October 17, 2023
“I have a vision,” says Pete Ackerley, “of going to Regent’s Park on a Thursday evening and seeing everyone playing flag football.”
Ackerley, CEO of British American Football, is dreaming big for a sport that will now feature at the LA 2028 Olympics and about which little is known on these shores.
On closer inspection, it is far from a fantasy.
Flag football is cheap, safe, fast, played by more than 20 million globally, growing fastest among women and girls, backed by the NFL juggernaut and now on the Olympic platform it needs to attract meaningful investment.
The fastest-growing format of American football, Flag is a five-on-five format where tackles are made by pulling off flags which all players wear on their hips. And that’s about all you need to know.
“I think in the past Flag has been seen as a poor relation to American football,” said Ackerley.
“We’re now finding that people love having the NFL in their lives and supporting the game, but huge giants in helmets and pads crashing into each other, that’s not for them.
“Now we have a game which anybody can play. It’s simple and accessible and that gives us a massive opportunity.”
In the Executive Board press conference announcing the decision, IOC President Thomas Bach underlined the importance of the Flag Football’s safety. This is a crucial point as the Olympics navigate away from the concussion and brain injury issues that circle American Football.
Investment in Flag participation is part and parcel of the NFL’s ambitions to one day host a franchise in the UK. The NFL Flag programme has already reached more than 300 schools in 20-plus regions.
“The NFL is an absolutely key stakeholder for us,” said Ackerley. “We have a shared vision to put a ball in every young British person’s hands.
“We want to capture people early, push the sport further into schools, communities and clubs and then get players into our performance pathway, knowing that you can go from Regent’s Park to the Olympics and ultimately hopefully standing on a podium in LA.”
Clearly, Flag at the highest level is dominated by the USA, their men winning the last four world titles and women the last two. An interesting range of countries compete with them, including Panama, France, Austria, Denmark and Mexico.
Team GB’s women are European champions and well placed to gain a possible continental quota place – the presence of which will be confirmed in early 2025 – in a field of just six nations.
Ackerley is probably the perfect person to turbocharge the sport’s growth having been the head of development at the English Cricket Board for ten years and head of participation at the FA for seven.
He is all too aware that as of Monday morning, he manages the only national governing body of an Olympic sport never to have received any government funding.
“You are talking to the whole of British American Football,” said Ackerley. “Clearly, the organisation needs professionalising and resource is going to the biggest challenge.
“I’m now going to be held to account in the same way as the CEO of British Athletics and British Swimming, I have one part-time administrator and a series of volunteers.
“We want to deliver on the growth of the sport and build a pathway to medals and success on and off the field.”