Birth of a Sport: Documenting the English Football League in India
The Elite Football League of India (EFLI), a new sports league founded in late 2011, is hoping to take the South Asia region by storm.
We're talking about American football—not soccer—and the league, along with its investors, have received a warm welcome from those involved with the project in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.
The league, established to create new opportunities for athletes in the area, finished its inaugural season just a few weeks back.
Check out this article to better understand the format and structure of the league.
As stated in the article, outside of Cricket, there are very little sports on TV. This is exactly why the Indian government loved the idea when CEO Richard Whelan introduced it. “India is beyond doubt a great market for the sports and entertainment sectors,” Whelan said. “A concept like EFLI presents a huge opportunity and the perfect platform for brands to get visibility and reach out to their potential customers.”
Imagine this: If American football becomes popular in South Asia, viewership would be four times that of the viewership in the U.S.
Despite the league’s uncertain future, there has been a wave of support right here in the states, including independent director/producer Evan Rosenfeld, whose previous work includes ESPN projects like The U and Broke.
The U was viewed by 2.53 million people, making it the most successful “30 for 30” film. Broke premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and debuted on television this past October as a part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. It became the highest rated film in the critically acclaimed Peabody Award-winning series.
Rosenfeld has been on the production side for multiple successful projects, and is hoping to be able to tell the story of how American football was born in India.
He discussed with me both his experiences with the league's first season, and his vision in telling this incredible story.
How did EFLI first get your attention?
I was randomly on the Internet reading something about Michael Irvin, who I interviewed for "The U" and came across a note on the article that said he was helping to start a new football league in India. Naturally, I thought they meant soccer, because having been to India, I know they have no idea what American Football is. When I looked into it more, I found the EFLI website and couldn't believe what I was seeing.
Why is the story of this league so important to tell?
There are a few reasons this is an important story to tell. First, we are able to witness the birth of this sport in an entire region of the world. India is set to become the world's most populated country in a few years and it this thing takes off, it will be important that someone was there to capture it happening. Second, this league is providing great new opportunities for Indian athletes.
Traditionally, besides cricket, Indian athletes don't get paid. This league is paying them and changing their lives. It is having a major impact on athletics there. Third, the league is already helping to bridge the divide between India and Pakistan.
Did something specific happen to make you believe that?
They players came into the first season hating each other, and by the end they were good friends and celebrating together. They all said they would be going back home to tell their friends and family that they met people from India/Pakistan and they are awesome.
Having lived in India for nine plus years, I saw certain religious and cultural differences first-hand. There's so much animosity between different religious groups. Was this something you noticed immediately upon your visit?
In the beginning, it was noticeable. Both on the field and off. All the players were great people, but with deep-seeded tension like that, that goes back generations, it's hard to ignore. That all changed over the course of the season. We started seeing more players from both countries conversing on the sidelines, then would see them hanging out off the field. It all culminated in one of the most amazing moments we have on film.
The Pakistani players were having a party for their Independence Day celebration and they invited the Indian players over. They all hung out, sang, danced, fed each other cake and had a great time. I didn't realize the significance of this until after, when I interviewed some of the players, and they told me is was the most memorable moment of their lives.
One of the guys from Pakistan told me they could get in trouble for hosting an event like this, but that it was worth it because it was helping to bring people together.
Indian sports, whether it be Cricket, Field Hockey, or Soccer, have traditionally been limited due to lack of certain resources. Space, for example, has been the biggest issue in establishing organized leagues.
In the introductory video, an EFLI player named "Happy" went out and built his own football field. What was your reaction to filming something like that, a real-life Field of Dreams? He built it and people came.
This was probably the most incredible story we came across in filming. Happy was a star rugby player for the Indian national team and a recognized athlete in India. When we first heard the story, we were down in Sri Lanka for the first season, and he showed us video on his cell phone of him making the field. We couldn't believe it. Not only did he clear an entire field, but he put up field goal posts, and wrote his team name, Defenders, in the end zone. He also built a structure next to the field to serve as a gym.
Happy did this because he didn't have a field to practice on. Turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, football field in India. The grass is beautiful and soft. In Happy's village, the only sport they play is wrestling because the village is poor and you don't need equipment to wrestle. He is changing that. The kids come to his field and he teaches them football.
He wants the best Indian football players to come from his village. What might make it confusing is that everybody is his village has the same exact last name.
In 2006, we saw the Ivory Coast temporarily stop its civil war during their World Cup appearance. Can EFLI spark a generation of peace in India between opposing religious communities?
According to the people involved, they think this can be huge in bringing people together. Cricket isn't a contact sport like football is. In football, players can get out aggression but also leave it all on the field. It would be very interesting if an American sport is what brings India and Pakistan together.
What makes this league different than the ones that the NFL tried to start in Japan, Europe and Brazil?
In my opinion, I think the sport, especially in an organized fashion, fills a huge need for the youth in India. It's a type of outlet that hasn't been offered to them, a whole new opportunity to billions of people. Can it be sustained? What's the momentum like for the league over there?
Like you said, this fills a huge need for the youth in India. Cricket is huge, but it's not really a sport that utilizes the best athletes in India. The strongest, biggest and fastest. They have to play other sports, but those sports don't pay. American Football pays, and is already supporting families all over India.
I think the difference between those other countries is that India is in desperate need for another sport. I mean, they watch field hockey and badminton on TV. Those are all sports for the older generations, the young people want something for themselves.
Right now this is a new sport and it will take years to develop. This isn't going to catch fire overnight. It already has the people talking, though. When the Mumbai team practices on Juhu Beach, huge crowds form. Young kids, old lads.
How have previous projects that you worked on (Broke, The U) helped you in directing and producing this documentary?
I've always been a huge sports fan, but spending years working on those films, doing research, talking to the players, spending hours watching archival footage, have given me a better historical understanding to how sports impact both the players and the community.
Being able to look at things from that vantage point have helped me understand what the important points of this EFLI story are. Not just for the moment, but for years down the road.
How much time have you spent in India working with this project?
Been there (including Sri Lanka) three times for a total of about three months since July.
Favorite part of India?
I love pretty much everywhere I've been, but if I had to pick out a place it would be either Srinigar (in Kashmir) or Kolkata.
Why Kickstarter and not a more traditional route?
It's an experiment. I've been fascinated with Kickstarter for the last few months and been following the success of some films on there. I love the idea of going directly to the people. Additionally, I think it's a way to jumpstart attention for the project and give people a taste of what we have.
The Kickstarter for Birth of a Sport expires December 21, 2012. Support the project by sharing the story and/or donating.
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