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'We plan to list at the US stock exchange to raise funds for the league' : EFLI CEO Richard Whelan

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There is a rush among sporting bodies to follow the Indian Premier League (IPL) way to build their sport. The latest to follow this route is American football.

The Elite Football League of India (EFLI) is making an entry with its first edition ready to kick off in November 2012 in Pune. The franchise model starts with eight teams, building up to a total of 52 by 2022 representing all Indian cities with a population in excess of one million.

EFLI will work with the Indian government to develop the first ever governing body for the game, similar to that of the BCCI and its governance of cricket.

Ten Sports has the rights to televise 33 games in the first season including Saturday and Sunday games as well as 13 Monday Night Football games. The league will commence its first nationally televised game beginning November 2012 and the inaugural season will run through February 2013.

EFLI plans to list in the US stock exchange to raise funds for the league.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com‘s Ashwin Pinto, EFLI CEO Richard Whelan talks about the growing sports market in India.

Excerpts:

You have a scene where different sporting bodies are looking at leagues in India. What is the reason for this sudden push?

India is today one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its vast middle class population acts as the backbone of its economy. They want more than just cricket; they are today watching F1, EPL, Wimbledon and various other sporting activities. This has encouraged people to explore opportunities in the dynamic Indian sports landscape.

When you look at the Indian sporting landscape, what is your vision for EFLI?

Looking at the sporting scene in India today, the future for EFLI looks very bright. Games like rugby, basketball and lawn tennis have gained a strong ground in this country. Moreover, F1 and other motorsports events too are getting off the ground. The environment for sports in India is very conducive.

Have you done any research to find out how American football is perceived in India?

Clearly we‘ve started from scratch, and the slate couldn‘t have been any clearer for us. This has been terrific. From the early responses to our training and orientation camps, we can tell that India has a great sporting culture hitherto unknown.

The message about the advent of American football coming to India spread virally at the ground level purely through word-of-mouth and we‘ve had a massive response with hundreds of candidates turning up for player and coach trainings. We are overwhelmed with this kind of response, and whilst we understand that we need to educate people about the sport in its entirety, the desire to want to learn is very strong.

Indians don‘t watch much of other sports except for cricket. A few major events like the soccer World Cup get some traction primarily among males. Do you see things changing in this regard?

We have seen some radical changes in Indian sports scenario in these recent years. As recent as two months ago, there was a report in one of the leading English Indian dailies that audience and advertising revenue are bound to multiply in the coming years and that Indians love to see American sports on television.

It‘s fast, furious and fun to watch. They further reported that according to Tam, Indian viewers are now watching sports other than cricket. There is no doubt in our minds that the EFLI has picked the right time for its Indian touchdown. Even women are keen on watching sports!

 ‘EFLI will create legal bylaws, working with the Indian government to develop the first ever governing body for the game, similar to that of the BCCI and its governance of cricket‘

You start with eight franchises. How will this be scaled up?

Economically, EFLI will have an astoundingly unmatched impact on India. The league will incorporate sponsorship from around the world and provide a platform for multinational companies to reach India‘s burgeoning retail market.

EFLI will auction eight teams internationally. An opportunity will be created within the Indian investment banking arena to offer franchise, league and team ownership to the public marketplace. India offers enormous room for growth within the industry of sport. The US sports industry is currently valued at a half trillion dollars leading the layperson to easily recognise India‘s potential to reach beyond the scope of the American precedent.

In order to achieve this standard, India must embrace and become a country of many sports. Football will lay the foundation and open the pathway for an explosive sports and media marketplace with reverberating impact into memorabilia and second and tertiary product sales. There is no question that, on behalf of India, football will elicit interest and participation from a broad spectrum of sporting enterprises once the door has been opened.

What are the different revenue streams available to franchises and have you spoken to any parties for feedback?

We are still working out these details.

On the broadcast front, have you signed a deal with anybody?

EFLI has signed letter of intent with Ten Sports to televise 33 games in its first season including Saturday and Sunday games as well as 13 Monday Night Football games.

The league will commence its first nationally televised game beginning November 2012 and the inaugural season will run through February 2013.

Could you talk about how you will partner the sports ministry to set up a governing body like the BCCI?

We have set up EFLI, the first ever American-style Football Federation in India. This allows for the non-profit entity to work directly with the central government of India for the benefit of Indian society.

EFLI will distribute 15 per cent of its revenue to the Sports Ministry of India to help maintain many of its ongoing programmes and facilities.

Also, the league will forge strategic alliances by offering ownership opportunities to all Indian entities; business, military, political, municipalities, private and public partnerships. The EFLI will create legal bylaws, working with the Indian government to develop the first ever governing body for the game, similar to that of the BCCI and its governance of cricket.

Could you give us an idea of the investments being made and by when you expect the venture to be profitable?

We plan to list EFLI at the US stock exchange to raise funds for the league. We are planning to raise around $10-12 million through this route. Americans know the growth story of India and want to invest in India.

The sports business industry is untapped and they are very familiar with the power behind American football. Besides tapping the US stock market, we are also looking at the option of raising funds from private investors but at this point we have quite a few options. We also have private investors and potential debt investors for equity down the line.

Is the initiative being done under the aegis of the NFL and do you have similar leagues in other markets?

No, EFLI has no affiliation with NFL. It‘s a completely independent entity which was formed by people sharing a similar thought process.

