Apr 14, 2022 - Sports

The NFL's big push for Olympic flag football

Illustration of a football end zone goal post with two attached flags waving

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The NFL is pushing for flag football to be included in the Olympics as early as 2028 in Los Angeles.

Why it matters: The NFL wants to attract 50 million new international fans over the next 10 years, and the growth of flag football is critical to accomplishing that goal.

"We've got to make the game matter. If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in [it]."
— NFL international COO Damani Leech, via CNBC

The backdrop: Football hasn't so much as sniffed the Olympics since 1932 in Los Angeles, when it was a demonstration sport.

  • But in 2013 the IOC recognized the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) as a governing body — a key step in eventually getting the sport to the Olympics.
  • The IFAF has 74 member-nations and sponsors major events like the men's and women's flag and tackle World Championships.

State of play: The NFL's Olympic push is its latest — but hardly its only — effort to bring flag football to the masses. In fact, it's been quietly building up the sport for years.

  • Youth: NFL Flag has been around since 1994 and is the nation's largest flag football league, with over 1,600 teams and 500,000 athletes. As of 2018, more kids were playing flag than tackle.
  • Girls and women: Last year, the NFL partnered with Nike to incentivize states to offer girls high school flag football. It also worked to bring the sport to college, providing stipends to 10 NJCAA and 15 NAIA schools that committed to offering women’s flag football.
  • Professional: NFL Network helped the American Flag Football League get off the ground in 2018 with a broadcast partnership. The AFFL has grown enough since then that it recently announced its men's division will become professional beginning in 2023.

What to watch: Flag football's next big moment comes this summer in Birmingham at The World Games, which will feature the sport for the first time thanks largely to the NFL, a presenting sponsor.

  • "We're so grateful for the partnership with the NFL," Nick Sellers, CEO of The World Games 2022, tells Axios. "If the NFL [is] putting their shield on it, that says something."
  • "Creating a path to the Olympics I think is awfully important for them," Sellers adds. "And we think we'll present a world class show that hopefully garners the attention of the IOC."

The big picture: The NFL's investment in flag football presents an interesting dichotomy amid growing concussion awareness.

  • On one hand, football is football, and more people participating in any version of the sport is beneficial for the league.
  • On the other, the NFL embracing flag football is, in a way, acknowledging that its own product is dangerous. Part of flag football's growing popularity is a direct result of parents' safety concerns.
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