Flag Football: The Next Big Growth Sector
1 Nov, 2021By: Garland Cooper
One of the fastest-rising sports of our time is flag football. The NAIA has established it as an Emerging Sport for women and has partnered with the NFL to offer start-up stipends to qualifying programs at the collegiate level.
NFL FLAG is the official flag football league of the NFL and the largest flag football organization in the U.S. With more than 1,600 teams serving over 500,000 youth athletes in all 50 states, the program is helping the sport continue its meteoric rise. But numbers only tell so much. Here are some key insights into the league, the sport and the work behind the growth. Full information can be found at the website, nflflag.com.
We have had a few new initiatives come up within NFL FLAG pertaining to encouraging more girls in the game. We have begun working closely as an organization with the NFL and NIKE to help more states sanction high school girls’ flag football as a varsity sport. Our team has been part of the movement, and has helped run several events for officials, coaches and athletes, to get all groups acclimated with the game, on the road to becoming a sanctioned sport. We have worked directly with several of the NFL clubs, many of whom have also been working hard to bring girls’ flag football to their home states.
Along the same lines, back in May we ran the inaugural NAIA Flag Finals in Atlanta alongside the Falcons and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The 2021 season marked the first-ever collegiate women’s flag football season, and our team assisted the NAIA in running their Championship event. The event featured 10 collegiate women’s flag football teams, all vying for the chance to be named the first-ever NAIA Flag Football Champion.
Lastly, on October 2, we hosted the first NFL FLAG Tournament held outside of the USA. We worked alongside NFL Canada to host a 12U tournament in Toronto for what we hope will be the first of many opportunities across the border.
We are happy to say that as of October 1 we have operated 8 NFL FLAG Tournaments and have had over 5,200 participants. After running less than half of our tournaments for the year, we have already had more teams come through the NFL FLAG Tournament Series than ever before.
Now, our team is preparing for our fall events, which consist of 11 additional NFL FLAG Tournaments. After the New Year, our team will focus on bringing to life our championship events – the NFL FLAG Bowl (held the weekend prior to the Super Bowl) and the NFL FLAG Championships at Pro Bowl Presented by Subway – to close out the season.
The Significance of 2021
I’m not sure if there’s a documented, living history of flag football – BUT I can tell you that this year is the 25-year anniversary of NFL FLAG. There are currently 500,000 participants, and our team at RCX Sports just got the reins to oversee NFL FLAG in January of 2020.
The NFL FLAG Tournament Series, Explained
In 2021, we have put together two separate tournament series, totaling 22 events. Our NFL FLAG Regional Tournament Series presented by Subway began the first weekend of May and consists of 12 regional tournaments whose winners qualify for the NFL FLAG Championship at Pro Bowl presented by Subway. Our other series is called NFL FLAG Open, and there are eight Open tournaments that we run, and eight sanctioned tournaments run by third party operators – all of those events are qualifiers for our NFL FLAG Bowl, run alongside the Super Bowl.
Our events began in May, and run all the way through December, with both championships in February of 2022. After getting shut down in 2020, we are hitting the ground running with the largest and most inclusive tournament series in the history of NFL FLAG.
Each of the tournaments will have anywhere from 40-120 teams, and the finals will each have over 100 teams in attendance.
The NFL FLAG Season
The great thing about NFL FLAG is that it doesn’t have a season; it is played year-round. The spring and fall are the biggest seasons, per se, but there are flag football leagues playing throughout the year. The tournament series was once limited to the fall, but this year we have expanded it to account for the leagues that play all year, and give those kids an opportunity to participate.
Our tournaments feature multiple age groups from 8U to 17U and we have both boys’ and girls’ divisions. This year we will have as many as four divisions exclusively for female participants.
Growing the Game
When we started planning this tournament series in early 2020, and what we wanted it to be like, we knew we wanted to make it more inclusive. This year, we are offering new girls’ divisions and recreational divisions to make our tournament more accessible for all flag football players.
The recreational divisions are exclusively for athletes who play NFL FLAG football through the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, church, Jewish Community Center and Parks and Recreation leagues. In the past, our tournaments have been very competitive with the greatest talent in the sport. We still want to provide a competitive atmosphere and a place for those elite athletes, but also give athletes who play the sport recreationally an equal opportunity to experience NFL FLAG tournaments, compete and earn a coveted trip to the championships at the Pro Bowl.
As mentioned previously, increasing girls’ participation has been a huge focus of ours as well. In addition to our work at the collegiate and high school levels, we have created a group of women influencers in the sport, our Females in FLAG Ambassadors, who help guide us and consult with us to bring more girls and women into the space.
As part of the movement, this year, we have expanded our tournament field and are proud to feature four divisions within our tournaments exclusively for girls. We also have run events for girls, and plan to incorporate more experiences throughout the year, and within our events, to create an atmosphere for competition, growth and acceptance for our #femalesinflag.
Awareness of the Sport is Growing
This is a key initiative for the NFL in the youth space, and other factors like the NAIA adopting it as a collegiate sport for women, for example, encourage more athletes to play. It is also something that the NFL Clubs themselves support in their markets, which increases visibility for the sport as well.
Our goal since we took over the program in January of 2020 has been to make NFL FLAG a brand, and build awareness throughout the communities through social media, experiences, league play, etc. We continue to focus on spreading awareness of the sport.
Site Selection for Competitive Events
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing our locations. For some of our events, we host them alongside NFL Clubs, so we choose venues in their markets. It can often be challenging, because with so many teams, we need a lot of fields in one location. We also tend to gravitate toward areas where we have a lot of support from the local community and businesses. We don’t currently have a formal bid process, but anyone interested in hosting can reach out to me directly via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I would be happy to discuss.
Inclusion Drives Participation
Our key goals with our NFL FLAG Tournament series are to provide an inclusive environment for all flag football athletes to compete and to provide memorable experiences for participants. In doing this, we believe we will increase participation and awareness in the sport. SDM