Read how Sunday Zeller's Elite Football League of India Aspires to Help the Forgotten Children of the World
Every two years, the world collectively celebrates when The Olympics become the focus for a few weeks. But, it's not just the fanfare around the "thrill of victory and the agony of the defeat". As we know, it symbolizes something much greater. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern day Olympics, fashioned the interlocking rings, blue, yellow, black, green, and red on a white field, to represent all nations without exception. Its meaning transcends sport to signify something bigger in the world - something that bonds us, ties us all together.
Similar ideals went into the creation of the Elite Football League of India, the subcontinent's first professional American football league. It was founded by American entrepreneur Sunday Zeller and is backed by the Indian government as well as the Sports Authority of India. Play began one year ago, in September 2012, with eight teams in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
When you come to understand the impetus behind its creation, the humanity of it, the EFLI comes to represent something much more than "America! Let's take over the world!" At its heart, it's Los Angeles-based Zeller's desire, as she says, to not let the children of third world countries be forgotten.
Outwardly, the league has grown by leaps and bounds, attracting well-known entrepreneurs and media heavies to its fold. For example, Kenin Spivak, chairman and CEO of the SMI Group, advises EFLI's board of directors and co-CEO Richard Whelan on strategy. Former FOX Sports president and vice chairman Ed Goren serves as director of strategic alliances as a board member. Former NFL footballer Kurt Warner and his wife Brenda, invested in the league and actively participate in philanthropic efforts associated with it. Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg is also a backer of the league and actively supports the EFLI.
It's been a very inward journey - a journey that began in Africa, not India. Zeller was taking part in a women's empowerment program in Nairobi for a few weeks in the mid-90s. It's an emotional recollection as Zeller describes her involvement in the program. "Everyone was aware that the AIDS epidemic in Africa is so widespread - there are thousands and thousands of children left not only parentless but also without birth certificates and they are basically unrecognized in the world," she says. "They are nameless, they don't know their age; it's just a very sad and devastating situation."
After losing both parents to the AIDS virus, many children are left homeless, Zeller explains. The community/other families "adopt" these children, caring for them and meeting their basic needs. "It is a beautiful acceptance of responsibility to the human condition that the children are not left to be on their own," she says. "In fact, it's a lesson to be considered as we walk past the homeless in our own communities, passing judgment rather than offering a hand or kind word."
During the empowerment training, the concept of a "mothering center" was presented to Zeller. "I promised to do what I could to help fund this project. The powerful women of the community wanted to create a place where they could establish businesses - craft making, sewing, clothing/goods manufacturing and the like - where they could bring their children to be cared for while they worked. The care taking would be rotated in order that all women would have the opportunity to make a living and still have their children provided and cared for."
Against the backdrop of the harsh realities of extreme poverty, and despite a marked lack in what the Western world deems "creature comforts", Zeller also describes being among the most joyous people she had ever encountered. She recalls that during breaks in the seminars, people would gather together and start dancing. "I thought to myself: am I teaching something or am I learning something?" she questioned. "I really wanted to discover what the origin of this joy was, this pure joy out of the most devastated area in the world."
That led her to further her work, this time involving a film crew in an attempt to share the experience. Oddly, one of the first things she noticed was a group of young boys who were rummaging through garbage, gathering some of it together and twining it up, forming a soccer ball. "It's almost in their DNA or genetic code - these boys - to manufacture a ball," says Zeller. "They were kicking it and throwing it and I thought that was really very interesting. Females don't have that. But, it's almost inherent in the male psyche to play ball."
Zeller was struck as she interviewed the women and prostitutes of the squalid slums; the grim surroundings touched her emotions, at times overwhelming them. As she descended down dark tunnels and into homes where she was invited, she found she needed a flashlight to see. She recollects one tiny room in which, when she turned her flashlight on, the walls were lined with children.
Images of teens strung out on drugs stuck with her as she spoke with the smaller children, asking them about their dreams. "Like your kids or my kids, they answered, 'I want to be a pilot' or a photographer or a nurse.... At that moment, I realized...there's absolutely no hope for them."
From that point, Zeller was determined to do something for them. Initially, she started gathering her own money and sending it to families, thinking "it wasn't impactful, but I just thought, for the time being, it's something."
Later that year, she traveled to India for business with Whelan. Her business partner for more than 20 years, she points to Whelan's entrepreneurial spirit mixed with ambition and business-mindedness. Both thought India was rife with opportunities. While they were driving through the countryside from Chennai to Mumbai, Zeller still had Africa in the back of her mind. She thought of one thing both places shared, no matter the reason that has taken you there, there is something that affects you.
At this juncture of our interview, she says something quite curious and unexpected that reveals one of the reasons for EFLI's creation, "There's an energy there," Zeller underscores. "While it's so peaceful and calming, it's very feminine. In other words, there is not a whole lot of masculine influence in terms of their heroes." Zeller says that studies have always taken precedence over sport in the country.
