Flag Football Is a Safer, More Inclusive Pipeline for the NFL. Can It Be More?
Why this matters
The NFL has invested in flag football in the United States as the sport has blossomed internationally. It is more popular than traditional American football among women athletes and foreigners, but can it succeed as a standalone endeavor?
After watching Super Bowl LVI in 2022, 8-year-old Joseph Lopez told his father, Jorge, that he wanted to play football. Joseph’s parents thought it was a great idea, but they weren’t thinking about throwing young Joe into tackle football.
The Lopezes researched football programs in Brooklyn and found one tackle football league as well as Bed Stuy Sports, a flag football league. For the parents, the choice was easy.
“Just knowing all the injuries that happen in tackle, it’s like, ‘All right, let’s just kind of start him off with flag,’” Jorge Lopez said. “I don’t think it was ever an intent to even get him into tackle. It was, like, ‘All right, he showed interest in the sport. Let’s get him into flag football.’”
Flag football is believed to have originated during World War II as a way for military personnel to play a safer version of tackle football. In the decades that followed, it developed into a niche sport that, while popular among those familiar with it, never thrived as a robust, well-organized, and competitive alternative or companion to American tackle football.
Today, Troy Vincent, the former Nation Football League All-Pro cornerback and current NFL executive VP of football operations, is bullish on the sport. “The future of football is flag,” Vincent told me. “Not meaning professional football,” he clarified. “But, all indicators suggest and data supports that flag football is the future of football.”
The NFL has recently taken a leadership role in developing flag as a way to maintain interest in American football in general.
The growth of flag football in recent years has been impressive. Flag football is played by more than 20 million people in more than 100 countries, according to the NFL. Since 2015, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing flag football in the U.S. has increased by 38 percent. In 2022, 584,596 boys and girls participated in NFL Flag, the youth flag league sponsored by the NFL, which was a 40% increase from the previous year. Youth participation is now greater in flag football than in tackle football.
Girls are driving the growth. In the U.S., half a million girls ages 6 to 17 play some form of organized flag football. Currently, seven states (including New York and California) have sanctioned high school girls flag football. Vincent said he believes that within two years, all 50 states will have sanctioned the sport in high school.
Flag football is being played at the college level as well. Eighteen schools in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) are playing and recruiting women to play flag football, with another seven schools adding the sport for the 2023-24 season. Next up is the NCAA, which the NFL is also pushing to sanction flag football. “We’re moving now into college where young ladies are earning scholarships to play flag football,” Vincent said.
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At the international level, flag football is on pace to overtake tackle football in terms of international organized participation opportunities, according to the NFL. In Japan, half-a-million children per grade have a chance to play flag football every year. In Mexico, there were 100,000 new flag football players in 2021 alone. In China, 200,000 play flag in schools.
International competition has grown quickly as well. National team participation in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Flag Football Championships grew by 61% in the men’s competition and 73% in the women’s competition from 2017 to 2021. In 2022, flag football made its first appearance in the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mexico beat the U.S. to win the gold medal in the women’s competition.
The NFL’s and the IFAF’s focus now is to get flag football into the Olympic Games. Flag football is among nine sports that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is considering for inclusion at the Los Angeles 2028 Games. The IOC’s final decision is expected before the end of 2023.
The NFL’s sponsorship and promotion is one of the biggest reasons for flag football’s recent boom. NFL Flag has increased access to and awareness of the sport.
“We start at the youth level,” Vincent said. “From parks and rec, elementary [schools], the scholastic piece.”
Vincent points to NFL Flag’s partnership with GENYOUth, a national nonprofit youth wellness organization.
In the past decade, GENYOUth has provided flag equipment to almost 15 million U.S. students and 28,000 schools, Vincent said, “so, this is not happening if we’re not partnering in the school system.”
