American football. What comes to your mind with these two words?
You’re probably thinking of a male-dominated sport, 11 players per side, full tilt with pads and helmets.
These next words may surprise you.
The flag is the future of football.
Before you run out of the room screaming, try to hear me out.
Tackle will continue as the professional game played in the NFL and in its amateur pipeline from youth through college. But the flag will dominate neighborhoods, schools and recreational leagues around the world. It’s happening before our eyes — flag football is already played in over 100 countries and counting.
The evolution of American football and the explosion of non-contact participation has thrown the flag into the debate over the Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The sport could make its Olympic debut as soon as 2028 in Los Angeles.
This summer, the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) unveiled Vision28, a coordinated effort leading to the push for flag football toward inclusion in the Los Angeles Olympics. It is the latest initiative in an important and long-standing partnership with IFAF to develop a flag outside the United States.
The momentum is real. Countries like Mexico and Canada are full of talent. At this point, there is no doubt that the flag belongs in the Games.
This is because the flag is truly all inclusive and uniquely accessible, epitomizing our belief, ‘football is for everyone’. Regardless of gender, age, class, ability, disability or body type, there is a place for everyone in sport.
Barriers to entry are virtually non-existent. Equipment costs are minimal. in a non-contact environment, no helmets or pads are needed. With no field goal posts, a competitive flag game can be played anywhere — fields, streets or stadiums.
These are fundamental characteristics of flag football. That’s why nearly 2.4 million kids under 17 play organized flag today, in America alone. Worldwide participation in the flag is approaching 20 million, according to IFAF.
This is also why the flag has emerged as a platform for international participation in American football, especially among girls and women.
The NFL and IFAF are working with 2,370 schools across the country to integrate the flag into the curriculum. We are especially excited about the girls’ interest in middle school. About 15,700 girls played high school flag in 2021-2022 — a 40 percent increase over three years.
Collegiate organizations such as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) are also moving toward sanctioning women’s soccer.
And last July, the Mexican women’s team stunned the U.S. to win gold at the World Games, the sport’s first entry into a major, global, multi-sport event. The women also represented Austria, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan and Panama in Birmingham, Alabama.
This is what we mean by ‘football for all’. Flag opens the door to participation for women and men. Girls and boys. People with disabilities. People from all walks of life, across the socioeconomic spectrum.
When it comes to the highest levels of competition, so far, most elite players have either developed through the flag leagues or come through soccer, lacrosse, softball, baseball or cricket.
If the sport is added to the Olympic program, there is no doubt that NFL players will have the opportunity to represent their countries. In Week 1 of the current NFL season 98 foreign-born players on NFL rosters, with 58 playing at least one snap.
Let me be clear: The NFL will not stand in the way of any player choosing to play for their country in the Olympics.
In fact, we are fully vested in extending the flag worldwide.
The league has launched NFL FLAG operations in multiple countries, with the highest participation to date in Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, China and Germany. And although we do not have an office in Japan, we are encouraged by the growth of this market, where flag is part of the physical education curriculum in elementary schools.
The NFL capitalizes on its position as America’s most popular sport — not to mention our 216 million fans outside the US — for the benefit of the flag and the spirit of “football for all”. The Denver Broncos recently launched Colorado’s first high school flag pilot program for girls. In the 2028 Olympic city, the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers support the Girls Flag Football League of Champions at local high schools. The league is expanding to 16 teams in its second season — and the southern division of the California Interscholastic Association just voted to make flag an official high school sport for girls.
And we’re developing ambassadors — stars like Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora and Seattle Seahawks linebacker Uchenna Nwosu — to spread the word on our global initiatives, like this summer’s NFL Africa.
Talking about a flag is one thing. To see it is to love it. The sport is high-flying, fast-paced and full of talent. The NFL FLAG is everywhere, with 1,640 active leagues. The NFL and IFAF are hosting five national and 49 regional tournaments in 2022. Watch one game and you’ll be convinced.
We want fans to know that the flag is a real, accessible path to participation in American football, including and especially in underserved areas. We want to inspire millions more people of all ages, genders and abilities to put down their phones and get involved in sport. We want to empower more women, grow communities and change lives through the unique life-changing values of American football.
The flag is the way. That’s why it’s the future of football.
And that future deserves a place in the Olympics, where we can showcase our game-changing sport to the world for decades to come.