The Elite Football League of India is on a mission to carve a niche for American Football in South East Asia. Zeenab Aneez finds out the game plan

For decades, sports like football, tennis, rugby and even the national sport hockey have been striving for the attention of the Indian masses. Is there space for another sport in this mix? The founders of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) better hope so because they are bringing American Football to India, and in a big way.

A year old, the League has eight teams, including one from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The first season happened last year in Sri Lanka and the second is scheduled for later this year. Backed by big names from America including Mark Wahlberg and NFL head coach Mark Dikta, the enterprise aims to build an audience for the sport in South Asia.

Meanwhile, in the city, Hyderabad’s very own team, the Hyderabad Skykings don their armour-like gear and take to the field to train under the watchful eye of Coach Praveen Reddy Chintala. They are a motley crew of athletes: former sprinters or wrestlers, software engineers with a flair for sport and college students. Three months ago the Skykings became the first team to be purchased while other teams remain under the ownership of the League and the players are looking forward to the next season, determined to go the whole nine yards, literally and figuratively, to win the championship.

According to Karthik Kudaravalli, director of marketing, Hyderabad Skykings, introducing a new sport can throw up many challenges, beginning with finding players. “We’ve recruited athletes from other sports,” he tells us, “Each position in the game demands a different skill. The quarterback, who is essentially the team captain, needs to be physically and mentally agile, the linebackers need to be well built so they can tackle the other team’s defence and wide receivers need to be quick on their feet. So we have a few former wrestlers for linebackers and sprinters for receivers.” The coach himself is a former rugby player who has represented the country internationally. According to Karthik, the nature of the game which is an action oriented contact sport will draw crowds to the stadium. “The game is fast paced and easy to understand,” he says. Novelty is also a factor. “We also found that the Indian market is attracted to anything American and that may work in our favour, especially in cities like Hyderabad where people have lots of friends and relatives in America,” he says. His theory will be tested later this month during a friendly match between the Hyderabad Sykings and the Bangalore Warhawks at Gachibowli stadium.

While all the players are from Hyderabad, Karthik informs us that this will change once the other teams are purchased and switches begin to happen. But the aim of the League is to create a fan base for the teams, rather than its players. “In India, we were introduced to league cricket only recently so we worshiped the players, but we want to create loyal fans for the team, not just the players.”

Playerspeak

Quarterback Ronit Banda, a second year engineering student who has previous experience with the sport from having played it in America and Canada where he used to reside, predicrs, “like any other sport, American Football is about intense competition but what makes it special is that it’s a contact sport and that is what will attract people to it and once they start understanding the game, they will keep coming back.”. Naveen Kunku was software professional in Chennai before he tried out for the team. “I used to be in the university volleyball and cricket teams and have always been into sports,” says the linebacker. Naveen like most of his team learnt up the game from scratch but being an accomplished sportsperson he did not find this difficult. Ask him about his strategy for the game and he says, “As linebackers we have only one thing on our minds: tackle, tackle, and tackle.”

Since American Football has its roots in Rugby, those who play the latter were likely contenders for the team. Wide receiver Manikanta Reddy, a PHP developer used to play Rugby to keep fit before he joined the Skykings. “I love the position I play in because I get to interact with the ball so much. The excitement of catching the ball is great.”