Another integral partner for the NFL and its flag football initiative is RCX Sports, founded by former NFL safety Izell Reese, who was Vincent’s teammate on the Buffalo Bills. In 2019, Reese’s company was tasked with overseeing NFL Flag, and Reese subsequently initiated the NFL’s push to globalize the sport via the World Games and the Olympics.
“Flag football has kind of been this organic thing,” Reese said. “But now it’s like how do we lock arms and bring this flag football community together? And who better to lead that charge than the NFL? So, now we’re looking at intramural, adult, military, global growth and youth playing.”
Flag football has not been a tough sell.
Football is extremely popular for reasons beyond the physical and sometimes violent nature of the tackle version of the sport. The combination of running, chasing, catching, throwing, and strategy involved in the game is attractive in its own right. Taking tackling and heavy equipment out not only decreases the fear of injury but also turns the game into a faster, more inclusive sport.
“There’s catching passes, backpedaling, running routes,” Reese said. “You’ve taken tackle out of the equation, and it’s opened up more doors of continuous play.”
“With flag [as opposed to tackle], it’s 100 miles per hour,” Vincent added. “It’s all fun; it’s strategic; it’s fast; it’s quick. It’s a transferrable sport. If you grew up with soccer, lacrosse, baseball, basketball, and you’ve developed any type of hand-eye coordination, [flag football]’s a smooth transition.”
Flag football is also cheaper than tackle, and the NFL has made it easier for league directors and organizers to form and fill out leagues.
“[The NFL] makes our league possible by making it cost effective as an operator,” said Dan Flores, director of Bed Stuy Sports. “So, they’ve lowered the barrier for operators to pop up. They give you support and give you training. It’s all pretty much free. I can’t get jerseys cheaper from private vendors than I can from NFL Flag.”
The growing popularity of flag football is no doubt tied to an increasingly better understanding of the potential for serious injury in tackle football. Head injuries – in particular, the potential for resultant chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – have caused parents to think twice about letting their children play tackle football, particularly at a young age.
The Concussion Legacy Foundation recommends children delay playing tackle football until age 14. Since 2016, tackle football participation rates for children ages 6 through 12 has decreased by 29%, and even high school tackle football participation has decreased 12.2% since 2008. Flag football has been embraced as a safer way for players to enjoy the game of football in the short and long term.
Lopez believes flag football can be a safe way for youth athletes to learn the basics of football before transitioning to tackle.
“I think it’s a place where you can learn the fundamentals, for sure,” he said. “Even talking to some of the other parents [at Bed Stuy Sports Flag Football], it’s like all the kids that play flag want to transition into tackle football.”
Reese believes flag football is a gateway to tackle football, among other things.
“[Flag]’s complementary. It creates a feeder into tackle, it also creates another variation of the sport, and you may never play tackle and that’s great, too. So, it’s just expanding the game of football.”
Whether the NFL is motivated to invest solely by seeing flag as a potential pipeline for tackle remains to be seen. Did the NFL focus on flag football only when youth participation in tackle went down as pundits, parents, and fans wondered about the future of mainstream tackle football? Vincent disputes that narrative.
“I disagree with it,” he said. “And the reason why I disagree is because we don’t need it to find those 2,000 [NFL players] every year. God made them special.
“We don’t need [flag] for that. God created them before the foundation of the earth; they’re always gonna be here. Those guys at Ohio State or Clemson – that’s a completely separate audience. This right here, frankly, is good for America, good for American communities. We need our kids active.”
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Maybe the biggest and most important reason for the flag football boom is the participation of girls and women. Particularly at the youth level, girls can participate on a level field with boys.
“Because the sport has been dominated by men for so long, these opportunities should be presented to women as well,” Vincent said. “I consider myself a contributor, an ambassador to the game, a gatekeeper to the game. I can now have this conversation with any parent, anywhere, any community around the world about their child considering [to play football]. I couldn’t say that before.”
