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NFL and flag football: Why the league has taken interest, invested heavily in it

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The standard of the NFL Pro Bowl saw such a decline in competitiveness and get in touch with that it had change into practically tackle-free in recent times. Now, it’ll be just that with flag football the brand new format for the all-star game, with standouts like Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Micah Parsons named to groups Wednesday night.

But while player safety, fan grumbling, and attempting to avoid putting on a dud show factor into the change, there’s one more reason: The NFL increasingly sees flag football nearly as good for business. The league, and its 32 teams, have been investing big-time within the contact-free version of the game and the Pro Bowl is one technique to shed more light on it with the sport’s biggest stars. But the true commitment is on the youth level, each at home and abroad, and depending on who you ask, there are a variety of reasons for it.

Peyton and Eli going head-to-head as coaches of the Flag football game on the #ProBowlGames!

Who would you somewhat have as coach? pic.twitter.com/yiB9VAwFQe

— NFL (@NFL) December 6, 2022

“Flag is played by 20 million people in greater than 100 countries,” said Troy Vincent, the previous NFL cornerback and the league’s executive vp of football operations who’s spearheading the flag football initiative (based on the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, 7 million kids 6 and up played flag last yr within the U.S). “This is essential to notice, that is just not about this investment, the time spent. This will not be about being an emerging sport, to take part in the L.A. 2028 (Summer Olympics) games. That is about changing the best way people see and feel in regards to the game of football, and where everyone can experience the values of the sport. So this goes far beyond that, that is the long run of the game of football, where everyone can participate and luxuriate in the values that myself, my colleagues, my children that we learned through the game.”

Until recently, flag was largely a sideshow within the long-growing American sports industrial complex: something fondly remembered for summer camps passed by and played in a smattering of youth leagues and schools. There have been flag football associations, however the game never competed seriously in participation numbers with its tackle version, not to say with the teeming young hordes who rushed into soccer and baseball for many years.

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That narrative is popping, and sharply. Flag because the middle of the 2010s is one in all the top-growing youth sports in America, based on the SFIA, and as of 2021, 7 million kids played it. Youth leagues pop up like mushrooms. Among the surge is attributed to growing parental concerns over brain injuries from playing tackle at a young age. Additionally it is a mirrored image of the emphasis on girls’ sports as flag is played by each genders.

However the NFL’s role can also be critical in understanding the recognition, underscoring pro sports leagues’ efforts to carry onto and create young fans in an era of video games and media fragmentation. Greater than 1,700 youth flag leagues and teams across the country and Canada are funded partially by America’s top sport, with participation numbers expected to hit 600,000 this yr, a virtually doubling of the figure from 2021. It could be as if MLB is suddenly operating a healthy slice of Little League baseball to offer a way of the magnitude of the hassle underway.

In truth, the NBA appears to have noticed and launched its own youth league last month together with the WNBA, while the NHL is funding street hockey teams.

Beyond the investment in youth leagues, the NFL is putting its media apparatus behind flag with ads promoting the game, including one possibly through the Super Bowl in February. As well as to reworking the Pro Bowl from tackle into flag football, the league is aiding the push to get the tackle-free sport into the 2028 Summer Olympics and is in discussions with the NCAA about making female flag a sanctioned sport.

“We’ve been in constant communication with the NCAA,” Vincent said.

Already, at colleges within the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), women’s flag is a sanctioned sport with players receiving scholarships. For the last two years, the Atlanta Falcons hosted a girls’ flag football showcase attended by NAIA recruiters.



A boy participated in an NFL flag football game on the Pro Bowl Experience on the ESPN Wide World of Sports in 2020. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

“We’ve seen some girls from Georgia who at the moment are playing in college, some on partial scholarships, some just on offers, some on other technique of being there,” said Amanda Dinkel, the director of community relations for the Falcons, which funds flag programs of their home state, neighboring Alabama and Montana (team owner Arthur Blank owns a ranch within the state). “But that has been an incredible thing to see girls have the opportunity to go play at the following level through one in all our showcases.”

The Falcons are leaders in flag among the many teams but not alone. Each team has some kind of flag football effort.

So why are the NFL and its teams so invested in flag? It wasn’t so way back, in 2014, that the NFL presented at a photograph op a $45 million oversized check to USA Football, the game’s governing body, to help in teaching safer tackling techniques. That’s how the NFL then responded to concerns over the protection of the youth game. And while increasing worries about head injuries proceed, NFL TV rankings are at record highs by some measures, and college football continues to provide a gentle stream of talent to the professionals. And there are even two spring leagues, the XFL and USFL, to tap into for players.

Jeff Lewis, who runs the American Flag Football League, which is scheduled to launch next yr in five cities as the primary pro flag football league, said the reply to the NFL’s flag epiphany is straightforward: The variety of tackle players on the youth level is in decline.

“Clearly, fewer and fewer persons are going to need to take the risks related to playing tackle,” Lewis said. Long-term that might pose an existential threat to football if the variety of players thins.

