Birth of a Sport: Football in India

Evan Rosenfeld is a film producer who graduated from the University of Miami. He is most notable for his work for ESPN Films 30 for 30, producing the film ‘The U’ which documented the rise of the University of Miami during the 80s and 90s. It was viewed by 2.53 million people making it the most successful “30 for 30” film.

Currently Evan is working on a film, ‘Birth of a sport’ following the establishment of American football in India. Evan was not only involved with the filming of the project, but he has also been helping the league with its creative direction, including all their multimedia and advertising.

Evan spoke to us about the difficulties and challenges faced when setting up a league in India and tell us a few of his stories from his time out there.

Evan
The Indian football league is something that seems to have appeared on the radar relatively quick with a good level of investment and good promotion, can you tell us a little about the beginnings of the league and the structure?


The founders are Richard Weylan and Sunday Zeller, they are from California and they had the idea to introduce a sport in India where the athletes can be paid to play. In India the only athletes who get paid to pay are the cricketers, and they felt this left the other athletes with perhaps the skill set towards American football with no way to use their skills for paid work.

She also put 2 and 2 together, India has 1.2 billion people and they only have one sport people really consume and watch, cricket. That was in 2011, and everyone in India said, there’s no way you’re going to be able to do this, you’ll never see a game in India, and people don’t have the skillset. They just took this on as motivation, and now people who told them no in the beginning are now helping them. They managed to put on a season and a league, and if everything ended today it would be a massive achievement in itself. They have built this thing out to last, and are looking to make football at least the second biggest sport in India.

India really is a blank slate in terms of sport, cricket is the main sport there and it is widely loved but a lot of the people say that it’s just the only sport on TV. Turn on the TV, cricket is on. People started to really feel there was room here to introduce a whole new sport. In Europe it’s a lot more traditional, and it’s hard to break in an American sport, in India they are a lot more open to American culture.

However you can never get enough exposure when you start something like this, not only starting a league in that specific country but also being the people who are introducing that sport to the whole region, it’s a monumental task. There still needs to be more of everything to make this succeed.

The Delhi Defenders ready to play

It’s interesting from a British point of view to see the league form, as in America people grow up with football as a sport every knows and talks about, whereas in the UK, it’s unlikely that the average person even knows the game is played in the UK, I’m sure this is similar in India, how did you find peoples approach to the game?

The overwhelming majority of people didn’t know about the game let alone how to play the game. The great thing is, they learn very fast. The first day the American coaches arrived to start coaching the players, I heard it didn’t look good. They didn’t think they’d be able to do it, it looked like a bunch of little kids trying to play football, who had no experience of it, nobody knew how to throw, catch etc. But by the end of the first week the coaches said they might have something here.

Some funny stories emerged from the first week, in one team, the first thing they decided to teach them was kicking off, as it starts the game. The very first kick-off, they go running down the field, and instead of tackling the guy with the ball, one of the players just dropkicks the ball carrier.

Everyone in the league is from a sports background, whether it be rugby, volleyball, soccer. A lot of the guys from this team were wrestlers or judo, so they had that background and that’s all they knew. As the season went on all the bad habits were ironed out.

Reffing a game between the Kolkata Vipers and Kandy Skykings

One of the main issues faced by smaller leagues is finding linemen to play, and the size of the linemen, is this something that you find in India?

There are a couple of monsters out there, but for the most part they are smaller compared to American players, but it’s relative. There’s a bunch of guys 6”3’-6”4’, 250-300lbs. There’s a couple of guys who could possibly come out to the states and play for a Div1 school. There’s one guy called twinkle toes, on the championship team, really big but very light on his feet, former track and field guy, who took part in the javelin and shot-put.

They still need to get the word out about the league, there are still a lot of guys who would fit the profile of a lineman, people who don’t even know the sport is being played or even that the sport exists. But as the league gets more coverage, more people will find out. The teams will only get better.

The Kolkata Vipers wear the wonderful combination of Yellow and Purple akin to LSU

We posted a link to your kick-starter a couple of weeks ago looking to raise money to release your documentary about the birth of the sport in India, can you tell us a little about your trips to India to film the documentary?

We took three trips to the region, the first trip we went during training camps before the season starters, we went to Poona, where the Poona and Mumbai teams were practicing, and we went to Colombo in Sri Lanka, where we saw the Colombo, Kandy and Pakistan teams practicing.

We came back a few weeks later for the actual season which took place in Sri Lanka, where they flew all 8 teams to Sri Lanka and put them up for a month and held the tournament.

After the season ended we visited Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi. The only places were didn’t visit were Calcutta and Pakistan but we saw the team. It’s interesting that each of the regions are so different, so many different types of players by teams, bigger stronger guys, smaller quicker guys, it all depends on where the teams are from.

Kandy Skykings on the sidelines

You mentioned that the tournament was played over a month in Sri Lanka, this seems like a short period of time to squeeze in a season, can you tell us about the format and how the tournament went? 

