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EAST meets WEST

Tackling India

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DIFFERENT BALL GAMES: (Above) US NBA player Raja Bell of the Utah Jazz gestures as he plays with young children in New Delhi as part of an NBA promotion activity. (Left) Bangalore Warhawk players in a huddle before an American football game in the newly-launched EFLI

Huge interest makes biggies associated with America's two largest sports invest in India.

On 'Super Bowl Sunday' last fortnight, Mahek Vyas discovered to his dismay that America's biggest sporting event was not to be found on any TV channel in India. Undeterred, the Delhi-based event manager sat himself in front of a "dodgy" internet live-stream and watched the Baltimore Ravens romp to a historic win. Like any true sports buff, Vyas also has a favourite team: the San Diego Chargers, an American football franchise he "adopted" when studying in that Californian city a few years ago. But he's quick to stress that he picked up his "football habit" as an adolescent in India in the mid 1990s, when the prospect of 'grad school' in the US was but a glint in his telly-besotted eye.

In fact, a whole generation of young Indians weaned on satellite television is now convincing sporting satraps in the US to make a beeline to our cities. The US NBA (National Basketball Association) has operations here and the country now has its very own American football jamboree: the Elite Football League of India (ELFI). With full fledged city-based 'franchises', flashy uniforms, sexy cheerleaders, big entertainment plans and even a Hollywood star or two in tow - Mark Wahlberg is an investor - EFLI has Indian prime time success firmly in its sights. Sunday Zeller, EFLI's American co-founder, is rather confident about the grid-iron succeeding in a land where the willow reigns supreme.

"There's so much youth energy here, and the desire to succeed, to find opportunities and make something of them that American football seemed such a perfect fit. It encapsulates drive, masculine vigour and female energy in a unique way;much more so than other sports. This is one reason why it's America's No. 1 form of entertainment, " says Zeller, confident that the EFLI will keep getting bigger in India too.

Interestingly, she points to the success and popularity of professional wrestling in India, especially the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). "It gives you a good idea of what can work. And football is much, much bigger, a different experience" she says. But as with all transplants, a note of measured scepticism may be in order here too. Vikram Singh Rajavat of the Delhi Hurricanes rugby team, a part of India's network of extensive but relatively unknown national rugby leagues, strikes one. "I like American football but would just like to point out that they've tried and not succeeded like this in Europe and the UK. There's tradition and history to overcome, " he says while also pointing out that rugby in India has tradition but, sadly, "no money". "The entertainment angle is very important to American football, so yes, it may have long-term viewership potential;but a lot of money is needed for running a league, with big infrastructure needed, so where that's going for now is anybody's guess. " EFLI, with its big name investors, says it's working on that.

For basketball, a sport with a much older and wider legacy in India, the clever packaging is optional. There's more grassroots awareness to tap. As Akash Jain, senior director, NBA India puts it: "We believe there is tremendous potential to develop talent in India. We actually have waiting lists to participate at all of our events. Over 8, 000 players have competed in our tournaments, and we've seen players travel up to 10 hours each way just for this opportunity. It is this passion and love for basketball that has encouraged us to increase our footprint across the country".

Besides "growing the game", which it says it is doing by partnering the Basketball Federation of India, the NBA, adds Jain, is currently focussed on making itself more accessible through television, digital media and events. "Since our first event in 2008, we have hosted more than 450 events in India, which included visits from more than 20 NBA and WNBA players, " he says.

'Interest' is shorthand for 'market potential', a major draw for the backers of both initiatives and a long line of sponsors waiting in the wings. Jain lists Sprite, Adidas, Nike and Spalding as currentpartners for their programmes and mentions the NBA's wide-ranging deal with Sony as their broadcast partner. EFLI has a big deal with the Zee-owned Ten Sports and is also lining up sponsors for its "exciting product". Zeller also mentions that they're looking to rope in a few Bollywood stars, to jumpstart interest. When in Rome, clearly.

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