Not everyone can suit up in full pads for full-contact football. But flag football offers a way for kids and “weekend warriors” to enjoy playing the sport in a safer way.
SportsMedia Report had an opportunity to speak with two proponents of the sport, Jeff Lewis, founder and CEO of the American Flag Football League (AFFL) and Danny O’Gallagher, executive director of Yorkville Youth Athletic Association (YYAA) about some recent trends.
SportsMedia Report: Tell us about the growth of flag football at the youth level in New York City and beyond—and what the AFFL and YYAA are doing to meet the growing demand.
Daniel O’Gallagher: Youth flag football has become immensely popular in the New York area and nationally over the past few years. Opportunities to play full-contact tackle have lessened due to safety. The past year has seen untold change in sports as a result of social distancing, and the opportunity to play an organized game like flag football became an appealing option.
Last year, flag football at the youth level matched the popularity of baseball. Today, specifically with the impact of covid, enrollment has surpassed basketball, which was once the country’s most popular youth sport. Flag football is now one of the biggest programs for Yorkville and amongst New York’s youth. It’s become not just a pickup game that you play, but the new “little league”; it’s a family-friendly, community-minded sport.
Jeff Lewis: The idea for the AFFL was borne from my son’s third-grade YYAA game back in 2016. Today, we are a league that is leading the growth and accessibility of the sport. The youth level is very important to us. As other sports have become more serious, flag has an element of informality and doesn’t require a lot to participate. Flag has the real possibility of becoming an Olympic sport. But it doesn’t take a super giant, or someone as wide as a Mack truck to play, making it inviting at the youth level.
SMR: How are the YYAA utilizing AFFL’s GO App to officiate games at the youth level?
DO: When Jeff first introduced the app, we tried it out, introduced it to some of the referees, and it changed the game—the way the parents watched the game, the way the refs experience the work on the field, and centralizing so much of the important game information.The phone becomes the scoreboard. There is nothing else that gives you live scoring; the app is going to become widely used as people become more aware of it.
JL: Our AFFL GO App solves the “Hey Ref!” problem; having participants ask for the score, how much time is left, and other basic information. It becomes important on the outdoor field with no scoreboard. Those who cannot attend the game and may watch the stats remotely as well. The app was created to make officiating youth flag football games easier for all. The app is free to use and may be downloaded here.
SMR: Why is flag football more popular today at the youth level than other sports?
JL: One of the things that I’ve noticed is that youth sports have become insanely serious. Today, sports are trying to identify kids who are going to be the next high school or college star athletes. You see the kids and their parents getting focused on this. One of the things that happens is, some kids get ejected because they are not in the top 1%. We know for every kid, whether they’re going to be a sports star or not, there are so many great lessons and it’s so important they participate in sports. If you’re playing on a basketball team, and you’re not a good shooter, no one passes you the ball. If you’re on defense in soccer, you watch the action from down the field. In flag, everyone has a purpose and role. You grab the guy’s flag and you’re involved.
DO: For many years I’ve seen the idea of specialization at a young age often doesn’t expose the child to other sports and opportunities. One thing our kids really respond to about flag football is that everyone is involved. Right now our teams are coed, and as it grows we may have boys and girls teams. For every game and every kid, everyone is involved—and so many of these kids are really good! It’s a less pressurized environment than elite sports.
SMR: What is the future of flag football nationally and internationally?
JL: We know how big flag football is in the US, and a lot of that is on the male side. Of the 3.5 million kids that play, over 90 percent are boys. The obvious thing that will happen is there will be millions more girls playing in the years ahead. The fact that it’s just now opening up on the girl’s side makes this an incredible time. Last year, 5 million kids in Mexico played flag football. Tackle football has become less accessible, while flag has become more accessible. We will see flag in the Olympics in 2028.
DO: The future of flag football is bright. It’s a fast-growing sport and our organization is working hard to keep up with the incredible local demand. We imagine this is happening well beyond New York City and across the nation. While there may be youth and teenage teams who become more serious and competitive, we want to keep it as grounded as the neighborhood little league, where anyone can play.