 and Lahore on September 27.
“There’s great interest to watch the two go head-to-head in the USA, and even back here,” a player-coach says of the ‘Unity Ball’.
On its sidelines, details of the new season of the EFLI will be thrashed out — almost as an after-thought.