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The Pro Bowl takes place this Sunday in Las Vegas. Usually, the NFL’s all-star game is must-not-see TV, a watered-down, low-impact version of football where everyone’s primary goal seems to be just not getting hurt. But this year there is a twist. For the first time, the Pro Bowl will be played as a flag football game.
It remains to be seen whether this will become a product worth seeing. But the move to a flag Pro Bowl raises a more interesting question: is flag football coming to the Olympics?
On the surface, it sounds far-fetched. Traditional American tackle football is certainly not Olympic material. Almost all of the world’s elite players come from the United States, and Canada is the only other country with a quality professional league. The complicated strategy and frightening level of physical danger creates a high barrier to entry that would take the rest of the world a long time to catch up. Even if a competitive tournament were possible, the sport’s punishment makes it difficult to play more than once a week. So how could a tournament fit into an Olympic schedule that’s typically less than 20 days? Also, at a time when gender equality is a priority at the Olympic Games, high-level football is played almost exclusively by men.
But flag football is different. There is no tackling so it is safer to play for people of all ages, sizes and shapes. Minimal equipment is required, and proper games can be played with as few as five players per side on fields much smaller than the standard 100-yard American gridiron. There’s no blocking, just a quarterback throwing to his receivers while the defense tries to stop them, meaning no complex schemes to learn. And far more women play flag football than the traditional game.
There is also a precedent. Slimmed-down versions of established sports such as 3-on-3 basketball, rugby sevens and mixed doubles curling have been added to the Olympics in recent years to make these sports more inclusive and give more countries a chance to win.
As for a road to the Olympics, flag football is already on one. Starting with the Tokyo Summer Games in 2021, the International Olympic Committee allowed the hosts to add some sports of local interest to complement the core program. Among Tokyo’s choices was karate. Breakdancing will debut in 2024 in Paris, a hotbed of the New York City-born urban art form.
The next Summer Olympics after Paris will be held in Los Angeles in 2028. LA, like most major American cities, is a big soccer city. It is home to two NFL franchises (the Rams and the Chargers) and two prestigious college programs at USC and UCLA.
Last summer, the LA Olympic Organizing Committee invited nine sports to apply for inclusion in the 2028 Games. Flag football was one of them, along with karate, breakdance, squash, lacrosse, kickboxing, cricket, motor sports and baseball softball, which was dropped from the Olympic program again after Tokyo. There is no limit to how many of these LA can vote, although there is a cap on the total number of athletes who can compete in the Olympics.
Before the pitch was delivered for a 5-a-side version of flag football, a sort of test run for the sport’s viability as an Olympic event was held at last summer’s World Games – an international multi-sport event for sports that are mostly not at the Olympics. Both a men’s and a women’s tournament were held in Birmingham, Alabama – each featuring eight teams from ten different countries. While the USA won the men’s gold, as expected, the American women were defeated by Mexico in their final. Not a bad proof of concept.
Flag Football also has a very powerful ally in its corner. Both the pitch for the LA organizers and the World Games tournaments were a joint effort between the International Federation of American Football (the world governing body of the sport) and the NFL. That puts the weight of the host country’s most popular professional sports league behind the push to get flag football at the 2028 Olympics.
Last year, senior NFL manager Troy Vincent, a former All-Pro cornerback, wrote an op-ed for the league’s website arguing for Flag’s inclusion in the Olympics, calling it “the future of football.” Citing statistics showing that more than 2 million children play organized flags in the US and that “nearly 20 million” people in “more than 100 countries” worldwide participate, Vincent predicted that “flags in neighborhoods, will dominate schools and recreational leagues around the world.” Even if Tackle will remain in the NFL and its youth and collegiate pipelines. The league has even named “world flag football ambassadors,” including two-time retired Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and current NFL MVP finalist Jalen Hurts.
For Vincent and the NFL, flag football is an opportunity to attract more people to the sport, which means more potential customers. And the Olympics present a unique opportunity for the NFL to break into markets outside of the United States and Canada — something it’s finding difficult even though it now hosts a handful of regular-season games outside of US borders each year. The richest sports league in the world is always looking for ways to get richer and it’s not afraid to step up for it.
We should find out if the NFL-backed bid to get flag football at the 2028 Olympics succeeds sometime this coming spring or summer. LA organizers need to make a decision around this time so they can present their list of sports they want to add at the IOC General Assembly in the fall.