Numbers back up Lewis’ tackle youth football. In 2010, 6.8 million kids ages 6 and older played tackle football, in comparison with a rather lower number than that for flag, based on SFIA data. By 2015, the yr after the NFL’s USA Football check, tackle had declined to six.2 million, but flag dipped even further to five.8 million, based on the SFIA. Starting in 2016 because the NFL began ramping up its investments in flag, nonetheless, participation rates for the primary time exceeded tackle. In 2021 the gap exceeded 1.6 million with more kids playing flag than tackle, based on SFIA.

A seminal moment is fast approaching for the long run of tackle football, Lewis predicted: when chronic traumatic encephalopathy is diagnosed within the living. Currently, the brain-wasting disease, first diagnosed in a former NFL player in 2005, is just diagnosable posthumously. Since 2005, greater than 320 brains of deceased NFL players studied at Boston University’s CTE Center have been found with the disease, believed to be attributable to repeated hits to the top, based on the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

“When that day comes and we see what the chances of people who find themselves playing within the NFL who have already got it, people playing college who have already got it, people who find themselves playing other sports like hockey, soccer or other things which have it, it’s going to be a mind blower and it actually isn’t going to speed up the variety of folks that need to play tackle football,” Lewis said.

The NFL has one more reason to push flag: the league’s goal to make football a world game. It is pricey to field a tackle team, between costs akin to equipment, officiating and insurance. It’s an enormous hurdle domestically, well enough in countries with no football culture, so how can the NFL hook young people in the event that they will not be playing? The reply is a heavy helping of flag programs in international initiatives.

“Japan, where there’s half 1,000,000 children per age group have a likelihood to play flag every yr, in Mexico 100,000 recent flag players in 2021, China 200,000 kids are playing flag football in schools,” Vincent said. The Mexico women’s team upset the U.S. on the Flag Football World Championships in Birmingham this yr. And on the 2024 version scheduled in Finland, a record 24 men’s and 24 women’s national teams are expected to compete.



Members of the ladies’s German national flag football team take part in an exhibition during an NFL International Series game at Allianz Arena in November. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

But will flag replace tackle, or merely delay many kids competing within the rougher sport? Signs point to the latter, which suggests the NFL strategy is already working.

Bobby Carpenter, who played football at Ohio State and within the NFL for six years, is an enormous advocate for flag football, but up to a degree. His three kids played flag, however the older two now play tackle. He didn’t play tackle until he was 13.

In Carpenter’s view, flag is one step on the technique to tackle, not a substitute. Kids who might otherwise refrain from tackle can get a taste of football and play the game later in adolescence. He noted that in his kids’ flag league roughly eight in 10 players move on to the physical version.

In truth, Carpenter said there are risks to flag as kids grow old because they run at accelerated speeds in close proximity to at least one one other with none equipment. “Flag to a certain extent can change into pretty dangerous,” he said.

There are those in fact who consider tackle must be barred at the least until highschool if not altogether. Chris Nowinski, the CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, emailed, the NFL is investing in flag football since it knows that youth tackle is “not sustainable, especially now that CDC and NIH have each stated that CTE is caused (by) repeated brain injuries … Nothing appears altruistic about this variation — they look like responding to market changes. When the NFL finally encourages youth parents to decide on flag over tackle, then we’ll have something to speak about.”

Asked in regards to the NFL’s position on what age kids should start playing tackle, the league’s Vincent demurred and said the query is best for USA Football, which didn’t reply for comment. In accordance with USA Football’s “11-player Tackle Implementation Guide,” age requirements are “determined by the local league commissioners and will overlap or differ based on community circumstances (e.g., enrollment numbers, access to facilities, variety of coaches, etc.).”

The choice ultimately goes to be left to folks and their children barring laws that will place an age limit on tackle. Chad Rink lives outside football hotbed Columbus, Ohio, together with his wife where they’ve had six kids. 4 of them played flag, and two played tackle, one starting in fourth grade and the opposite in sixth. Nonetheless, the duo didn’t stick with the game.

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Rink conceded he was joyful they dropped it.

“With all of the studies they’ve done and the stuff they understand how concussions work, we’ve just very joyful that neither did,” he said, referring to continuing with the game. Still, in his area, that isn’t the norm.

“Loads more kids,” he said, “are probably playing flag earlier after which just waiting until like either middle school or highschool to play tackle.”

Beyond whetting the appetite of young players who change into desperate to play the total game, the promotion of flag football has one other profit, said Dinkel, the Falcons official: making the competitors NFL fans. The Falcons’ efforts are just about all directed at female flag, and the expectation will not be only the competitors, but their children will love and play football, Dinkel said.

“We all know that if girls grow and develop throughout the sport of football, they’ll change into fans,” she said. “And so they’ll be more comfortable with their kids playing at a later date.”

(Top photo of youth participating within the NFL flag football program on Nov. 11, 2022, in Munich: Gary McCullough / Associated Press)

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