In October 2023, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that flag football will be one of five new sports (along with T20 cricket, baseball/softball, lacrosse and squash) to be introduced to the 2028 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles (LA Olympics). The announcement was made at an IOC meeting in Mumbai, following a proposal from the LA Olympics’ officials and a recommendation from the IOC Executive Board.
What Is Flag Football?
Flag football is a variant of American football. The major difference is, instead of the crunching tackles or sacks you’ll see on a National Football League (NFL) field, the sport is noncontact. Tackles are made by pulling off an opponent’s flag, which all players have to wear round their waist.
To summarise the Olympic format of the game:
- The game is played on a pitch (that is 70 yards/64 metres long), with two “end zones” and a halfway line.
- Each side has five players on the field at a time.
- Each player wears three flags on a waistband – one on each side of the waist and one at the back.
- Each game is 40 minutes (split into two 20-minute halves).
- The offensive side starts on the 5-yard line of their own half and has four attempts (called “downs”) to reach the halfway line or score a touchdown. If they manage to reach the halfway line, they have another four downs to score a touchdown (if they have not already). If they do not reach the halfway line, or fail to score a touchdown after reaching the halfway line, the ball gets turned over to the defensive team, who then becoming the offensive team and start on their own 5-yard line.
- An attempt (also known as a “play”) to get forward is made by the quarterback of the offensive team throwing the ball to a receiver further up the field (who catches it) or handing the ball to a running back who runs up the field. If the ball is thrown and dropped (i.e. not caught by the receiver), the play is over, and the attempt is lost. Otherwise, a play is over when a flag of a ball-carrier is removed, or the ball-carrier goes out of bounds.
- So, the defensive team has to try and stop the offensive team moving up the pitch towards their end zone. They can do this by intercepting a pass (whereby the ball gets turned over), removing a flag of a ball-carrier, or by forcing the ball-carrier out of bounds (remember though, no contact allowed).
- A touchdown is scored when the offensive team manages to get one of their team members with the ball in the end zone legally. This is worth six points. After scoring the touchdown, the offensive team then gets the chance to add one extra point by running or passing from the 5-yard line, or two extra points from the 10-yard line.
- If the game is tied at the end of 40 minutes, it goes to sudden-death overtime and the team who scores first wins.
Simple enough? For those who prefer a more visual description, this short YouTube video helpfully explains the concept and rules of flag football.
Who Is the Governing Body of Flag Football?
The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) is the international governing body of American football, which includes flag football. They are based in La Courneuve, France. IFAF has over 70 member nations across five continents. It is officially recognised by the IOC, affiliated with the Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF) and is a signatory to the WADA Code.
What Are the Current International Competitions?
The IFAF hosts Continental Championships for men and women every two years. 2023 has been a significant year for the IFAF, with three continental championships (North Carolina, Limerick and Kuala Lumpur), the most in a single year.
Continental Championships serve as a qualification stage to the World Championships, which also happen every two years (in between Continental Championships). Team USA are the current world champions for men and women, and the next World Championships will be held in August 2024 in Lahti, Finland.
In addition to the above, flag football made its debut as a demonstration sport at the 2022 World Games held in Birmingham, Alabama. Team USA won the first ever men’s gold medal in flag football at the 2022 World Games. Italy took the silver and Mexico the bronze. In the women’s competition, Mexico took the women’s first ever gold, with USA taking the silver and Panama the bronze.
One of the challenges that flag football may have to tackle is the level of competition internationally. The more competitive it is, the more people will likely be drawn to it. Certainly, international flag football results are by no means a foregone conclusion. One might presume that Team USA will nearly always be the favourites to win a competition, for both men and women, but recent history suggests this is not an inevitability. Indeed, since the first World Championships in 2002, Austria (x3), France and Canada have become men’s world champions, and Sweden, Mexico (x3), France, Canada (x2) and Panama have become women’s world champions.
There is also a real opportunity for women’s flag football to take centre stage as the sport grows, particularly as it has (to date) been more competitive than the men’s game. Diana Flores, Mexico’s star quarterback and captain, is a clear poster girl for the sport and demonstrated her skills by starring in an entertaining commercial in the most recent Superbowl. In 2022, she was named a global flag football ambassador by the NFL and IFAF.
Perhaps the biggest talking point for flag football at the LA Olympics has been, and will be, its relationship with regular “tackle” football and the NFL. This will include the potential eligibility of NFL players to participate in flag football at future Olympics. While this would mostly be relevant for Team USA, it is worth noting that there are 113 non-US-born players on NFL rosters as of the date of this blog. This number could well have grown by the time 2028 comes around.
Naturally, the prospect of a star-studded Team USA is appealing for fans of the sport (think the equivalent of the London 2012 Team USA basketball roster). Tyreek Hill, the Miami Dolphins electric wide receiver, has already declared his interest. Hill has the most receiving yards in the NFL so far this season and his frightening footwork makes him an obvious fit for flag football. But, rather like rugby 7s and rugby union/league, flag football requires different skills and different techniques. NFL superstars may not find themselves walking into the Olympic team.
Nevertheless, NFL executive Peter O’Reilly has stated that the NFL will work with the players’ union on allowing current and former players to participate in flag football. This follows on from a long-standing show of support from the NFL for the growth of flag football, which can be seen in the flag football competition in the NFL’s Pro Bowl for the last few years. Readers can watch the highlights of the Pro Bowl flag football finale from January 2023 here.
It is simple to see why the NFL would be a supportive partner. The success of flag football at the Olympics would almost certainly be beneficial to American Football as a whole, as it gains more exposure on a global scale. This is especially at a time when the NFL is looking to increase its popularity worldwide, following on from hugely successful London fixtures in recent years and the debut of the Frankfurt fixtures in Germany in November 2023.
The Football Operations department of the NFL reported earlier this year that flag football is expected to overtake tackle football worldwide in terms of organised participation in 2023. Within that report, Troy Vincent Sr., the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations said, “Tackle [football] will continue as the professional game played in the NFL and its amateur pipeline from youth through college … but flag will dominate in neighbourhoods, schools and recreational leagues around the world. It’s happening in front of our eyes”.
Flag football should not be perceived, in the author’s opinion, as a threat to the tackle format of American Football, but rather the gateway introduction to all formats of the game, which exist side by side. You can use the growth of T20 cricket or rugby 7s to exemplify as such. Looking at the record viewing figures for this summer’s men’s and women’s Ashes series, and the Rugby Union World Cup respectively, the author would argue that traditional formats of a game are still showing strong popularity in the face of “streamlined” formats on the rise. One might say, “Success for one format of the sport is a success for all.”
If “football” is America’s game, then maybe, just perhaps, flag football can be the world’s.