But some say it’s time to raise the flag for a different game – literally.
Flag football, a no-tackle version of American football, is quickly gaining ground among participants and could become a legitimate spectator sport in the years to come. Consider the recent announcement that flag football will make its debut at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, joining other sports like squash, cricket, lacrosse, softball and baseball in making their first appearance or return to this premier international sporting event.
News of the Olympics is the culmination of a years-long effort to make the sport a serious contender, an effort that has been heavily supported by the tackling-focused National Football League as well as a host of other businesses and organizations.
And it’s an initiative that involves large sums of money – and a lot of heady optimism.
“Flag football is a movement,” says Jeff Lewis, founder of the American Flag Football League, a professional platform expected to debut next year. Lewis told Deadline that tens of millions of dollars were spent creating the AFFL, although he declined to provide a specific figure.
Some 7.1 million Americans played flag football in 2022, according to a study by the Sports & Industry Fitness Association, an 8.4% increase from five years earlier. Attendees spanned almost every group and demographic: men and women, college and high school graduates, East and West Coast residents.
The game is proving particularly popular with young women, say representatives of USA Football, the governing body of tackle and flag football in the United States and the organization behind the men’s and women’s national teams. participating in the 2028 Olympic Games.
USA Football notes that women’s flag football is now recognized as a varsity sport in eight states, and others are offering pilot programs. Additionally, there is a national women’s flag football championship at the collegiate level.
And flag football is about to go professional. The AFFL will launch in 2024 with a men’s division, with teams in Boston, Dallas, Las Vegas and Nashville, according to Lewis. A women’s division will follow in 2025.
Lewis, a seasoned financial professional, said the franchise fee is $3 million. He is particularly optimistic about the prospects of the women’s league, believing that flag football will become the largest women’s sport, in terms of revenue, over the next decade.
In other words, bigger than the WNBA, which already brings in at least $180 million in revenue.
“Flag football is a movement.”
— Jeff Lewis, founder of the American Flag Football League
Meanwhile, the NFL’s commitment to the flag focuses on the youth aspect, particularly the NFL Flag program, which encompasses more than 2,000 youth leagues involving more than 700,000 boys and girls aged 5 at 17 years old. (There are also flag leagues run independently of the NFL.)
The NFL hasn’t completely ignored the professional side, either: The league turned the Pro Bowl — its version of an All-Star Game — into a flag football event this year. The idea was to address the fact that players in previous Pro Bowls were concerned about risking injury by participating in what is essentially an exhibition contest. The move to the no-tackle format solved the problem and didn’t seem to take away the enthusiasm, at least according to league officials.
“I don’t see us going back there [to tackle] in any way,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said of the Pro Bowl flag format after this year’s game.
Indeed, the safety factor is key to flag football’s growing popularity, particularly in an era of growing awareness of the risk of injuries, particularly concussions, in tackling football. Participation in high school sports, for example, is down 12.2% from its peak in 2008-09.
Courtesy of Jennifer Lea Cohan
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and a sports business expert, goes so far as to say that promoting the flag is “a fallback strategy” for the NFL. What he means is that if contact football suffers a much greater drop in popularity or is perhaps even banned, the league has another version of the game ready to be presented.
But more likely, Zimbalist and others say the NFL sees promoting the flag as a fun way to introduce people to football in general, with the idea that it will hopefully get them to watch the version of professional tackle that the league embodies.
This could be crucial with the women, since they are a group that has played a key role in the league’s growth plans. Of course, Taylor Swift’s sudden interest in gaming, due to her budding relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, hasn’t hurt the development of a female fan base either.
““It’s way more fun to watch than a pickleball game.” »
According to its supporters, flag football has other factors in its favor. On the participant side, it is a relatively inexpensive game as it requires very little equipment – unlike tackle football, there is no reason to use protective gear.
“You just need a ball,” says Danette Leighton, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Well, you need flags too. And if you want proof that flag football is growing in popularity, just talk to David Berg, founder of Shruumz, an Austin, Texas, company that specializes in flag football equipment. He says sales have increased by at least 50% annually since his company launched in 2019.
Berg adds that while the level of play can be very competitive in the upper echelons of the sport, the appeal of flag football is that it can be enjoyed by all kinds of people, at all levels.
“There are fathers who play with their tennis shoes on,” Berg says.
In terms of viewer potential, especially when it comes to television networks or streaming platforms, some say the best thing working in Flag’s favor is that there is simply a need for more product to fill all the niches available to these media. Think about how the game of backyard cornhole even found its way onto television.
“There is a window for niche sports that never existed before,” Zimbalist says.
Pickleball also makes a game for spectators. There is a professional pickleball league and plenty of pickleball to watch at home. But flag football fans say their game makes for better viewing, given that it’s not too different from the NFL tackle football that is an American obsession.
Yet the very fact that flag football isn’t a tackle could ultimately get in the way, some say. Even enthusiasts admit it.
Take Odessa “OJ” Jenkins, founder of the National Women’s Soccer Conference, a professional women’s tackle league that is also developing a flag football league. Like others, Jenkins sees the flag as a “pipeline” for people to develop this basic awareness of football. But nothing can compete with the intensely physical version of the sport that is tackling.
“Contact football is the queen and king” of the game, she said.
But for Princeton, New Jersey resident Jennifer Lea Cohan, the flag remains the version of the sport that her 13-year-old daughter, Milla Petrecca, enjoys. As a mother, Cohan says she likes that the game poses less risk of injury. Meanwhile, her daughter just likes the competitive aspect.
The only problem? Milla’s team isn’t exactly the stars of its league. “They’re struggling a little bit,” Cohan concedes.
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