The Elite Football League of India launched this summer to yawning indifference from audiences in the sub-continent and curious derision from observers in the US. Importing American football—shoulder pads, helmets, down markers, and all—to a country where even rugby is a fifth-rung sport seemed foolhardy, but league officials, citing the paucity of sports on Indian television and the expanding desires of a swelling middle class, were convinced of the EFLI’s prospects. This despite the admitted weaknesses in their product. Talking to the New York Times, Richard Whelan, the American CEO of the sports venture, disparaged his own league even as he touted its potential. “It’s an absolute joke compared to the NFL,” he said. “But it’s not a joke compared to anything else on Indian sports television, and that’s all we’re going up against.”
In other words, even if the Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan players who suited up had little to no prior experience playing the world’s most byzantine sport, the on-field drama inherent to football would convince Indian audiences to throw down their cricket bats, order some nachos, and tune in—or at least be intrigued enough to merit a second season.
Still, Whelan wasn’t exactly wrong. My summers in India as a child were spent flipping between reruns of cricket matches, reruns of professional wrestling, and reruns of more cricket matches. Live cricket, because of its culture-consuming vastness, can be something of a thrill. When weeks old, however, cricket no longer excites. These days, as India’s ballooning middle class is yearning for more things to consume, sports are picking up. F1 racing is marginally popular, and Bollywood stars have made cricket a sexier (and shorter) sport with the Indian Premier League. Soccer, meanwhile, has made the most headway—Chelsea and Arsenal jerseys have become popular street wear.
But those hoping to seize upon India’s exploding sports and youth culture should take note of the EFLI’s poor media strategy: If you import crap product at least give your audience a bit of credit for sophistication. Because the competition for Indian eyes and ad revenue is about to get more competitive.
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