HOW THE NFL GREW FLAG FOOTBALL INTO AN OLYMPIC SPORT ATTRACTING MAJOR BRANDS AND GEN Z
Flag football—which broke into advertising’s biggest stage this year with a Super Bowl ad backed by the NFL—is about to get a whole lot bigger. The sport’s inclusion in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles is expected to lend momentum to a game that is rising fast, including attracting more brand sponsors that are drawn to the sport’s appeal to women and young players.
Already, Nike, Oakley, Gatorade and Audi are among the brands involved in flag football at some level. But experts say that the Olympics addition—which was announced last month—as well the start of a new pro flag football league in the spring, should attract more marketers to a sport that has steadily grown at the youth level in recent years, thanks in part to a major investment from the NFL.
The NFL sees flag football as key to youth football participation, and youth football participation as key to future football fandom. Meanwhile, the Olympic stage, which will include both women’s and men’s flag football, will help to extend the game’s worldwide reach, another of the league’s longstanding goals. And the potential for NFL athletes to participate in the Olympics, should that become a reality, could result in a ratings bonanza for NBC, which will be broadcasting the Games.
“It’s good for the [NFL] game,” said Izell Reese, CEO of RCX Sports, which operates the NFL Flag youth program on behalf of the league. “When a kid first experiences playing football via flag or tackle, putting on a Cowboys jersey or a Broncos jersey, you just build a fan. Those are the moments you never forget. It builds fandom in the game, and it gets more kids playing the sport. And if you play a sport, you tend to be a fan of it.”
The NFL has marketed flag football by highlighting the game’s hip-shaking athleticism and frenetic pace, along with messages of inclusivity and diversity. This approach was showcased in “Run With It,”a 2023 Super Bowl ad from 72andSunny that featured Diana Flores, the quarterback of the Mexican women’s flag team that won the 2022 World Games.
“We’ve really partnered with our football ops team, and did everything in our power from a marketing perspective, to attract younger potential fans to play the game,” Tim Ellis, the NFL’s chief marketing officer, said on a recent edition of Ad Age’s Marketer’s Brief podcast. “And so now as an example, girls’ flag is now sanctioned in states across the country. And we’ve really worked hard to make that a reality and to sort of throw oil on that fire.”
The Mia Hamm effect
While the rise of flag football participation has accompanied a decrease in tackle football, the Olympic stage can help both disciplines grow, according to Scott Hallenbeck, CEO of USA Football, the sport’s governing body in the U.S. “My sense is this is going to increase the overall pie. The girls, the women’s side, I think speaks for itself. I’ve never seen a discipline of sport scale as fast as it has.”
NFL teams, schools, leagues and brands have also played a role in flag football’s growing profile. Participation has grown to 20 million players worldwide, according to the NFL, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing sports. In the U.S., 7.1 million people played flag football in 2022, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). Growth has been fastest among girls and women.
SFIA reports that “core,” or frequent, tackle football participants decreased by 13.1% between 2020 and 2022. Parent concern over brain injuries led to a 29% decrease in tackle football participants ages 6-12 between 2016 and 2021, according to The Aspen Institute’s State of Play report,
Eight states now sanction flag football as a varsity high school sport, and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) now recognizes flag football as a scholarship sport. The Division III Atlantic East Conference announced this year it would be the first NCAA conference to offer varsity women’s flag football, starting in the spring of 2025 in partnership with the NFL and Philadelphia Eagles.
A pro league is also coming: The American Flag Football League (AFFL) will get underway with a men’s league next spring and a women’s division expected in 2025. “I assure you by the time every 10-year-old girl in this country is 18, playing [flag football] for Michigan or Duke is going to be an option,” said Jeffrey Lewis, founder and CEO of the American Flag Football League.
Roman Oben, VP of football development for the NFL, said the current atmosphere around flag football reminds him of the buzz captured by women’s soccer in the 1990s. “I look at 1994—Mia Hamm comes out of North Carolina and then Nike doubles down on what I call the Mia Hamm effect,” Oben said. “By the time you got to the ’96 Atlanta games, you saw every little girl who wanted to play sports wanted to be Mia Hamm playing soccer.”
