Planting the Flag
The growth of girls’ flag football in America is a bright spot for the team business.
Planting the Flag
The growth of girls’ flag football in America is a bright spot for the team business.
Any team dealer looking for a growth category in the traditional world of football need look no further than girls’ flag football. Yes, you read that correctly. While flag has already proven popular as an alternative to tackle among younger male football players, the female version of it is catching on in various sections of the country and seems poised to be a hot new market in the world of team sports.
To explore just how this phenomenon is taking shape, Team Insight reached out to a number of the key players at different levels and in different parts of the U.S. to gauge just what is happening, why this growth is occurring and, most importantly, what’s in it for team dealers.
Girls’ Flag Approved in CA, NY and AZ
Flag football s officiially California Cool now that the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), the statewide body that governs high school athletics in the country’s largest state, is supporting girls’ high school flag football as a fully sanctioned sport. In February, a plan was approved – by a unanimous vote of 146-0 – by the CIF to make girls’ flag football a high school varsity level sport, beginning with the upcoming 2023-24 school year.
Paula Hart Rodas, president-elect of the CIF Southern Section’s council, says the big-picture reason for approving flag football as a varsity sport is to get more girls playing high school sports by taking advantage of the widespread love of football by many female high school athletes who have no interest in playing tackle football.
“You can love the game of football and not love getting tackled, but still want to participate,” points out Hart Rodas. “Flag right now is aimed directly at getting more girls involved in athletics by adding a different sport that we know girls are interested in, but are not willing to play tackle for a variety of reasons.”
The vote in California is a reflection of the growing level of interest in flag football in the local recreational youth leagues and the growing level of support from the NFL. The three NFL teams in the state – the Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers – are committed to supporting girls’ high school flag football in California.
This move adds California to a growing list of states that have included varsity girls’ flag football in high school athletic programs, such as Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Nevada.
New York supports flag football, too. Soon after the CIF decision, New York State’s public high school athletic association approved plans to stage its first state high school championship for girls’ flag football in the spring of 2024.
The official decision to add girls’ flag to the roster of high school varsity sports was approved by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHAA) on the 37th anniversary of the National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
“With the support of the NFL, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association has provided thousands of student-athletes with the ability to play girls’ flag football. In less than one year, the number of schools playing girls’ flag has nearly tripled in our state. Providing participation opportunities for students continues to be one of our top priorities,” reports Dr. Robert Zayas, NYSPHSAA executive director.
Meanwhile. back in December the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) also approved girls’ high school football an official sport, which means that the sport will move from the spring to the fall in 2023.
“This is an opportunity to showcase the skills of our girls in our high schools,” explains David Hines, AIA executive director. “This is not the old powder-puff football. These kids can play. They can run. They can catch. They can throw. They are very competitive. And it’s exciting to watch them play.”
The Tale of the Tape for NAIA Flag
Back in June 2020, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) made women’s flag football its newest sport by granting it the all-important first step as an “emerging” sport. With strong support from the NFL, this places it on track to continue to grow toward becoming a full “championship” sport over the course of the next several years.
According to NAIA president and CEO Jim Carr, many NAIA member schools took advantage of the opportunity to add women’s flag football for 2020-21 academic year, thanks in large part to financial support from the NFL.
“The financial assistance provided by the NFL has had a significant impact on participation and the NAIA is grateful for the league’s support in this joint venture,” he says.
Believe it or not, another huge proponent of women’s collegiate flag football is tennis legend Billie Jean King. “I want women to be able to have the dream,” says King.
The NAIA has two status levels prior to a sport becoming a championship sport, which allows for a timely approach for a sport to find success and interest amongst the NAIA membership.
• “Emerging” status is the first step, which requires at least 15 schools to begin a program and officially declare intent to participate in the following year.
• The next step is reaching “invitational” status, which requires 25 schools to declare such intent.
Each of the 15 schools that initially declared intent to participate in 2020 were granted a $15,000 stipend from the NFL to aid in the on-boarding process of the sport. One of those schools that received funding was Florida Memorial University, which is located in Miami Gardens, FL.
“Adding women’s flag football to the list of sports that we offer here at Florida Memorial University means that the amount of lives that we get to impact as an institution of higher education grows,” says Florida Memorial AD Ernest Jones. “More young women will have the opportunity to pursue their academic and athletic goals and potentially change their lives and their families’ lives. We look forward to building a (women’s) flag football program that follows in the footsteps of all our other sports programs — one that chases academic excellence and championships.”
Kansas Wesleyan was one of the first institutions to announce that it would begin a women’s flag program, a distinction that director of athletics Steve Wilson is understandably proud of.
“Through everything we have experienced in collegiate athletics the last few months, being able to be on the front end of something so special for women’s sports and the NAIA, as a whole, has been a welcome relief,” he says. “I firmly believe women’s flag football will be an extremely high-profile offering and we are excited to be able to help shape the initial steps of the sport within our organization. Working with the NFL is icing on the cake. There are just so many bright aspects of this sport’s future.”
In May 2021 and May 2022, the NAIA conducted its NAIA Women’s Flag Finals Weekend, which allowed the NAIA to crown a national champion during its time as an “emerging” sport. The winner in 2021 was Ottawa University from Kansas and in 2022 Thomas University from Georgia took home the trophy. The NAIA Women’s Flag Finals in 2021 and 2022 were played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.
The NFL Gets The Flag
NFL Promotional Efforts. The NFL launched its Super Bowl 2023 campaign with “Run With It,” an action-packed commercial spotlighting flag football and the critical role women are playing in growing the sport. The spot features international flag football star Diana Flores, the quarterback of the 2022 World Games gold medal-winning Mexico Women’s Flag Football National Team.
