Sunday Zeller, founder and Chief Operations Officer of the Elite Football League of India, talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about bringing the American sport to South Asia and her desire to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children around the world.
A mission trip to Africa to help raise money for a mothering center and women’s empowerment program changed Sunday Zeller’s life. While visiting the slums of Nairobi, she expected to encounter hopeless people everywhere. Instead, she says, the human spirit prevailed. “The women and children who came out of the slums and took these classes with us were very happy people who danced around joyfully. I thought, how bizarre that I came from the states to teach these people something, thinking I know everything. They were teaching me. They were much happier than people you see on a daily basis here.”
A group of little boys clowning around with a ball manufactured out of garbage also caught her eye. “I thought it was very interesting that these little boys—with no media intervention whatsoever—had the instinct to make a ball to play with. I made a mental note of it.”
Later that year, Zeller flew to India to check on a business that she and her partner outsourced there and she discovered a region ripe for new opportunities. “You could open virtually anything there and it would be successful,” she explains. “As we were driving through Mumbai and trying to determine what would be the best business to set up, I saw something that looked like a stadium and I thought you know what, they need football! We sat there for a minute and wondered if somebody else had thought of the idea. When we did our research and discovered there were no leagues and no American football, my heart started racing and pounding with excitement.”
And thus the Elite Football League of India (EFLI) was born. When the inaugural season kicks off later this year, there will be 10 teams based in various cities across India, one in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and one in Bangladesh.
Opportunist: Do you come from a football background?
Zeller: I have a degree in counseling, which obviously has nothing to do with what I am doing now. [Laughs] I got married very early and my former husband, Rick Whelan, and I have had several businesses together. I was a stockbroker at one point, and Rick and I were in the financial industry, working as venture capitalists and taking companies public. We took the Orlando Predators [Arena Football League team] public, so we have a little bit of experience in football.
Opportunist: Why introduce a rough sport like American football to a country known for its devotion to cricket and badminton?
Zeller: When little Indian boys start playing ball, their parents tell them to put the ball down and learn computers and technology. There is so much masculine energy there that is being suppressed. At first glance, people might think, India doesn’t have any athletes; how are you going to pull this off? But in a country with 1.3 billion people of course there are athletes. What happens when a child isn’t gifted in technology or finance? When they hear there’s an opportunity to be a football player—if they are athletically inclined—we have our pick of the cream of the crop and they are all vying for a place. Hundreds of thousands of hopeful players are willing to try out for the team. They come to us and they are dying for an opportunity to play. Every other sport in India is a club. There are no salaried athletes there either.
Parents are crying with happiness because they cannot believe this opportunity is offered to their kids. The excitement that people feel—not just the players but also the everyday people—in knowing that football is coming to their country is very moving.
Our launch is backed by both the Government of India and the Sports Authority of India.
Opportunist: What makes you so sure football is a good startup business?
Zeller: I have told the story hundreds of times and I still get emotional. This is three years in the making. The financial implication of where this could go is not what drives it, although our investors clearly see the potential. With a population almost four times greater than that of the United States, the potential in India alone is almost unfathomable.
It’s really about keeping a promise I made to myself to help these forgotten kids from third-world countries. The foundation of the league was based on getting these kids out of the slums in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and eventually Africa. Ask anyone associated with the EFLI—coaches, players, medical staff, management and executive team—and they will tell you they are driven by this story. Each of us ascribes to the dogma that we are about changing the world.
Rick Whelan, with whom I have worked most of my life, is a phenomenal friend and businessman as well as the best money raiser and best salesman I've ever seen—he has raised over $20 million in our lifetime. He bought into the idea and is incredibly passionate about it. He is my co-CEO in the business and we have worked on it together as a two-man team from the very beginning. We have added some incredible people and gained momentum to get EFLI where it is today.
Opportunist: It seems your concept has come a long way in three years.
Zeller: I am going to get esoteric with you. There is no way two people—or even 100—could have achieved what we have without some sort of universal blessing. Sure, we have been in the financial world and done deals in the past, but whenever small obstacles arise or we need something big it falls into our lap. It’s almost as though this is destined to become what it is. I feel—as bizarre as it may sound—that there is some sort of divine intervention, if you will. And as for myself, I feel like I am just some sort of tool used for something far greater and far bigger.
Opportunist: Africa certainly left an indelible impression on you. Can you tell us more about your experience there?
