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Flag Helps Reverse 15-Year Football Participation Trend, NFL Calls it ‘Next Big Thing’

Flag Helps Reverse 15-Year Football Participation Trend, NFL Calls it ‘Next Big Thing’

Flag football has helped flip the script on the youth football participation narrative over the last half decade.

The International Federation of American Football reports 2.4 million kids under the age of 17 now play organized flag in the United States –including the ~700,000 taking part in NFL FLAG leagues– and the number is rising.

“At [the current growth] pace, the numbers could double in five to ten years,” Roman Oben (VP, football development strategy, NFL) said.

The sport has become the ‘next big thing’ amongst Gen-Alphas–and the expectation is it will only continue to gain momentum with inclusion in the ’28 Olympic program.

That bodes well for the NFL. The league views flag as an attractive entry point to the game, a means of “[filling] the bigger pot of boys and girls,” Oben said.

The ‘pot’ is the top of the pro football funnel. The NFL understands a portion of kids gaining exposure to football through flag will grow up to become players, executives, and/or fans of the league.

And even if they don’t, “if [the NFL doesn’t] fill the bigger pot with flag, [they’re] going to potentially lose these kids [who don’t play tackle] to video games or something else, anyways,” Oben said.

There’s no downside to introducing more children to the game.


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Oben, a retired NFL player, joined the league office in 2015 as its director of player health and safety. He arrived just weeks prior to the release of the movie Concussion. There were a lot of negativities surrounding the game and the dangers associated with it.

“We were at a place where players were talking about their kids not playing football,” Oben said.

Initially, NFL FLAG was conceived as part of the league’s strategy to communicate how football was evolving.

“How [today’s NFL] is different than the football played in the 1980’s and 90’s,” Oben said.

The flag version of the game would also give kids –and their parents– optionality, and the hope was it would help reverse a concerning participation trend.

“You can’t argue with anyone from core football states like Texas, Florida, or Georgia about youth tackle football, and we’re not going to,” Oben said. “But you [have to provide an alternative option] to parents in other states who may not want to start their kids in tackle early.”

And it has caught on like wildfire. NFL FLAG is now the largest youth sports league in the world.

FLAG’s inclusive nature, which runs counter to today’s specialized youth sports ecosystem, helps to explain why the sport has been a success.

“It’s not cost-prohibitive. It’s not part of the current youth sports world that marginalizes recreational sports,” Oben said. “It takes any participant at any [skill level].”

There are no expensive club teams or travel tournaments to join–at least not yet.

“Kids still want to play with their friends and do something that is not taken too seriously,” Oben said.

The YoY growth seemingly validates that statement. NFL FLAG participation has risen ~30% YoY over the last two years and is expected to climb another 15% this year. That does not even include the countless kids playing in town or rec sponsored programs.

FLAG's growth looks as if it has begun to impact tackle participation rates too, just not in the negative way some suspected it might.

The number of kids playing tackle in high school football grew for the first time in 15 years last year (+5.6%). Deductive reasoning suggests a portion of those playing got started because flag was available to them as an option at a young age.

And not just an option, but one widely viewed as a legitimate alternative to tackle.

“We want kids to self-define football participation in their own way,” Oben said. “It’s not like you either play tackle or your journey doesn’t count.”

The NFL has consistently used its promotional muscle to ensure the FLAG game is given proper credence.

It moved the NFL FLAG championships to the site of the Pro Bowl in 2017, NFL players now compete in a flag game at Pro Bowl Games and the league debuted a high-profile commercial featuring FLAG star Diana Flores during last year’s Super Bowl.

“That’s as much visibility as you’re going to get,” Oben said.

Speaking of Flores, NFL FLAG has provided young girls with another path to engage with football. 58,000 females played in leagues in the United States last year.

“I’ve seen the approach go from highlighting the one [girl] quarterback on a [U-12 boys] team to girls saying they want their own game now,” Oben said.

And not just at a youth level. The NFL is working with state associations across the country to create a path for flag football to become a varsity high school sport. It is now sanctioned in eight states.

“D2, D3, the NCAA is right around the corner,” Oben said.

College scholarships would provide a financial incentive for young girls to pick up the game. They might also alter the inclusive dynamic that the sport enjoys today.

Flag’s inclusion in the ’28 Games should serve as aspirational incentive for young females to start playing.

Just look at the “Mia Hamm effect [that occurred] in ’94 and what happened with girls’ soccer [when Nike doubled down on the sport] because the Atlanta Olympics were coming in ‘96,” Oben said. “Women’s soccer shot up.”

The anticipated Olympic bounce isn’t limited to American participation, either.

The NFL has been fielding inquiries from other countries about how to go about growing the game domestically.

But perhaps nothing will accelerate FLAG adopted amongst children faster than NFL players investing their time and dollars.

There is “a generation of recently retired guys, like Phillips Rivers, coaching their [kids’] flag teams,” Oben said.

Current players are getting involved too. Tyreek Hill and Russell Wilson are among those sponsoring NFL FLAG leagues.

“Self-defining success and being engaged and a part of the process is important,” Oben said.

Remember, FLAG is competing for kids’ time with a growing number of other sports and activities. Pro athlete participation can be the differentiator for a child (or their parents).

The NFL is not meant to be a profit center. Any short-term revenues generated get reinvested back into the initiative.

“[It is] helping fan engagement. [Kids] are putting on an NFL team jersey and playing,” Oben said.

Some of those players will eventually turn to tackle and play at the college and/or pro level. Others will become coaches or front-office executives. Many more will be lifetime fans who grow up to buy season tickets.

Every child’s path is going to be different. The NFL wants young people to be able to choose where theirs starts.

There are, however, aspirations of eventually establishing an international youth event that rivals the Little League World Series.

“Little League Baseball has a television deal, and everyone watches every summer. So, hopefully NFL FLAG becomes that one day. That would be great financially and otherwise,” Oben said.

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