February 21, 2023
When Diana Flores, the quarterback of Mexico’s National Flag Football Team, sprinted across television screens just after halftime of this year’s Super Bowl, she caught many viewers by surprise. Sprinting, leaping, dodging and bobbing her way through the State Farm Stadium, the parking lot, and tall buildings, she drew admiring glances and sly comments from those who tried to “grab her flag”.
The commercial marks a watershed moment in the promotion of girl’s high school athletics. Over 110 million people watched parts of the game. The wealthiest professional league in the United States is making serious inroads into growing the game of football, for girls.
The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) announced the elevation of girl’s flag football as a state-wide, varsity sport two weeks ago. While each high school can make their own determination as to whether they want to offer the activity, the NFL and its clubs are making it as easy as possible to start a program.
In 2018-19, 11,000 girls played flag football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. With the CIF approving the sport for 2023-24, the numbers will likely grow quickly.
In an email, CIF’s Assistant Commissioner Thom Simmons explained to me that while the sport is in its infancy, “the growth and excitement on our member school’s campuses and the enthusiastic support of the NFL” is what led the CIF to sanction the sport. When I asked him if the CIF had received any financial and/or promotional assistance from the NFL, he replied “The organization itself? None. Member schools who start up programs have been told financial assistance is available.”
The NAIA jumps in first
The NAIA announced it was launching women’s flag football as an emerging sport in 2020, offering a “$15,000 coaching stipend from the NFL” to schools who sponsored the sport. The association heralded the “unprecedented growth” within their ranks. 40 schools are needed to host a national post-season; currently there are 19. The NFL also provided a series of digital assets for each school to use to promote the sport.
The NFL steps up next
Flag football is being encouraged by the NFL to “start from the ground up” in neighborhood high schools, and with its low cost of entry (compared to traditional football) for both team size (7 on 7 in California) and minimal cost (flags, football, end zone markers, regulation field), it seems likely the sport is well-positioned to take off.
In a conversation with Johnathan Franklin, Director of Social Justice and Football Development for the Los Angeles Rams, he spoke about the work both the Rams and the L.A. Chargers are doing in Southern California developing “girl’s flag”, as he called it.
“It started with a conversation with Nike in 2020”, Franklin said. The two organizations worked together to send out a survey to hundreds of high schools in the area. Ninety responded positively to the outreach. Two plus years later, USA Football, Nike, and Gatorade hosted a 14 team, single elimination playoff for the “Super Bowl” 7 0n 7 tournament in January 2023.
Franklin told me he earned a football scholarship to UCLA, which led to his chance to work with the Rams for the past 8 years. His passion for the game is evident as he talks about his “why”, saying “we believe in the power of this sport” to change girls lives.
There is lobbying going on to add flag football to the roster of Olympic Sports in 2028. Troy Vincent Sr., the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, wants the L.A. Olympic Committee to make a proposal to the International Olympic Committee soon for consideration.
College women’s flag football has the opportunity to be diverse
While new college sports programs like men’s volleyball have been added with financial support from affiliated sports organizations before, it doesn’t happen often. In an era of many small and mid-size public and private institutions struggling with both enrollment and diversifying their student body, flag football could be a good opportunity to do both. Many college sports outside of football and basketball are populated by middle to upper middle income white students who have benefitted from both a family income and access to high level training. In certain parts of the United States, those demographics are shifting.
More college athletic departments might consider this emerging sport as an opportunity to recruit a new type of student-athlete to campus. There are precedents-in the early days of women’s college soccer, a few programs like the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill established an early foothold and have dominated the sport for decades. Who will take the lead this time? As Vincent said, “This is no longer just a backyard sport for girls’ pickup games during family holiday gatherings.” Indeed. Who’s got next?