The National Football League (NFL) partnered with the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) to bring flag football to the World Games, which began this week in Birmingham, Alabama.
It is the first-time flag football is being played at an international, multi-sport event. The NFL and IFAF are hoping it will not be the last, as they continue to push for flag football to be included as one of the competitions at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
“That’s the ultimate goal to make flag football an Olympic sport,” NFL executive Troy Vincent told The Associated Press.
“When we talk about the future of the game of football, it is, no question, flag,” Vincent continued. “When I’ve been asked over the last 24 months, in particular, what does the next 100 years look like when you look at football, not professional football, it’s flag. It’s the inclusion and the true motto of ‘football for all.’ There is a place in flag football for all.”
Vincent says the number of men and women playing flag football globally is increasing. He noted that six states — Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and New York — have sanctioned flag football as a varsity sport in high school, and 20 other states have shown interest in endorsing the sport.
Multiple NFL franchises have offered to support high schools in their respective states by helping to fund flag football initiatives.
The Atlanta Falcons unveiled a 30-foot wall display inside their stadium in May that honors trailblazers of girls’ flag football in Georgia. The league says 450 schools and more than 10,000 girls participate in flag football nationwide.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association declared women’s flag football an emerging sport in 2020.
“It’s a cost-effective sport feasible for all to play,” Vincent added.
Sixteen countries have sent flag football teams to Birmingham for the World Games that kicked off Sunday. Flag football is one of 33 sports at the Olympic-style, multi-sport event, following its approval by the International World Games Association in 2020.
“We are thrilled to have flag football join the official sports program at The World Games for the first time,” IFAF President Pierre Trochet said in a statement. “This is a milestone in the sport’s development and a fantastic opportunity to showcase flag as a truly world-class, international sport.”
It is the first time the World Games have been held in the United States since 1981.
The U.S. men’s and women’s teams qualified for the tournament by winning gold at the 2021 IFAF Flag World Championships in Jerusalem last December. A record 39 national teams across four continents competed at the tournament.
The remaining 14 teams earned their spot through IFAF’s international qualifying process. Austria, France, Italy, Mexico, and Panama qualified men’s and women’s teams. Denmark and Germany qualified the remaining men’s teams, while Brazil and Japan qualified the other two women’s teams.
“This is not something that we dominate because it’s football, the national pastime in America,” Vincent said. “You watch these young ladies and men play in other countries. They come to play. It’s a transitional sport. It’s a cross-functional sport.”
“The best flag players come from soccer, lacrosse, cricket,” he added, “because these are men and women who have tremendous agility. It’s a fast-paced game played in space. You don’t have to play it for years and years. You can develop. You can transfer those skills that you learned in soccer, lacrosse, cricket to flag football.”
The NFL hopes to increase its international business revenue to $1 billion annually, and the league acknowledges it will need flag football to achieve that goal.
“Over the next five years, we want to expand NFL flag football,” Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International, told CNBC in April.
Leech said the NFL projects that it will attract 50 million new consumers internationally over the next 10 years. That would add to its 180 million consumers domestically and over 150 million international fans who already consume the sport.
“That’s our big number that we’re focused on,” Leech said. “We’ve got to make the game matter.”
“If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in playing that sport,” Leech continued, adding that the World Games would be “a good opportunity to show the [International Olympic Committee] what this sport looks like. That it is competitive and attractive.”