Increasing sponsor interest
USA Football, which leads the formation of national teams competing in international competitions such as the World Games and Olympics, has seen more interest from sponsors since the Olympics announcement, said Hallenbeck. While the group currently has deals with sporting equipment manufacturers such as the football helmet company Riddell, “now we’re in discussions with the major categories—jerseys, apparel, hydration, sports drinks, airlines, automotive,” Hallenbeck said.
Seventeen brands have sponsored USA Football in the past 12 months, according to SponsorUnited, which tracks brand partnerships in sports. The Hospital for Special Surgery is the most active, based on the number of sponsorships and digital assets, with Riddell, Wintrust Financial, Defibtech and Massov Athletics following, according to SponsorUnited.
Across flag football’s five primary domestic entities (USA Football, USA Flag, NFL Flag, National Flag Football and the AFFL), 134 brands are involved in sponsorships, with apparel and accessories, leisure and recreation, and technology the most active categories, according to SponsorUnited.
USA Flag, an organization behind sanctioned adult flag football leagues and tournaments, has the most brand partnerships in the sport with 75, SponsorUnited stated. USA Flag recently announced partnerships with Oakley, the energy drink Reign Total Body Fuel, the restaurant chain Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, and the mouthguard brand Shock Doctor.
Oben said the Olympics could turbocharge efforts to grow flag football, as the NFL puts a marketing strategy behind it.
“A lot of the early work that’s been done over the last two years or so, from the pandemic up to now, was just to make sure that structurally, we were doing the right things, working with IFAF, working with USA Football, doing the right things to ensure that that this Olympic path is a reality,” Oben said. “Now, we can build in some sort of marketing-led strategy or a marketing slash operations strategy, about how do you get other people involved? And how do you generate more than just excitement about the Olympics, but see more states get sanctioned as girls’ flag as a varsity sport? You want to see all those things start to have a domino effect from this [Olympics] announcement.”
The AFFL’s debut season is designed to fit between the NFL Draft in April and the start of NFL training camps in July. Four teams (Boston, Dallas, Las Vegas and Nashville) will play a 16-game season, and their home fields sit between 2,000 and 12,000 fans. All clubs except for Nashville have an independent owner, meaning they are not owned by the AFFL. Women’s teams will represent the same cities in 2025, said Lewis; the plan is to become the first league to feature men’s and women’s double-headers.
Brand deals and media rights are still being worked out by the league. Lewis said he envisions coverage that takes an intimate approach that young audiences want, Lewis said.
“We have a very young audience, so we want to be sure that the way we package and distribute this is in keeping with the nature of the audience,” he said.
Flag football resonates with younger fans in part because many grew up playing the game, he said.
“Kids who were in elementary school the last 15 years almost certainly played flag football, whereas before, it wasn’t nearly as commonplace,” Lewis said. “But big picture, flag football really kind of lends itself to what younger people want in sports, which is they want to be more inside the ropes, more behind the scenes, closer and closer and closer. And when you take the helmets off, take the pads off, and take away the preciousness of ‘we can’t talk to the coach’ or ‘we can’t be in the locker room,’ we have the ability to take people right up close. That’s what younger people want.”
Inclusive and affordable
The NFL flag marketing efforts include an ad that launched during “Play Football” month in August. Similar to the Flores campaign, it showcased the game’s athleticism while positioning the sport as a home for misfits of all ages and genders. The spot stars Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson and includes appearances by U.S. women’s flag football national team quarterback Vanita Krouch, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick and his daughter Jada Vick, who recently received a scholarship to play flag football at Reinhardt University in Atlanta which competes in the NAIA. The NFL Creative Marketing team and Heart & Hustle Productions were behind the ad.
A simplified, stripped-down version of tackle football, flag has much going for it as it seeks new players.
“It’s still football at the end of the day, but there’s no helmet, there’s no pads, there’s no tackling and everybody can catch a pass. It’s a high-paced, easy-to-learn version of football that’s inclusive and also affordable. If you have a football, a flag belt, and cleats, you can play some flag football,” said Reese.
Participation in NFL Flag leagues, which are run through 2,000 community organizations, is approaching 750,000, according to Reese. That’s up from 300,000 players in 2020, growth that Reese attributes in part to enhancing the NFL Flag brand, including updating its logo and its uniforms, which use the marks of the 32 NFL teams.
“Every park and rec, every YMCA, every Boys and Girls’ Club, wherever we can plant that NFL Flag experience, has really led to the growth we’ve seen,” he said.