Zeller: I decided it might be helpful for me to film what I saw and bring it back [to the states] in an effort to raise money for the mothering center. So I hired a film crew to enter the slums with me. Going through the slums, we saw teenagers who were high on drugs and it was a horror story. We interviewed prostitutes and anyone else we could find. And we were invited into homes. One of the homes was like a small dark rabbit hole with lots of little children inside. The children were hanging on my clothes and so I started asking them questions that I would ask my own or a neighbor’s child, such as “What’s your favorite color?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Opportunist: What did they tell you?
Zeller: Photographer, doctor or whatever else you might expect to hear from any child. They had as much enthusiasm as a child living in normal conditions would. They really dropped the bomb on me. I was overwhelmed with emotion. All I could picture was the teenagers at the front of the slums high on drugs with no hope whatsoever of becoming what their dreams were. They would probably die right there in the slums. As I was leaving, I felt really burdened and asked myself how I could possibly turn my back on these kids and just walk away.
Opportunist: We understand the EFLI plans to establish a grassroots educational project to incorporate the game of football in schools beginning at grade school level. How will this be accomplished?
Zeller: We are reaching out to the community and I believe we have already touched over 100,000 students in India. We are forming intramural teams, and we have visited all the elementary schools and established football in the middle schools. I don’t even know how many colleges we have reached now but there are well over eight beginning in Mumbai. We gave the first-ever athletic scholarship in the history of India. Two players from each team visit two different schools every day. They get out there and introduce themselves and play ball with the students. Players also visit orphanages and donate money. There’s a huge philanthropic arm of the EFLI that we don’t really talk about.
Opportunist: Can you tell us about some of the investors and endorsements the EFLI has received from the professional sports and entertainment industries?
Zeller: We are meeting with so many every day that it’s really hard to say. Actor Mark Wahlberg and former NFL players Ron Jaworsky and Kurt Warner are involved. Kurt is such a wonderful guy whose sole motivation for investing is philanthropic desires.
Opportunist: How and where do you recruit players?
Zeller: We have no need for recruiting. It was an instant hit. They come out of the woodwork. We have training camps for players and coaches and 10,000 people come through—without advertising.
Sri Lanka is the rugby capital of the world. We aligned with the rugby association, assuring them, of course, that we don’t want to take their rugby players. We have great athletes. About 30 days after they received their full uniforms we took the first film of them playing. You can watch a clip on our website.
I would love to make mention of the American coach Doug Plank. He played for the Chicago bears and he is the coach of coaches. All of our American coaches have such passion—in probably the worst of circumstances. They get out in 112 degrees and coach these kids who know nothing about football. They are the real heroes. It’s just incredible. We are blessed. I have to believe that the attraction is much more than a paycheck. A lot of people would not do it for what they are paid. They have the biggest hearts.
Opportunist: What precautions do you take to ensure player safety?
Zeller: We obviously want to protect our players and so we are looking into every health aspect that we can to really make it a superior form of protection for their lives—not just the two, four or six years they play for us. Due to the frequent occurrence of concussions in football, we are researching a new helmet. And we are also trying to develop a new helmet that incorporates a cooling system.
Opportunist: Where do you see the EFLI in the coming years?
Zeller: I hope we are afforded the ability to expand. We will definitely have up to 32 teams in India. We would like to believe that the league will surpass the NFL and become one of the biggest leagues in the world.
I would love to be in Africa in five years for sure. Hundreds of thousands of African children are affected by the AIDS epidemic. So many children there are left without any identity—no birth certificate and no parents. We want to make sure they are not forgotten. We want to serve the children and the people of the world with many jobs and economic resources. The extent that we can help is far reaching.
Opportunist: What has been your greatest reward in founding the EFLI?
Zeller: You know, it’s really fun to see it come along as a company and a business but most touching is when you spend time with the players and you witness their emotions and all the positive changes the EFLI is already making in their lives. It is so rewarding to sit back like a fly on the wall and watch it unfold. Seeing players from Pakistan coming together with players from India, you realize something greater than us exists. Off the field India and Pakistan are enemies with the longest ongoing rivalry in the world. On the field they’re exchanging jerseys and playing a friendly game and patting each other on the back. We are bringing a little bit of peace to a world that is so wrought with hate. That confirms my belief in miracles and intention and that there is truly good in people. It makes it all worthwhile.
Elite Football League of India - www.efli.com
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.