What This Country Needs is Football
We talk a bit more about this, hitting upon EFLI's impact. When I ask her why American football, she reflects on that same trip through Mumbai and how, while driving in a field surrounded by mountains, Rich was talking about ideas of what they could do in the country and she suddenly noticed that the surroundings resembled a football field. "So, I said: this is what this country needs. It's incredible, they need football," says Zeller. They started to ask the driver and others how well-known the sport was in the country. The general gist was excitement at the prospect of it coming into India.
When the wheels started turning and discussions ensued, it struck Zeller that bringing the US's most profitable sports entertainment into India - and beyond to other countries like Bangladesh, China and even on the African continent, "I thought this could make a monumental change and ultimately result in all of these third world countries that we could absolutely bring out the of the slums," she says, adding: "We could have a philanthropic arm that could substantially change the face of the planet - not just as an outreach program." That vision is becoming more of a widespread reality this year. Earlier this month, the EFLI announced it had added university football on Indian television. The EFLI stated that more than 5,000 colleges have agreed to play football through their corresponding universities. Further, early in 2012, EFLI began handing out an all-athletic scholarship to the most valuable player of a nine college American Football Exhibition Game in Mumbai, seeing some of the college players transitioning to the professional league.
It's come on the heels of an all-encompassing campaign on the college level as part of its grassroots effort to create awareness of football. The college teams began practicing this summer, riding into the year with their seasons taking place in the Fall. The professional teams will start immediately after that.
EFLI has been building teams across the subcontinent. All teams are owned and supported by the league with the exception of the Hyderabad SkyKings the first team to be acquired and purchased by an individual, Dr. Ven Movva. The other teams are considered and offered for bidding to an appropriate investor/owner. EFLI has been approached by many and varied sponsors and investors, but Zeller makes it clear that they are seeking to bring those investors on board who share the same philanthropic vision that was the genesis for the league.
There are many teams in place and ready to be formed in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, Africa and the Middle East, places where there is high participant interest in the league. "The league will continue to grow and encompass a greater number of teams and geographical areas in order to touch economies throughout the third world, offering opportunity and a philanthropic outreach in areas where we are able," says Zeller. She points out that when all is said and done, EFLI will cease to be called as such, and will be known simply as The Elite Football League in the future.
Challenges, of course, remain. Cutting through the red tape in the Indian government has been an interesting one. Zeller points out that it's difficult for any company to cross the barriers to entry into India. "This is a huge credit to Rich," she notes, highlighting: "they love the EFLI. They understand that you have to have the right balance. We support the Indian youth programs, we support the Indian government, we share in the upside and we share in the profits. We believe that unity pays. We are not here to cut anybody out or to make a quick dollar. If the economy goes well, the EFLI does well."
Here is where that sense of what The Olympics stands for resonates: EFLI's mission that "unity pays". In fact, when I ask Zeller what's been most rewarding thus far, part of her answer focuses on the start of filming during the first season in Sri Lanka in summer 2012. During a game between Pakistan and India, the two teams locked arms on the football field. "They celebrated the Pakistani Independence Day together, which was something unheard of and never before experienced...It was almost bone chilling to stand in the stadium and witness this," she says. "Let's just say that if the EFLI doesn't make it - just to be there and experience and witness that made my life worthwhile."
Much of the rest of her answer circles around EFLI's intent and ability to transform lives. The official website houses videos sharing personal stories of lives already changed. For example, Amit "Happy" Lochab, captain of Delhi Defenders, shares his story about what this life-changing experience means to him. Amit actually led his team to build the football field in an empty field. Preetesh, offensive linesman for the Mumbai Gladiators, who participated in sumo wrestling and weight lifting competitions prior, discusses the actual gladiatorship it takes to play the game. Zeller shares one of her favorite player stories: "We found him working in a dark room in a Marriott Hotel," Zeller recalls. "He's probably six feet and five inches tall, but he looked like he weighed 100 lbs. Now he's a player," she adds, pride in her voice.
Immediate goals, including the remainder for 2013 involve "growing as much as we are afforded to grow," says Zeller. EFLI wants to ensure that its investors and players alike are protected and that they are insured. But, American football still has to take hold in the country, so continuing to create awareness is critical. Implementing the college season is a key part of that, with the hope that the professional teams will then be well-received.
Zeller is aware that it's a gargantuan undertaking that's never been done. But, like de Coubertin's vision, its aspirations have greater meaning. For her, being a commercial success is the by-product. It's the aim to give someone a chance in life that drives her. "We have started to impact lives with our players, their parents and families, their communities. We have brought players from the slums - and employed players from the slums. So we are giving hope to so many people. Every day there is a new reason to grateful. It's never-ending," says Zeller.