American football has never really translated overseas. NFL Europe, for example, failed after a 16-year existence.
And cricket aside, India is far from a sports superpower. The country of 1.2 billion people has exactly one individual Olympic gold medal to its name; Abhinav Bindra won a shooting event at the 2008 Olympics.
So starting an American football league in India seems like a ridiculous idea. But it’s happening. As the Sports Business Journal reported on Thursday, the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) plans to kick off in the fall of 2012. Among the investors in the venture is Mike Ditka, former coach of the Chicago Bears. “They need TV product over there,” Ditka tells NewsFeed during a quick phone conversation that interrupted his card game. “There are no sports on TV. And the government is behind it.”
Other investors in this gamble include ESPN analyst and former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, and Green Bay Packers linebacker Brandon Chillar, who is Indian-American. According to the fledgling EFLI website, the league will have eight teams: the Bhubaneswar Warhawks, Delhi Royal Fleet, Goa Swarm, Hyderabad Skykings, Kolkata Vipers, Mumbai Gladiators, Pune Blacktigers, and Punjab Warriors. The Sports Business Journal says that the league has a deal with Ten Sports, an Indian network, to televise the games; rugby players are being trained to play pigskin.
Many sports enterprises are jockeying for position in India. The NBA has started to ramp up its efforts to market basketball in the country: the league now has a director of operations there. In late October, Formula One will hold its first race in India.
Nothing will replace cricket as India’s most popular game. But being second-best in a market with 1.2 billion people could create impressive profits.
Could football win over India? “It’s not going to be easy,” Ditka admits. He points out that training coaches is going to be as difficult as developing players.
Over 110 million Americans watched this year’s Super Bowl. That’s impressive. But for football, scoring in India would be a more astounding feat.