The basic structure of the league was 8 teams in 2 division, east and west. The tournament took place between the end of September and beginning of November 2012. Each team played 6 games, their divisional opponents twice, then there was as semi-final round, then the finals. They squeezed it in and teams were playing a game pretty much every three days, but they did what they had to do given the geographical considerations of having a Sri Lankan team playing a Pakistani team. There were surprisingly few injuries, but the game is a different pace.

One aspect of the Indian game that made things easier is that the game clock is always running, so the game is essentially shorter, with significantly less plays in a normal game. At the end of the day the players were excited to get the chance to play the game and be paid to do so.

Delhi Defenders player Amit Lohchab being interviewed

What kind of audiences did you see during the tournament, was there a big turnout? How is the league going to approach this going forward?

There wasn’t that many people at the stadium, but part of the problem was that the games were tape delayed, they were played then on TV a couple of weeks later, I feel if they were on the same week they might have had more people just turn up to watch the game. Another part of it was that the tournament was held in Sri Lanka, but they had an exhibition game in India where about 8,000 people showed up, and they hardly did any promotion.

Part of it is also that they don’t want to put on a bad product in front of an audience; they are working out the kinks and getting things to run smoothly. They aren’t focussed on filling up stadiums just yet, but instead proving the on field product and they feel that as long as that happens the crowd will come out.

What kind of level of support, if any, does the league get from America and more specifically the NFL?

All the teams have American coaches as well as local coaches. Coaching a game is harder than playing it, just like the players are learning so are the coaches. Hopefully they will get into a place where the local coaches can take over, and hopefully it will be some of the guys who are playing now who will take over.
Most of the coaches were on NFL teams, but no one really made it big in the NFL however it is still a massive achievement in itself. A lot of those guys eventually ended up [playing in Europe, Poland, and Denmark for example. They were all connected and one of them found out about the Indian league and all of them came along.

It’s one thing to teach someone who knows football new technique rather than teaching someone from scratch.

There are big time NFL players and coaches involved on a business and investment level, Kurt Warner, Michael Irvin, Mike Ditka. Even at the entertainment level, the guy who directed all the games was a guy named Sandy Grossman who has directed 8 Superbowls, and Ed Goran, who was an executive at fox sports. There are a lot of big time people at various levels helping to make sure the league take off.

The Kolkata Vipers take on the Pune Marathas

You talked a little about bridging the gap between India and Pakistan in your documentary trailer can you tell us a little more about that?

I knew a little bit about it before, the conflict and tension between the two countries. The cricket fixture is a massive event in both countries also. When I heard about the league and Pakistan having a team too, it made me want to do the documentary more. It’s not just a story about sport any more but a big political, hot issue in the world right now.

The teams at the tournament, you could tell there wasn’t a high level of hatred but the players from India and Pakistan didn’t talk, weren’t really friendly, and on the field a few extra pushes, late hits. But as the tournament went on you started to see the guys hanging out, laughing, and then you would see them hanging around town together. It all culminated on Pakistani Independence Day on the 14th august and Indian Independence Day being the day after. The Pakistan team threw a party and invited the Indian players, they all came over and we filmed it.

I didn’t realise until after and we did some interviews with some of the players, just how monumental it was, some said it was one of the most special moments in their lives, to celebrate peacefully with members of the other country, when all they knew was hatred and war.

Now they have the first-hand experience of them being able to hang out with people from that other country and get along and we have some great footage of them saying some really nice things. One of the guys from Pakistan told me they could get in trouble for doing that, he said it might’ve been a problem but he didn’t care because he wanted to get the message out that guys from India are good guys.

We just need to get the documentary in front of as many eye balls as possible. It’s clear they have passion and heart. What you see on our page is only about 5% of the footage, we visited villages and slums. We went to a village outside of Delhi where a guy built his own football field, he got his villagers together, and they cleared out a field and flattened it, and used it as a football field in the middle of nowhere.

The Pakistan Wolfpack run out of the tunnel

At Double Coverage we have heard stories about American footballers in China, the Philippines,  and there is a long standing league present in Japan. Do you see a future for the league in Asia as a whole?

The EFLI is expanding, maybe not the next season, but it’s looking to become the NFL For the rest of the world, one of the next teams to enter will be a Beijing team and possibly a shanghai team. Also teams from Bangladesh, Thailand. And on a wider scale Africa is another area they are looking into. The idea of the league is to help under privileged athletes, guys who can play sports, but have no way of actually providing using it.

If anyone wanted to get involved with the league, playing or coaching are there opportunities to do so?
At the moment they want to try and keep all the players as local players, making sure the money is going to them and allowing them to improve. However, most teams would be open to coaches coming over to help, it’s just a case of getting in contact with the teams and seeing where you could work with them.

Mumbai Gladiators players listening to their coach

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