There are various other leagues which are present in the US today like the United Football League (UFL), or the Stars Football League which will begin from August 2011. Even Canada has its own football league called the Canadian Football League (CFL). Apart from these professional leagues, there are other various semi-pro and amateur leagues which are held in various parts of United States.

Could you talk about the team and support staff behind the EFLI?

EFLI‘s management is in the hands of a very dynamic and experienced team. We have Sunday Zeller, who is the founder of this exciting new initiative. She has worked as a marketing consultant in branding and positioning startup enterprises to help attract capital and attention for the past 22 years.

Then we have Alex Emmanuel who is the co-chairman. He was the Tata group global VP for Human resources. He has also worked with MNCs like ABB / Boehringer Mannheim. I am the CEO of EFLI. I come from a stock broking background. I had a firm called Moveable Cubicle. I have been involved in many start-up or early stage private companies, many of which went on to become publicly traded.

Mohan Bangera is our COO. Previously he was Videocon VP marketing and sales. He has been closely associated with sports since a long time. He is the Technical Council of Judo Federation of India Chairman. Bangera comes with 30 years of experience in this field as a player, coach and administrator.

We also have a robust executive management team with specialists from various backgrounds coming on board with their expertise in specific roles such as corporate alliances, production, events, marketing and choreography among other important job functions.

What are the different facets of the EFLI?

EFLI will create an exclusively Indian product packaged perfectly and specifically to advantage television and media support ultimately to become the most valuable sports franchise in the world.

Thousands of jobs will be created as a result of the immense need for coaches, athletes, trainers, referees, and support staff as well as the even greater demand for employees in the legal, maintenance, media, marketing and retail sectors.

EFLI will strive to eventually support the highest paid athletes in all of India. Founding athletes and coaches will have an opportunity to become owners of the league. The league will recruit and train a team that will physically and strategically compete at the level of the current US teams, one day defeating the US in competitive play.

EFLI will establish a grassroots educational project to incorporate the game of football in schools beginning at grade school level extending to universities which will feed the professional recruitment efforts. By introducing and supplying footballs and equipment along with the programme, the league will provide a much needed physical and intellectual stimulus through competitive game play to the male youth of India.

What are logistical challenges you will face and what is the strategy to tackle this?

Educating people about the game, providing them with the right kind of exercise and nutrition to be able to play the game in its true form will be our biggest challenge. And we are fully aware of this, and will do everything possible to make this best in sports entertainment.

What is American football‘s USP from a viewer‘s perspective compared to other sports that Indians follow like cricket and soccer?

Indian viewers have opened up to newer sporting events in recent years. Sports like rugby and badminton have gained momentum in the Indian sporting culture.

The introduction of American football will be a new robust sport that Indian viewers can look forward to. It‘s a game which needs speed, strength and strategy. These traits will keep the viewers to their seats. It‘s a total entertainment for the viewers.

In the US, American football has maintained its pinnacle in a competitive and fragmented market with the Super Bowl being the most watched event in the year. What are the learnings from this success that you would look to apply in India?

When football took off in America in 1960, there was a population of 180 million people; India has 1.2 billion.

America had 45 million TV households; India currently has 130 million and this is increasing exponentially.

The economic strength of the United States was $520 billion; the economic strength of India is currently more than double at $1.2 trillion and growing at a blistering pace! India is without doubt an exceptionally fertile market for the immediate and overnight success of the game of football.

Having said that, you have the disadvantage of a relative lack of awareness for American football compared to other sports in India. How will you work around this?

We agree that there is lack of awareness towards American football in the county but people are willing to know about this game. There is a huge Indian population in America which follows American football. This trend has passed on to the Indian audience as well.

EFLI believes that it will easily be able to capture the interest of the enormous population under the age of 30 which has shown proven interest in American form of sports. The EFLI will be branded as the "New and Cool" intelligent ultimate athlete gladiator sport and form of entertainment.

We also believe that the top US companies with an international presence or those looking to grow their international presence in this enormous 1.21 billion population market will have a keen interest in attaching their brands to the "proven power" of this game. The EFLI will capitalise from the unbelievable discrepancy between the number of unpaid athletes in the country and the enormous potential of gross revenue football has proven to capture through television and electronic media broadcasting, merchandising and licensing revenue, ticket sales, and local and corporate sponsorship as well as future team franchise sales.

We plan to establish EFLI as an educational project at the grassroots level to incorporate the game of football in schools beginning at school level extending to universities which will feed the professional recruitment efforts. By introducing and supplying footballs and equipment along with the programme, the league will provide a much needed physical and intellectual stimulus through competitive game play to the male youth of India.

What new technologies have come in to enhance the viewing experience of American football?

These aspects will be worked upon in close cooperation with our broadcaster partner. Needless to say we will offer our viewers a cutting-edge and technologically advanced viewing experience.

In terms of global television viewership, how does American football compare to the NBA, soccer and tennis?

American football has gained strong ground outside US. It‘s now a very popular sport in countries like Israel, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, England, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Hungary, Norway and Spain. Ironically, these are the nations where soccer and rugby are a religion. In terms of viewership, the Super Bowl has a global audience of over two million - this is an impressive number.

What role do new media like mobile and social networks play for American football in building brand equity?

Mobile and social networks play a huge role in building a brand name for American football. These are the new platforms through which we can spread the word amongst the new generation.

They are connected through Facebook and Twitter for news and information, which I guess is apt to promote the game. Besides, new media tools like electronic and fantasy gaming have already proven their ability to attract consumers and also rake in huge profitability.

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