Of all the sports to be presented this fall, few have received the ink football has. From some high schools moving their programs to the spring, to Division I colleges starting later than expected (and even changing their minds about whether to host the sport), to the NFL playing without fans, football has been in the news constantly.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the athletics association for independent small colleges and universities in North America, has seen firsthand the changes in football. It has also been at the forefront of the sport, not only moving championship events to new seasons and announcing those far ahead of NCAA but shepherding the process of creating a varsity women’s flag football program – and getting interest in a big way.
Mike Higgins, the NAIA’s Director of Championships, spent some time filling in SDM on the developments in the sport and his ideas for the future.
Women’s Flag Football
Women’s flag football is an NAIA emerging sport, and we’re the first college organization to offer it. The NAIA has partnered with NFL Flag to advance the program. Discussions began about this in 2020, and we were able to launch the sport in the spring of 2020. To be considered an emerging sport, at least 15 institutions must be participating in the sport. We had that number almost immediately, with an additional 15 to 25 schools making plans to launch their own programs.
Flag football will be a spring sport in NAIA. The women felt very strongly that their sport should be held in a season opposite to that of the men. Therefore, we’re looking at having the inaugural 2021 NAIA Women’s Flag Football Finals held from Thursday, April 29 through Monday, May 3, 2021. In fact, NAIA just offered its first RFP to host that event and we should have a decision on it soon.
We knew in our hearts that schools would embrace this opportunity but it’s growing even more quickly than we’d hoped. Previously, our fastest-growing sport had been women’s wrestling; for that, we added 25 programs in the last four years. The interest in flag football, however, has been even stronger.
It’s almost moving at warp speed. We’d thought we’d have these numbers two years from now.
If we had to say exactly why we’re seeing such growth, it would be because schools are hungry for this opportunity; in fact, many schools in NAIA find that at least a portion of their enrollment is based on the opportunities in athletics for students. Giving women another sport to play is great; flag football isn’t as much of a specialized sport, so it attracts a number of different athletes and if they’re already in a fall sport, it gives them opportunities to play in the spring.
Something we’re also hearing is that the sport is growing on the girls’ side at the high school level. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has had a big push for it, and it has been growing there over the last few years, particularly in certain states, including parts of the Southeast, such as Florida and Georgia, where there is already a very strong high school football culture. I think there will be even more programs, both at the high school level and the college level, in the next five years.
Another reason many schools are interested in implementing flag football is the fact that it is actually a very low-cost sport to implement. It takes uniforms – a minimum of seven – as well as a field and the flags. There aren’t any expensive pieces of equipment and even the facilities are already available. Most of our schools already have a soccer field or a football field, and many have an all-weather field in a stadium. You can alter the field with the striping you need and you’re ready to go. Some of the women’s flag programs are sharing coaches with the men’s football team or having one of the men’s team’s assistant coaches act as their coach.
We’re looking forward to this program and the growth it offers. Our first national finals event will be held over the same weekend as the NFL Draft, and the NFL has even discussed partnering with us and having an annual championship that is held during draft weekend in the same city. That could draw even more interest, so the outlook is really bright for this sport.
Men’s football continues to be one of our strongest sports, with around 15,000 student athletes, and it’s additionally a great growth opportunity for any school. As with women’s flag football, schools look at the fact that when they add a sport, they strengthen their enrollment. I would say at this point, about 40 percent of our schools offer men’s football.
There’s been a lot of talk over the years about what it is that football adds to the school. And while it’s a bigger undertaking to add a men’s tackle football program than it is to add a women’s flag program due in part to the roster size and the equipment needed on the men’s side, there’s no one sport that brings as much to a school. Football is and always has been an enormous part of college life, and the Saturday games are a great way for students to show their school spirit.
On the business side, our NAIA National Football Championship is the event that we put on that receives the most views each year. It is carried on ESPN3 (formerly shown as ESPN360 and ESPN3.com). Someday, we’d like to make it to the main channel – but that is a goal for the future. For now, it’s great to see the numbers and to know how strong the interest is.
For several years, our championship was hosted in Florida in Daytona Stadium on the Saturday before Christmas. Daytona Beach, as our DMO partner, told us it was a great fit because that was a slow time for tourism. Starting in 2019, the championship moved to Eddie G. Robinson Stadium at Grambling State University, which is a historically black college in Louisiana’s Lincoln Parish. This academic year, because fall championships were moved to the spring, we will keep that location, but the game will be held on May 10, 2021, making it the first time we have ever held the event on a Monday. The game typically brings more than $1 million in impact to the region.
As far as what we bring to the sport of football, we’re not trying to be NCAA Division I; we are different. We are very aware of who we are and what we do. We like to say our student athletes are competing for the right reasons; they’re not chasing a paycheck. They’re getting a college degree and they’re continuing to play the sport they love.
In all respects in football, NAIA is giving students the opportunity to play on behalf of their school. Because these are small schools, student athletes really have the chance to be a big fish in a small pond. On the women’s side, we’re just getting started. NAIA wants to be an association of firsts, and I think we’ve accomplished that. SDM