Flagfootball - Quo vadis?

NFL stars playing flag football at the Pro Bowl? A Super Bowl commercial that's all about flag football? A year ago, that seemed completely unthinkable. The media exposure flag football has had in recent weeks has been greater than in the entire history of the sport to date.

Behind all the hype is, of course, the NFL and its goal to expand its market share even further, especially among women and young people. Flag football has a low barrier of entry and can – compared to american football - more easily become a worldwide sport with many active players. The NFL has chosen Diana Flores to represent the sport. Flores is the quarterback of the Mexican women's national flag football team, which won the gold medal in convincing fashion at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama. In recent months, she became the face of the sport and, as a result, the first star in flag football history. She threw the football back and forth with Eli Manning at Wembley Stadium, acted as offensive coordinator at the Pro Bowl, and now starred in the flag football commercial at the Super Bowl.

The international spread of flag football began about 20 years ago, when European and World Championships were held for the first time, providing a basis for worldwide competitions with uniform rules. Rules that the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) had established and that were designed to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible, both in terms of the number of players and the size of the field. The result: the official IFAF flag football variant is played 5 vs. 5, on a field that is 70 yards long and 25 yards wide, including end zones. At every World and European Championship and at the World Games, which were held in the USA in 2022, the game was played according to these rules. This is logical for us Europeans, but not for the Americans.

In the U.S., countless tournaments are played every week, and there are even some with big prize money to be won. As big as the number of tournaments seems to be the number of different flag football variations. 4 against 4, 5 against 5, 7 against 7, even 11 against 11. Non-contact, semi-contact. The field size for the 5 vs 5 variant is similar to the IFAF rules. In 7 vs 7, the field including end zones is 100 yards long and 40 yards or sometimes 53 yards wide. Quite flexible apparently. Everything unclear? I don'teven want to dive into the details of the different rules, that would go beyond the scope of this article.

An extremely positive development in the USA is the planned inclusion of flag football in the official NCAA program for women. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) has been hosting flag football tournaments (7 vs 7) for some time. The NCAA's goal now is to host official collegiate championships and award scholarships, which is the opportunity for particularly good athletes to attend college for free in exchange for playing for the university team in the flag football championships. At least 40 universities must agree to field a team and provide financial support to make that happen.

The 2023 Pro Bowl gave spectators around the world their first chance to experience flag football. The NFL opted for the 7-on-7 variant, but the size of the field was very strange. The field was too short and much too wide. The players just jogged around at the start and played half-heartedly. Derrick Henry scored a rushing touchdown that would never be possible in a "normal" flag football game. Was the NFL doing a disservice to the sport by presenting a variation that only slightly resembled the sport we all know? Hard to say. In any case, emotions ran high on social media. I think the Pro Bowl was a missed opportunity to show the sport for what it really is.

As long as there is no agreement on a uniform field size and a "main variant" in the USA, the flag football landscape remains confusing. At the moment, this main variant is most likely 7 vs. 7, the internationally common format 5 vs. 5 is ridiculed and considered an entry-level variant for children. And exactly therein lies the problem: How can a sport be taken seriously if the country where the most and best active players are based does not take the international rules seriously?

In addition to the NFL's efforts to attract more fans, there is a second major reason for the flag football hype of recent weeks. The NFL has teamed up with IFAF to try to convince the International Olympic Committee to make flag football an Olympic sport. Les Carpenter of the Washington Post published a very interesting article on this subject a few weeks ago. He interviewed some protagonists, including Michael Payne, a former manager of the International Olympic Committee. Payne believes that an Olympic bid for flag football is at least 15 years too early and is only happening now because the 2028 Olympics will be held in the motherland of (flag) football. I share his opinion. As long as the flag community is not united and one variant is played all over the world and others are played in the USA, the sport will not be able to become an Olympics mainstay.

What will the future of the sport look like? In order to achieve worldwide unity, either IFAF and with it dozens of nations will have to say goodbye to their version of flag football, or the NFL and the entire U.S. flag scene will accept the unloved 5-on-5. I don't see either as realistic at the moment. The most likely solution is that everything stays as it is. All nations prepare meticulously for years and send their best athletes to a World Championship that is played according to IFAF rules and has a high status. All of them? No! The USA holds a tryout, sends a team, wins the World Championship and returns home. The win is hardly noticed in the U.S., because it's much more important who wins the next high stake tournament in Tampa or Las Vegas. What this means for the Olympic future of the sport needs to be seen.