Richard Long Jr. – who has 10-year-old twins, Richard Long III and Faith Long, who play flag football with Bed Stuy Sports – said he loves the opportunity flag has given his children, particularly Faith, who was the MVP during the 2022 fall session.
“They love it,” he said. As for tackle football moving forward, “Faith, of course, she would want to follow her brother. But with her, with the tackle, I would be kind of cautious with that.”
Although flag might be seen as the answer for girls and women who want to play football at the highest levels, tackle football remains an option for women as well, and flag could play a feeder role to tackle, just as it can for boys.
Adrienne Smith is a five-time champion wide receiver for the Boston Renegades in the tackle football Women’s Football Alliance, a three-time silver medalist for the United States in international flag football competition, and the founder of Gridiron Queendom, an organization with the mission of creating more opportunities in football for women and girls. She says that while flag can be a good introduction to football before a transition to tackle, girls shouldn’t feel that one version of the sport is superior to the other.
“Tackle football is a super fun sport. Girls love playing tackle football, women love playing tackle football and it’s just not going to go anywhere,” Smith said. “Some girls and women prefer to play tackle; some prefer to play flag. They both can exist. [Flag] is absolutely a great way to learn about the game of football, and then those skill sets can easily be translated into tackle.”
Tackle football may be preferable to many girls in at least one regard, according to Smith.
“Tackle football has more body inclusivity, and that’s a very important thing," Smith said. "For instance, when you are a girl 14 years old and you’re 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, your life is difficult. Football is a place where that size is an advantage, where that size is heralded as being something wonderful.”
Flores, who played football in college and in the Arena League and played competitive 11-on-11 flag football for seven years, said he believes there is a world where flag football becomes a viable option for college- and pro-level athletes.
Vincent is on board.
“I see [flag] exploding at the collegiate level,” Vincent said. “We should be looking at women’s flag having its own championship series.”
There’s an audience for it, he said.
“It’s fun. It’s fast. It’s creative. It’s social media friendly,” he said. “With the right venue, high competition, extremely competitive with people from around the world competing against one another? Oh, yeah, there’s an audience for it.”
Indeed. The American Flag Football League (AFFL) aired four games on CBS in 2021, one of which was the inaugural Women’s Division Final that doubled the viewership of the three other men’s division games.
The AFFL has since gone from a semi-pro league to a professional league and plans to resume league play in 2024 with up to six franchises. The 2023 NFL Pro Bowl’s new flag football format drew 6.28 million viewers, which is a positive sign for a potential flag audience.
These positive early returns have Vincent excited about the possibility of Olympic flag football.
“As a football player, that’s the one thing missing from our résumé,” Vincent said. “Every other sport, when you talk about their greatest and finest athletes in the world, the pinnacle for any athlete is being an Olympian.”
Would NFL players be willing to play flag football in the Olympics?
“Hey, man, why not? If you’re talking about the best of the best. It’s got to be that way, just like in other sports,” Vincent said.
With flag football taking off internationally, Olympic competition could be fierce.
Amanda Ruller, assistant football coach at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and former temporary assistant running backs coach for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, has seen flag football take off in Canada just in the past year.
“Coming in last year, [the flag football program] was just getting their feet under the ground, … and the amount of people that have showed up to be part of these teams and especially the women’s university flag football team has been outstanding,” she said.
Ruller, who played tackle football for Team Canada Women’s World Football, said the youth flag football scene is strong in Canada as well. She said attendance for youth flag tournaments in Saskatchewan has nearly tripled in a year.
Whatever the NFL’s motivations, many positives have already come from the growth of flag football.
“[Flag] teaches all of the wonderful things that sports do for children,” Smith said. “Teamwork, leadership skills, knowing when to step up and when to step back. Those are all life lessons that adults use.”
The NFL has absorbed criticism for years over the danger of the sport it oversees. Flag football is not a catch-all solution to these challenges, but the NFL’s investment in flag already has led to significant growth and opportunity to new athletes, fans, and audiences
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