Watch out, pickleball: Flag football is moving the chains toward becoming America’s fastest-growing sport.
There’s no great mystery behind the massive popularity surge. Previously, half the population was left out of the football craze. But increased avenues for girls to play flag football competitively as teenagers, college students, and adults has resonated to the tune of 40% increased participation in both travel and high school teams.
“We’d been the only sport that really hasn’t had girls and up to women play,” said USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck during an interview on the NFL Network. “Now, they are coming out in droves.”
The drive toward this moment began slowly. NFL FLAG, the pro league’s flag football operation, is more than a quarter-century old. For most of that time, enormous popularity for tackle football, particularly in the NFL and college ranks, played pass interference on this other version of the game.
In 2019, the NFL turned to one of its own to capture flag football’s potential. Izell Reese, who played safety for the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, and Denver Broncos before taking an active role in youth sports development, was tasked with “reimagining flag football,” as he puts it. His knowledge of the game and connections within the sports community made him the perfect quarterback for the mission.
Reese, who is president and CEO of RCX Sports, as well as executive director of NFL Flag, made the game-changing decision to target girls and women. Partnerships with USA Football, the National Federation of State High School Associations, NAIA, the NCAA, and more have provided tangible progress. NAIA kicked off a women’s flag football season in spring 2021 and talks continue with the NCAA, which has a more laborious set of regulations to navigate.
Several recent events have added additional spotlight on flag football’s growth:
- The World Games, a premier event for non-Olympic sports, adopted the sport for the 2022 edition in Birmingham, Alabama. The U.S. men won gold and women took the silver after falling to Mexico.
- The reimagined Pro Bowl Games made a flag football game the centerpiece of the all-star celebration.
- Flag football sensation Diana Flores, Mexico Women's National Flag Football team quarterback and AFC offensive coordinator at the Pro Bowl Games, starred in an NFL-backed commercial during the Super Bowl.
- The International Federation of American Football awarded Lahti, Finland, the next edition of the Flag Football World Championships in 2024.
The momentum led to 585,000 athletes participating in NFL Flag in 2022, according to RCX Sports, which reported the increased percentage of girls playing.
Could this be a prelude to flag football’s debut in the Summer Games as early as 2028 in Los Angeles? All sides are hopeful. The fact there’s such talk is a sign of just how far the game has come in a few short years.
Here, we look at some of the reasons flag football is blitzing ahead.
Beth Porreca, senior director of development at USA Football, tackles the sport from the planner’s perspective. It’s simply easier to put on a large-scale flag football championship than other sports that also use rectangular fields. “Some of the soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey tournaments are getting so big now that there's only select venues across the country that can host them,” says Porreca. “Flag football, because it has a smaller footprint, can fit into more of your midsize markets.”
While flag football is hardly a new sport—Webster’s Dictionary recognized it way back when in 1954—its newfound popularity has benefits. International rules dictate 5 vs. 5 games, but the demand to play is producing 7 vs. 7 and even 9 vs. 9 leagues. While the Summer Games would have to be 5-on-5, no one is concerned about the different versions being played. “They can coexist,” says Reese. “None of the formats are going away.” That said, Hallenbeck acknowledges the need to create standardized rules that can be implemented across the board.
One reason Reese was confident women’s flag football would succeed is that there was a ready-made case study. Girls flag football has been a high school varsity sport played by between 8,000 and 10,000 young women for years. Neighboring Georgia is also far along the path. More than half of the members within the Georgia High School Association are fielding a team, a trend that the NFHS reports is national. “Interest in flag football is rising exponentially across the country and we couldn’t be happier,” says NFHS CEO Dr. Karissa Niehoff. “The number of high school state associations adopting it as a sanctioned sport continues to increase, and even more of them are engaging in pilot study discussions that will hopefully lead them to one day join the fold.”
Accessibility and Availability
In an era with such focus on inclusion efforts, the timing of this push could not be better. USA Football has a strong football in the field with its Football for All initiative. The NGB promotes opportunities for children—and parents—to find the version of the sport they like best. Families can transition into tackle after starting in non- or low-contact leagues, or stick to flag throughout to limit the injury risk. Of the estimated 3.6 million people playing football, 1.4 million play non-contact football, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Not only have the different games added new options, but they have also improved football’s image when it comes to health and safety. USA Football conducted a survey that found 90% of respondents feel like coaches are better informed about safety, and 84% of stakeholders say the NGB’s football development model has the sport headed in the right direction.
Relatedly, flag football has affordability going in its favor. Participants don’t need to buy helmets, pads, cleats, and other expensive equipment. Like pickup basketball, you just need a ball to toss around—plus some Velcro straps.
Also, the lack of heavy equipment opens summer months that would be too hot for tackle football. As a case in point, The One Flag Championships, a premier USA Football event featuring tournaments for teens and adults, is scheduled for July 7-9 at the United States Performance Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Flag football is also offered by parks and recreation leagues in fall, winter, and spring seasons, allowing kids to play multiple seasons or participate in other sports, too.
Reese adds the inclusion fits into RCX's mission statement: “RCX Sports lives out its mission of improving the accessibility and inclusivity of sports by hosting NFL FLAG Regional Tournaments which also include brackets for girls and recreational athletes. We want to strive to create a competitive and inclusive atmosphere for every athlete level.”
Porreca points out the surge in women’s participation is seen as part of a larger trend toward gender equality. The WNBA receives significant mainstream media attention, as does the women’s Final Four. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team won equal pay with the men’s team and is always among the top international teams. Such movement is spilling over elsewhere, she says. “I think we have seen a lot of just promotion of women's sports in general. You have all these unique media entities that are now starting to cover just women’s sports. You are seeing more and more women playing football; you are seeing more women playing cricket; you are seeing women playing rugby.”
The Trojan Horse
Having the support of the NFL has been the “Trojan horse” to break through with the different entities Reese works with. Throw in the Pro Bowl Games and it’s clear the professional league isn’t threatened by the different version of its sport. After all, more people interested in football will add to the NFL’s audience base and provide additional revenue for sponsors. “There is a humongous opportunity for the game and they see it,” observes Porreca about the NFL.
More to Come
Among the most alluring factors of flag football’s rise is the general sense this is just the beginning. The Summer Games push is on and would be a boon to the sport internationally, Reese and Porreca agree. Meanwhile, Reese is hopeful for a breakthrough with the NCAA for girl’s flag football to be a championship sport in the next year. Down the road, there could be a professional or semi-pro league, as well as more opportunities for boys who prefer flag football to tackle football. The key, Reese says, is to take it one step at a time. “We have to finish this story for women—it’s too vitally important. We have to check the boxes already in front of us.”
Photos courtesy of RCX Sports