Inside Events: NFL Flag
26 Mar, 2021By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Garland Cooper, Vice President, Event Operations
NFL Flag is, as expected, the NFL’s flag football program, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. There are currently 500,000 participants. It is managed by Reigning Champs Experiences. Flag football is one of the fastest growing youth sports, currently on its way to becoming a college sanctioned sport. Girls at the youth and college age level are a key growing sector, although the sport is increasing across the board. SDM caught up with Garland Cooper, VP of Operations for Reigning Champs, to find out more.
Flag football is really taking off. Why do you think it is so popular?
Garland Cooper: While extensive research is being conducted to better understand football safety, it’s still a game that comes with many physical and emotional benefits. Football in general teaches teamwork, discipline, mental toughness and socialization. Flag football has all that, plus it’s no-contact, accessible, allows players to learn the fundamentals of the game (it prepares kids for tackle football, or they can stick with flag), plus it’s an easy commitment. Most leagues meet only once per week for about 45 minutes, and then the game itself is usually an hour or less. (Of course, some high-level competitive leagues offer more playing time, if that’s something you’re looking for). Overall, it’s just plain fun. With fewer players on the field, there’s more engagement and a faster speed of play. Games are quick, competitive and every drive counts, especially in tournaments. It’s the version of football you loved playing in your backyard, so why stop?
Which events does the NFL FLAG Tournament Series put on annually?
Cooper: In 2021, we have put together two separate tournament series, totaling 22 events. Our NFL FLAG Regional events begin the first weekend of May, and consist of 12 regional tournaments whose winners qualify for the NFL FLAG Championships at Pro Bowl. 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 begin in May, and run all the way through December, with both championships in January/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.
How many teams are expected at those events?
Cooper: Each of the tournaments will have anywhere from 40-120 teams, and the finals will each have over 100 teams in attendance.
What is NFL FLAG’s season?
Cooper: 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 used to only take place 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.
Is there any information on the demographics of those who participate (male/female, age, etc.)?
Cooper: 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!
Are you working to grow any specific aspect of that demographic (high school girls, college, etc.)? And if so, what steps are you taking to get that growth?
Cooper: When we started thinking about 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 want to still 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 Pro Bowl.
Increasing girls’ participation has been a huge focus of ours as well. We have been involved with the NFL and NAIA bringing women’s flag football to the collegiate space, and it has expedited the conversation around girls’ participation in the sport. We are also involved in the work being done to bring girls’ flag football into more states and high schools across the country. 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.
Do you believe awareness of flag football is growing?
Cooper: Absolutely! It 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 and 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 really make NFL FLAG a brand, and build awareness throughout the communities through social media, experiences, league play etc. and we continue to focus on spreading awareness of the sport.
How does the organization choose locations for its events (i.e., what factors go into the decision-making)?
Cooper: 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.
How can interested locations submit a bid for an event or get involved?
Cooper: We don’t currently have a bid process, but people can reach out to me directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to discuss!
Any other relevant information about NFL FLAG that you would like to point out?
Cooper: 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.