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Flag Football Could Win Big with Licensing  image

Flag Football Could Win Big with Licensing 

By: Mark Seavy

With flag football getting so much play, can licensing be far behind?  

The men’s professional American Flag Football League (AFFL) is slated to launch in April. Its first season will start small with teams in four cities—Nashville, TN; Boston, MA; Dallas, TX; and Las Vegas, NV.  

Flag football was also featured at the NFL’s recent Pro Bowl, and was added late last year as a sport for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, CA. This inclusion is especially noteworthy because football hasn’t been included in the Olympics since a tackle version debuted as a demonstration sport at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles. 

The sport is also growing rapidly at the youth level. More than 650,000 players took to the field last fall in the National Football League FLAG youth program (up 12% from the previous year) and the sport is sanctioned for high school girls in eight U.S. states. Overall, about seven million students aged six years and up played flag football in the U.S. in 2021, according to the Sports Industry & Fitness Association (SIFA). There is also significant engagement at the collegiate level.  

But flag football’s popularity is not confined to the U.S. In fact, there are more than 20 million players in 100 countries around the world. The International Federation of American Football (AFAF) has 65 flag teams and will hold its world championship in Lahti, Finland in August.  

Yet while interest in the leagues and tournaments is expanding, it typically takes several years before a fan base is large enough to support brand licensing. Nevertheless, there are early signs of the potential for flag football.  

Augusta Sportswear (on-field jerseys), Franklin Sports (equipment), and Stack Sports’ Sports Connect Division (registration) are operating partners with NFL Flag. And Fathead, a supplier of life-size player decals, is an official partner. The NFL league also holds a national championship in July in Canton, OH,  home to the NFL Hall of Fame.  ESPN will broadcast  the tourney, starting with a round of 16 teams narrowed from a field of 140 boys’ and 170 girls’ teams. 

“It definitely has potential for licensing, but most of the new leagues in any sport take three to five years to establish a large enough fan base to support it,” said a sports licensing executive. “Here, you already have the NFL brand associated with the league, so that has the potential to change that dynamic for licensing.”
 

Some of the surge in interest in flag football is also tied to growing concern among parents about traumatic brain injuries associated with playing tackle football at a young age. A brain disorder tied to tackle football was first diagnosed in NFL players in 2005. Ten years ago, the NFL gave $45 million to USA Football for a “Heads Up” football program designed to help teach safer tackling techniques—a response, at the time, to concerns about the youth game.  

But by 2015, tackle football in the U.S. had declined to 6.2 million players, according to SFIA. It was at this time that the NFL, which first launched flag football in 1996, started increasing its investment in the sport. From 2019 to 2022, regular participation in tackle football among children six to 12 years old fell 13%, SFIA said. 

Moving forward, continued investment in flag football could not only increase awareness of football globally but also significantly grow opportunities in licensing. There are also indicators that flag football is a steppingstone to playing tackle football. Some flag leagues report that nearly 80% of players move on to tackle. 

“This is not about being an emerging sport, to participate in the Olympic Games,” said Troy Vincent, a former NFL cornerback who heads up flag football as the pro league’s EVP of Operations. “This is about changing the way people see and feel about the game of football, and where everyone can experience the values of the game. This goes far beyond that—this is the future of the sport of football, where everyone can partici

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