Sponsors have also made a difference, including Oakley, Gatorade, Subway and Franklin Sports, Reese added. “It’s similar to what you see in the NFL—how do you get strategic partners involved to kind of aid into the experience?”
The Oakley deal builds on a “play with the pros” experience fostered by RCX, giving NFL Flag players the opportunity to wear the same brands as their favorite NFL players. Patrick Mahomes, JuJu Smith-Schuster and DK Metcalf endorse Oakley.
For Oakley, supporting flag football gives the brand the opportunity to leverage its NFL partnership while connecting with younger fans.
“Being an active champion of this fast-growing and inclusive sport is a top priority for Oakley, as it goes hand in hand with our NFL partnership, which we just extended for the next seven years,” Bruno Garcia, VP of marketing at Oakley North America, said in emailed remarks. “This new collaboration gives us the chance to connect with a young and passionate community of athletes and fans in the game of football..”
The NFL this year structured its Pro Bowl events around flag, including hosting an NFL Flag Championship presented by Subway, featuring girls and boys youth flag teams from around the world. The AFC vs. NFC game was also contested as a flag game for the first time.
The growth in youth flag defies a trend of declining sports participation among young people. “Kids are falling out of participation at a rapid rate, female participation is being limited and kids are being priced out of sports,” Reese said. “We’re the polar opposite of that. We’ve seen substantial growth in female participation.”
Half of high school female flag football players weren’t playing another sport before taking up flag, according to the National Federation of High School Sports.
“I think we live in a world that marginalizes the recreational participant, because of the AAU and club-driven sports,” said Oben. “And when you see a girl who’s just starting to play flag for the first time in middle school, she didn’t have to be on some club travel team since kindergarten. To me, that shows a sport that’s inclusive for everyone.”
“For many decades it was almost frowned upon for girls and women to play tackle football; now it’s the opposite,” added Hallenbeck. “We need to be inclusive, we want you to participate, whether it’s flag or tackle, and the enthusiasm, the passion and the interest level just skyrocketed. Part of that is girls and women have grown up watching the sport with their brothers and dads and boyfriends. Then all of a sudden it’s, I can play this sport.”
New York Jets embrace flag
Most NFL teams have supported flag football initiatives through their community relations departments. The New York Jets got into flag football in 2011, when New York City’s Public School Athletic League called.
“They had reached out to us and were looking to provide another girls sport offering to help reach Title IX compliance,” said Jesse Linder, the Jets’ VP of community relations, in an interview. “So we started an annual $50,000 donation to support them.” Today the PSAL fields 60 girls flag football teams—which is more than there are boys tackle football teams in the five boroughs, Linder said.
The Jets have since moved to support high school flag programs in New Jersey and New York, cooperating with the New York Giants in New Jersey and the Giants and Buffalo Bills in New York. The Jets separately operate a girls’ flag league in London—that country’s first—in cooperation with the Chicago Bears (both teams count the U.K. as a second home through the NFL’s Global Markets program).
Earlier this year, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced it would recognize girls flag football as a state championship sport for the spring 2024 season. Officials in New Jersey are considering a vote that would make flag football a pilot sport in 2025, Linder said.
“What we’re trying to do with girls’ flag is to move the needle along—we don’t want to be in the business of running leagues in perpetuity,” Linder said. “We want the states to take over and become like any other sport in high school.”
In the meantime, the Jets have lavishly supported the flag game, growing from eight schools in 2021 to more than 100 this spring. Sponsors include Nike, which provided uniforms for almost all of the participating teams, Gatorade, which sponsors Player of the Week honors, and Visa, which recognizes the Coach of the Week.
The team is not exactly selling the sport to participants, Linder said. “We thought there was going to be a lot of hand-holding, a lot of ‘Hey, this is what it is.’ But the response and the growth has been incredible,” Linder said. “And it’s not just from the girls playing it. It’s the parents, it’s the administrators, it’s the athletic director. It’s the other students who have been coming out to support those teams like they would any other team at the school.”
The Jets also deployed its internal content team to shoot a documentary-style series about the flag football league called “EmpowHER,” with support from Nike and Audi. Three seasons of the program are available to stream on the Jets’ digital properties.
EmpowHER’s themes include the diversity of the sport, and the sense that its participants are pioneers. “These girls have laid the groundwork for something that’s going to come for years behind them at their schools,” said Linder.