One hundred years into the future, what if millions of people gathered every February, not to watch the Super Bowl, but to instead watch the annual world flag football championship?
There’s some data behind the breathless headlines: According to the NFL’s official flag football program, since 2015 the number of kids ages 6 to 12 who play flag football has risen by 38%, to more than 1.5 million.
In my recent book, “Emerging Sports as Social Movements,” I explore nontraditional sports like flag football and disc golf. One of my key findings is that splashy headlines about trendy sports rarely capture a sport’s true reach and staying power.
For every sport like pickleball that gains widespread, sustained popularity, there are several – adventure racing, paintball and wakeboarding – that remain firmly ensconced in their niche.
In the case of flag football, there are a handful of recent trends that truly do point to a promising future. But there are also some red flags that could end up hampering its growth.
Though its rules are similar to tackle football, flag football is currently gaining attention for what makes it different.
It’s considered a no-contact sport. A “tackle” involves snatching one of two flags that hang from the hips of the ball carrier. While players face injury risks, they sustain far fewer head impacts than athletes who play tackle football.
With the public’s concerns about brain injuries on the rise, many parents are opting for flag football instead of tackle for their kids.
Obscurity is a powerful barrier to emerging sports. But getting noticed may not be a problem for flag football.
The International Olympic Committee announced in October 2023 that flag football would be headed to the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2028. It’s not clear yet if active NFL players can compete, but if they are eligible – and if the U.S. assembles a “Dream Team” like the Olympic men’s basketball team of 1992 that included superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson – flag football could get on the radar of millions of casual sports fans in 2028.
The Olympic version of flag football is fast-paced.
Games are shorter than a typical game of tackle football. Five players compete on 50-yard fields with 10-yard end zones for two 20-minute halves. This format made its first big appearance in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where the U.S. men won gold and the women took home silver.
Although it may come as a surprise, the NFL is embracing flag football and taking its growth seriously.
In 2021, the NFL and Nike committed US million in equipment to support high school flag football teams across the nation. The NFL’s official flag football program operates more than 1,600 local leagues and receives sponsorships from top brands like Visa, Gatorade and Subway.
Most NFL teams are currently supporting the grassroots of flag football with summer camps, clinics and regional tournaments.
During last year’s Super Bowl, an estimated 115 million viewers watched a flag football TV commercial featuring Mexican quarterback Diana Flores bobbing and spinning to evade NFL players and celebrities as they attempted to take her flag.
On Feb. 4, 2024, the Pro Bowl – the NFL’s annual all-star game – sidelined tackle football for the second year in a row. In its place was a 7-on-7 flag football game that aired on ESPN and ABC and streamed on ESPN+.
Prior to that game, on Feb. 2-3, the league also hosted the International NFL Flag Championships as part of the Pro Bowl Games, featuring young athletes from 12 countries.
Flag football may be having a moment, but the question remains: Is the sport actually experiencing a meaningful surge in participation that could extend into the future?
According to figures collected annually by the National Federation of High Schools, 21,980 students played high school flag football in 2023. To put this number in context, however, tackle football attracted 47 times more students – roughly 1 million players – the same year. Track and field, basketball and soccer have roughly 1 million participants apiece.
Interest in flag football seems to be concentrated in a few regions, with roughly 80% of high school players living in just three states: Florida, Georgia and New York.
Though high school participation in flag football has increased steadily since 2007, almost all the growth comes from the girls’ side.
A nationwide sports participation survey finds that the number of casual players of flag football is up, but core participation is down. The study defines “casual players” as those who play fewer than 50 times per year, whereas “core players” participate 50 or more times each year.
The share of Americans who play casually increased by 41% between 2016 and 2022. But core participation declined by 13% during this period.
For sustainable growth, nontraditional sports need to generate excitement among both core and casual players. Top-down investments and marketing strategies may attract new players, but grassroots organizing keeps them coming back.
Take pickleball. In recent years, the sport has generated plenty of cultural clout, with high-profile athletes like LeBron James investing in the professional circuit, and celebrity pickleball players making headlines. There has also been tremendous growth in pickleball’s social and physical infrastructure. For these reasons, both casual and core participation in pickleball more than doubled between 2016 and 2022.
In the end, the future of flag football may hinge on the public debate over tackle football’s safety. Over the past decade, several studies have found a link between repeated head impacts and the risk for serious brain injuries, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Yet recent efforts to make tackle football safer for young athletes have been met with fierce resistance from families, fans and organizers. In many regions of the U.S., tackle football is deeply ingrained in the culture, leading to strong opposition to any changes.
New rules to protect NFL players have seeped into mainstream politics. For instance, in 2019, former President Donald Trump dubbed the NFL’s concussion protocol “soft” and said that safety measures were “ruining the game.”
Meanwhile, Democratic state lawmakers in New York, Illinois and California have introduced bills to ban tackle football for kids under 12, often citing flag football as a suitable alternative. None of these bills, however, have passed.
Some research shows that Democrats are more likely to trust concussion science than Republicans. Democrats also pay more attention to news about concussions than Republicans.
As beliefs about the dangers of tackle football become polarized, the perceived benefits of flag football will likely follow suit. As I showed in a recent study of sport popularity in 207 areas of the U.S., flag football is more popular in regions that tend to vote Democratic, with tackle football more popular in Republican areas.
So in addition to going after the resources needed for sustainable growth – investment, organization, visibility, legitimacy – flag football’s advocates will also need to navigate a nation divided by politics.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and trustworthy analysis to help you make sense of our complex world. It was written by: Josh Woods, West Virginia University
Josh Woods does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.