J-E-T-S….Jets, Jets, Jets. The third season of the New York Jets X Nike High School Girls Flag Football League kicked off in early April. Throughout April and May, more than 100 high schools and more than 1500 athletes throughout New Jersey, Long Island and New York’s Hudson Valley are competing to reach the championship games hosted at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center.
Seahawks Give Back. The Seattle Seahawks are big supporters of high school girls’ flag football in Washington. The club is providing $57,000 to help underwrite the launch of girls’ flag football teams to 15 high school teams from six local school districts. In addition to the cash grants from the Seahawks, those 15 schools will also receive an official NFL Flag Football equipment kit thanks to USA Football, plus sets of home and away Nike uniforms. The latest grants are part of the Seahawks’ 2022 commitment of $250,000 in funding over the next five years that will support the creation of high school girls’ flag football programs in the state of Washington.
February Flag Football in Florida. On President’s Day this year the Jacksonville Jaguars hosted the Jags Preseason 2023 Classic, which attracted nearly 30 girls’ high school flag football programs. This quasi-jamboree was played on the Jaguars’ home field at TIAA Bank Field. The players and coaches were welcomed by Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, whose message was filled with some advice about the importance of player safety and nutrition.
Facts & Figures
According to the latest research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), participation in flag football in the U.S. in 2022 was 7.1 million participants. Of those, 4.6 million were classified as “casual” participants (those playing less than 12 days a year) and 2.5 million were categorized as “core” participants who played 13-plus days a year. And, of those 2.5 million core participants, 1.5 million are 6-to-17 years of age. Overall participation in flag football in the U.S. has held steady in recent years, with 6.8 million players in 2019, seven million in 2020 and 6.9 million in 2021.
Talking Flag with...
Dustin Wilke, Commissioner, NAIA
To get first-hand insight into just how women’s flag football fits into the growth plans at NAIA schools, Team Insight sat down with Dustin Wilke, the commissioner of the NAIA’s Sun Conference. Of the nine members of the Sun Conference, seven of the universities are in Florida and two are in Georgia.
How many Sun Conference schools have flag football programs?
We currently have six programs and we are adding three affiliate members next year — Reinhardt, Point and Life. The six current members are Florida Memorial University, St. Thomas University, Keiser University, Warner University, Webber International University and Thomas University.
Are other Sun Conference schools strongly considering adding a women’s flag football program?
Yes, there are several that are considering adding though I would not want to speak for these schools in suggesting a specific timeline.
What role did the NFL play in helping your Sun Conference schools start flag football?
The NFL played a large role, primarily based on the sponsorship stipends they provided to each school as they started their program.
Are football coaches lending any assistance to their flag football coaching peers?
Yes, we have several programs that utilize members of the men’s football staff to lead the flag football program, as well.
Have you been contacted by other conference commissioners about the logistics of adding flag football to their athletic programs?
Currently we are one of only two NAIA conferences that sponsor flag football. The other conference is the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. So I do frequently have conversations with other NAIA commissioners about potentially starting flag football in their own conference. Interest is high around the country and we certainly feel like it’s a sport that is on the verge of significant growth.n
Karissa Niehoff, CEO, NFHS
Team Insight also reached out to Dr. Karissa Niehoff, the CEO of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), for her input into girls’ flag football at NFHS institutions.
What is the NFHS doing to encourage states to adopt girls’ flag football?
The partnership with the NFL and RCX is to engage all 32 NFL clubs with the respective state (high school athletic) associations. The NFL is offering a grant program to start girls’ flag football. The grant monies are distributed to schools via the state association. We are also including an emphasis on flag football, in general, as part of our “This Is High School Football” campaign. We will continue to develop educational resources specific to flag football.
P.S. from the NFHS: According to 2022-23 Handbook from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the top five states with the most female high school flag football players are Florida (7809 participants), Georgia (3866), Nevada (1508), New York (1020) and Alabama (665). Other states with girls playing high school flag football include California and Alaska.
Jeremy Hernandez, FHSAA
And finally, Team Insight reached out to Jeremy Hernandez, director of officials for the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), based in Gainesville, FL. Hernandez oversees high school flag football in the state, which is the leader in girls’ high school football across the U.S., making him one of the more knowledgeable people to talk flag.
How many FHSAA schools have flag football programs?
We currently have 361 FHSAA member schools that have a flag football program. Right now, 279 of these schools have committed to the State Series to compete for a (Florida) state championship. The rest of those committed schools are classified as an Independent.
When did the FHSAA start flag football and when did you expand flag football to Class 1A and Class 2A?
Girls’ flag football started in the spring of 2002 and in the spring of 2016 flag football was expanded into two classifications — Class 1A and Class 2A.
Are there more schools considering adding a girls’ flag football program?
I am sure we have schools considering the idea of adding a girls’ flag football program. However, since we are currently in the middle of a season, I have not heard of any new schools which are interested in adding for the 2023-24 school year, as of yet.
What role has the NFL played in helping FHSAA schools start flag football?
To my knowledge, the NFL hasn’t played much of a role here in Florida because the sport has been played for so long here. I do know that the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins are very active, though, within their local communities as they continue promoting those schools that are already playing flag football.
On Florida Flag Football
• The powerhouse program of high school flag football in Florida is Tampa’s Robinson High School, which has won seven FHSAA Class 1A state championships.
• In the FHSAA’s Class 2A division, Seminole Ridge High School (Loxahatchee) has captured five FHSAA state championships.
• Other schools that have won multiple state titles in girls high school flag football in Florida are Leon High School (Tallahassee) in 2007 and 2008 and Alonso High School (Tampa) in 2018 and 2019.