When it comes to emerging sports for women, attention is often focused on college and in particular on the NCAA, meaning that it’s easy to miss the trends at the high school level – and youth sports in general.
Take flag football, for example. It’s growing at the college level, sure, but Nike is partnering with the NFL to drive girls’ participation. It is, according to both Nike and the NFL, one of the strongest emerging sports for girls.
According to an article in SGB Media, the phenomenon is spreading. Along with state associations in Florida, Georgia, Alaska and Nevada that have implemented programs, Alabama is involved in discussions to add the sport this year. The Georgia High School Association conducted its first GHSA Flag Football Championship in December with Calvary Day School winning the A-5A title and West Forsyth claiming the 6A-7A crown. About 90 schools were involved in the first year of sanctioned competition.
Think about that for a minute. 90 schools. And the sport is just starting to open up.
What’s going to open it further? Funding. Nike just announced a new grant initiative with the NFL that commits a total of $5 million in product to grow girls’ flag football within high school athletics.
This multi-year initiative will provide a one-time donation of up to $100,000 in product to state athletic associations that offer girls flag football as a high school or pilot program beginning in 2021.
First to receive the grant will be Florida, which has promoted girl’s flag football for more than ten years.
Products will include flag football uniforms, sports bras, socks and accessories which will be distributed to each participating state’s governing interscholastic or athletic association at its discretion.
At present, only six states sanction high school flag football for girls — Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New York.
“The expansion of girl’s flag football is essential to the growth of the game and preservation of the values it has contributed to society for decades,” said Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president, Football Operations. “Girls flag demonstrates that football is for all, and the greater the participation, the stronger the game and the more young women can build the transferrable skills football provides for achieving success in life.”
The Nike Flag Football jerseys are rooted in football DNA and built for the proportions of young women. Featuring a grille neckline and nameplates on the back, the jersey is constructed of woven performance fabric with under-arm mesh panels. The shorts waistband is designed to fit with the jersey for “tuck-in” rules in flag football.
As far back as 2019, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds playing flag football had jumped by nearly 40 percent over the past three years to more than 1.5 million, according to The New York Times. That is almost 100,000 more than the number of players currently on tackle football teams.
“Few predict flag football will replace tackle football at the high school and college level anytime soon, but the game has taken hold in some of the sport’s most traditional strongholds,” The New York Times reports. “In Chicago, new leagues have siphoned scores of players from long-established tackle programs, while in Alabama, Hoover’s youth flag football league has nearly tripled in size over the past five years, to 91 teams.”
“Football is part of our fabric,” Jeff Lewis, a founder of the new American Flag Football League, whose games were broadcast by the NFL Network and covered on the league website last summer, told the Times. “Flag really is the version of the game that we all play on Thanksgiving morning. It’s what we play in our backyard.”
Move up to the collegiate level and you see the growth continuing. The NFL has also partnered with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to promote women’s flag. In fact, the NAIA offers a landing page dedicated to the sport, including start-up guides, grant applications, sample budgets, maps of participating schools and more.
And beyond that, the NAIA will host its Women’s Flag Football Finals in late April/early May of 2021. (Spring became the preferred season for this sport because the women were interested in having a separate identity from the men’s tackle version of the sport, according to Mike Higgins of NAIA.
“Women’s flag football is an NAIA emerging sport, and we’re the first college organization to offer it,” noted Higgins. “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. 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.”
And, he adds, there’s no reason to expect growth to slow down. “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.”