It’s no secret the NFL wants to expand the reach of football internationally. From its efforts to host games in cities like London, Mexico City and Munich, to the interest from international destinations in hosting the Super Bowl, those efforts appear to be paying off.
But the NFL is playing the long game. It has its eye on a far more ambitious goal: the 2028 Summer Olympics, to be played in Los Angeles. And it believes the avenue to get it there lies in flag football.
“Over the next five years, we want to expand NFL flag football,” Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International told reporters at CNBC. Leech says that over the course of the next decade, the NFL projects it will attract 50 million consumers internationally.
The key, he says, is flag football. And so far, it’s working. The game is growing in the U.S. and this summer, it will appear in the World Games in Birmingham. (Hosted at Birmingham's historic Legion Field, Flag Football @TWG2022 Presented by the NFL will feature eight men's teams and eight women's teams from around the world – including both U.S. teams, currently the reigning world champions.
The game is growing within the U.S. as well, thanks largely to NFL FLAG, the league’s flag-specific program. NFL FLAG continues to expand opportunities for youth to explore and compete in the game nationwide.
The Olympics, however, are a whole different ball game, so to speak, and gaining inclusion in 2028 is bound to be challenging – particularly since other sports, such as baseball and softball, will be vying for space. The number of showcase sports to be added is a moving target; whereas in Tokyo, five new sports were showcased; in Paris, only four will be. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a stated aim of limiting the number of athletes at the Summer Games to approximately 10,500. Team sports are more challenging to add, as they bring, obviously, more athletes.
Another hurdle: Even if flag football is included in the 2028 Games, it will be a showcase sport, the way baseball and softball were in Tokyo. There is no guarantee that future Olympics will carry it, as showcase sports are selected by the host city in consultation with the IOC. (It’s why baseball and softball won’t be seen in Paris, for example, but breakdancing will, and why the host of the 2032 Summer Games will be making its own choices as well).
Something flag football does have in its favor is a youthful following in both genders; the NFL FLAG efforts have been incredibly fruitful at the youth level and the game is gaining traction, particularly as concussion awareness rises. The IOC has long been in favor of sports with a strong youth base, as well as those that are contested by both genders. But the IOC has already stated that surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding will be showcase sports in the 2028 Games, and in addition to baseball and softball, the field is getting crowded with other hopefuls as well:
Lacrosse and Cheer– both of whom have North American pedigrees and both of whom are now full members of the IOC. Lacrosse is already included in the World Games, and USA Cheer has a national team that competes in ICU events. Expect a full-court press from both.
Karate: Like baseball and softball, karate was shut out of 2024 – but unlike baseball and softball, its inclusion in 2028 is far from certain. However, the WKF isn’t giving up easily either, and has launched a campaign to try to keep interest in the sport front and center.
Then there were the other sports that were unsuccessfully campaigning for inclusion in the 2024 Games and whose international governing bodies will work to secure placement in 2028:
Squash: Always a bridesmaid and never a bride? Squash has been there, done that. Squash is the bridesmaid in the bubble-gum-pink taffeta dress and the dyed-to-match shoes, clutching her silk bouquet and grinding her teeth while listening to Karen Carpenter warbling “White Lace and Promises” while the bride and groom circle the dance floor. And 2024 was her fourth time as an also-ran, having been rejected for London 2012, Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024.
Flying Disc: This one flew (heh) under the radar – something that might have been part of the problem. Flying disc, which is governed by the World Flying Disc Federation, is contested in multiple formats and disciplines, including Ultimate, Accuracy, Freestyle, Disc Golf, Discathon, Distance, Double Disc Court (DDC) and Self-Caught Flight (SCF). Thanks to college club-level participation in Ultimate and growing disc golf nationwide, there is an awareness of disc sports in the U.S., so it may well have a chance in six years’ time.
Bowling: Bowling also failed to make the cut for Paris but is reportedly gunning for inclusion in Los Angeles.
Teqball: A new sport that looks like a hybrid of soccer, table tennis and volleyball, teqball has stated its intention of campaigning for inclusion in the L.A. Games.
Cricket has announced it will campaign for inclusion in LA28; however, its chances may not be as strong, given the fact that the U.S. has never qualified for a cricket World Cup.
These were just a few of the contenders. And to be fair, the Olympics have almost always attracted proposals from any number of sports. For example, for 2020, the proposals came from baseball and softball, karate, squash, bowling, snooker, sport climbing, surfing, wushu, roller sports, air sports, American football, bowls, bridge, chess, dance sport, floorball, flying disc, korfball, netball, orienteering, polo, racquetball, sumo, tug of war, underwater sports and water skiing. (Let the Googling begin). In fact, only seven IOC-recognized sports did not apply for 2020 inclusion: climbing and mountaineering, motorcycling, motor racing, cricket, basque pelota, lifesaving and powerboating.
Following review, the enormous list of applicants was reduced to eight sports: baseball and softball, bowling, karate, roller sports (which morphed into skateboarding), sport climbing, squash, surfing and wushu. In the final analysis, squash, wushu and bowling failed to make the cut.
The IOC actually recognizes an enormous number of sports federations; however, acceptance by the IOC in no way guarantees a sport placement in the Olympics. (If it did, the Olympics would be much longer, and would include sports like bridge and underwater shooting). Without a doubt, all sports have strong lobbies and all have their fans.
The last time American Football (as it is known on the international level) was in the Games was 1932 when it was a demonstration sport – once and once only.