100 years into the longer term, what if tens of millions of individuals gathered each February, to not watch the Tremendous Bowl, however to as an alternative watch the annual world flag soccer championship?

As soon as an informal exercise performed at household reunions, the aggressive sport of flag soccer is “soaring,” “exploding” and “skyrocketing in popularity nationwide,” in keeping with mainstream information retailers.

There’s some information behind the breathless headlines: In keeping with the NFL’s official flag football program, since 2015 the variety of children ages 6 to 12 who play flag soccer has risen by 38%, to greater than 1.5 million.

In my latest e book, “Emerging Sports as Social Movements,” I discover nontraditional sports activities like flag soccer and disc golf. One in all my key findings is that splashy headlines about fashionable sports activities hardly ever seize a sport’s true attain and endurance.

For each sport like pickleball that beneficial properties widespread, sustained recognition, there are a number of – adventure racing, paintball and wakeboarding – that stay firmly ensconced of their area of interest.

Within the case of flag soccer, there are a handful of latest developments that really do level to a promising future. However there are additionally some crimson flags that would find yourself hampering its development.

A enjoyable, quick, safer different

Although its guidelines are much like sort out soccer, flag soccer is presently gaining consideration for what makes it completely different.

It’s thought-about a no-contact sport. A “sort out” entails snatching certainly one of two flags that dangle from the hips of the ball provider. Whereas gamers face damage dangers, they maintain far fewer head impacts than athletes who play sort out soccer.

With the general public’s considerations about mind accidents on the rise, many dad and mom are choosing flag soccer as an alternative of sort out for his or her children.

Obscurity is a robust barrier to rising sports activities. However getting observed might not be an issue for flag soccer.

The Worldwide Olympic Committee announced in October 2023 that flag soccer could be headed to the Summer time Video games in Los Angeles in 2028. It’s not clear but if lively NFL gamers can compete, but when they’re eligible – and if the U.S. assembles a “Dream Team” just like the Olympic males’s basketball group of 1992 that included superstars Michael Jordan, Larry Chook and Magic Johnson – flag soccer may get on the radar of tens of millions of informal sports activities followers in 2028.

The Olympic model of flag soccer is fast-paced.

Video games are shorter than a typical recreation of sort out soccer. 5 gamers compete on 50-yard fields with 10-yard finish zones for 2 20-minute halves. This format made its first huge look within the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the place the U.S. males gained gold and the ladies took house silver.

A brief overview of the best way to play flag soccer.

The NFL cultivates the grassroots

Though it could come as a shock, the NFL is embracing flag soccer and taking its development critically.

In 2021, the NFL and Nike dedicated US$5 million in equipment to help highschool flag soccer groups throughout the nation. The NFL’s official flag football program operates greater than 1,600 native leagues and receives sponsorships from prime manufacturers like Visa, Gatorade and Subway.

Most NFL groups are presently supporting the grassroots of flag soccer with summer season camps, clinics and regional tournaments.

Throughout final 12 months’s Tremendous Bowl, an estimated 115 million viewers watched a flag football TV commercial that includes Mexican quarterback Diana Flores bobbing and spinning to evade NFL gamers and celebrities as they tried to take her flag.

On Feb. 4, 2024, the Professional Bowl – the NFL’s annual all-star recreation – sidelined sort out soccer for the second 12 months in a row. As a substitute was a 7-on-7 flag soccer recreation that aired on ESPN and ABC and streamed on ESPN+.

Previous to that recreation, on Feb. 2-3, the league additionally hosted the International NFL Flag Championships as a part of the Professional Bowl Video games, that includes younger athletes from 12 nations.

By the numbers

Flag soccer could also be having a second, however the query stays: Is the game really experiencing a significant surge in participation that would lengthen into the longer term?

In keeping with figures collected yearly by the National Federation of High Schools, 21,980 college students performed highschool flag soccer in 2023. To place this quantity in context, nonetheless, sort out soccer attracted 47 instances extra college students – roughly 1 million gamers – the identical 12 months. Observe and subject, basketball and soccer have roughly 1 million individuals apiece.

Curiosity in flag soccer appears to be concentrated in just a few areas, with roughly 80% of high school players dwelling in simply three states: Florida, Georgia and New York.

Although highschool participation in flag soccer has increased steadily since 2007, virtually all the expansion comes from the women’ facet.

A nationwide sports participation survey finds that the variety of informal gamers of flag soccer is up, however core participation is down. The research defines “informal gamers” as those that play fewer than 50 instances per 12 months, whereas “core gamers” take part 50 or extra instances every year.

The share of Americans who play casually elevated by 41% between 2016 and 2022. However core participation declined by 13% throughout this era.

For sustainable development, nontraditional sports activities have to generate pleasure amongst each core and informal gamers. High-down investments and advertising and marketing methods might entice new gamers, however grassroots organizing retains them coming again.

Take pickleball. Lately, the game has generated loads of cultural clout, with high-profile athletes like LeBron James investing within the skilled circuit, and celebrity pickleball players making headlines. There has additionally been tremendous growth in pickleball’s social and bodily infrastructure. For these causes, each informal and core participation in pickleball more than doubled between 2016 and 2022.

Purple sport, blue sport

In the long run, the way forward for flag soccer might hinge on the general public debate over sort out soccer’s security. Over the previous decade, several studies have discovered a hyperlink between repeated head impacts and the danger for critical mind accidents, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

But recent efforts to make sort out soccer safer for younger athletes have been met with fierce resistance from households, followers and organizers. In lots of areas of the U.S., sort out soccer is deeply ingrained within the tradition, resulting in sturdy opposition to any modifications.

New guidelines to guard NFL gamers have seeped into mainstream politics. For example, in 2019, former President Donald Trump dubbed the NFL’s concussion protocol “tender” and mentioned that security measures have been “ruining the sport.”

In the meantime, Democratic state lawmakers in New York, Illinois and California have introduced bills to ban tackle football for kids under 12, usually citing flag soccer as an appropriate different. None of those payments, nonetheless, have handed.

Two teenaged girls fight for a ball.
Flag soccer has turn into extra widespread amongst women and girls.
Keith Birmingham/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

Some analysis exhibits that Democrats are more likely to trust concussion science than Republicans. Democrats additionally pay more attention to news about concussions than Republicans.

As beliefs concerning the risks of sort out soccer turn into polarized, the perceived advantages of flag soccer will seemingly observe go well with. As I confirmed in a latest research of sport recognition in 207 areas of the U.S., flag football is more popular in regions that tend to vote Democratic, with sort out soccer extra widespread in Republican areas.

So along with going after the sources wanted for sustainable development – funding, group, visibility, legitimacy – flag soccer’s advocates may also have to navigate a nation divided by politics.


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