NFL’s dedication to expanding flag football starts at the top with Commissioner Roger Goodell


The NFL’s dedication to expanding flag football starts at the top.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has been fully invested in growing the non-contact version of the most popular sport in the United States. Flag football introduces more people, including folks around the world, to the NFL so it’s a wise commitment for a league that wants to become a global powerhouse.

“We always thought it was important,” Goodell told The Associated Press about making flag football a priority. “But I think we really feel, at this time, there is strong momentum, strong need, particularly for women, to be able to participate in a sport that they hadn’t had the opportunity to do. This was a chance for us to do it internationally on a global basis, with young women and young boys, and really build it across different levels, from youth to high school to college and maybe someday a professional league.

“It’s a long haul, but it’s certainly worth it and we’re seeing that momentum build, particularly with the Olympics coming up.”

The league says 20 million people in 100 different countries are playing flag football. It’s the fastest-growing sport globally and will debut in the Olympics at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

The NFL led the charge to make it happen and that was just the start.

The league announced Tuesday that Toyota will become the presenting partner of NFL Flag tournaments across the country. Goodell spent two days last week in Aspen meeting with the Toyota executive team about sponsorship and he plans to attend the NFL Flag Championships next month at the Hall of Fame Village in Canton, Ohio. The event will feature more than 280 teams of girls and boys representing NFL Flag regional winners from across the United States plus six teams from countries around the world.

“Toyota understands the vision,” Goodell said. “I’ve always said great partnerships are built on having an alignment and I really feel strongly after spending time with them, from corporate on to the dealers, being able to see it’ll be actually executed in their communities. Their enthusiasm for it was overwhelming, but also gave me great confidence that we have the right partner to really take this partnership to a new level and, obviously, flag football to a new level.”

Beyond appealing to girls and young athletes in countries who aren’t exposed to tackle football, flag has opened doors for players in the United States who can’t afford equipment.

Five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. was one of those kids growing up in Los Angeles. He switched to flag football because playing Pop Warner was a financial burden and he didn’t play tackle again until high school. Smith ended up becoming a two-time All-Pro who played 16 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens.

“Flag has always been a part of football that I think is a little bit underrated,” Smith said. “I look at flag really to help introduce the fundamentals of football to kids because you don’t have to worry about getting hit so they get to really focus on playing tight end, quarterback, catching a football. Not every kid that wants to play football initially in their first couple of seasons are excited about getting hit so I think flag gives an opportunity to really focus on the fundamentals, focus on how football is really implemented.”

Goodell gets excited hearing stories from international players who become involved in the NFL through flag football. He mentioned the unique journey of Phoebe Schecter, who fell in love with football in Britain, became an assistant coach with the Buffalo Bills and now is captain of the British women’s national team, an NFL analyst and is a global flag ambassador for the league.

“It’s changed her life, and to hear those stories about how it’s given somebody who really had no connection to the game an opportunity to play and understand it, and wants to give back, it was even more encouraging for us,” Goodell said.

Whenever the NFL makes a rule change to improve player safety such as banning the hip-drop tackle, many old-school fans and some players complain the league is going soft and will eventually turn into flag football like the Pro Bowl.

“It doesn’t concern me at all,” Goodell said about the criticism. “Listen, you know the difference. You see it. You know what it’s like to be on a tackle football field and the difference in the speed, the contact. It’s a very demanding sport, but our job is to eliminate techniques that we think are causing injuries and those injuries are quite serious. They’re not only season-ending but career-ending. …

“We’ve been able to demonstrate over the last 15 years that we’ve made our sport safer, more competitive and more exciting at the same time. And, more people are enjoying the game.”

So what’s the ceiling for flag football? Could it become a professional sport in the future?

“When young athletes see a path to progress through the sport, obviously starting at the youth level and then to high school to playing in college, I think that’s when you’ll see the opportunity for professional leagues to evolve,” Goodell said. “That’s exciting so I do believe that will happen, seeing what’s taking place at what I call the amateur level.”


Follow AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi on X.



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