Though its initial intent was to resolve inequities in the classroom, the passage of Title IX legislation in 1972 opened the floodgates for girls’ participation opportunities in high school athletics. Basketball, volleyball and track and field numbers blew up immediately and throughout the remainder of the 1970s. Cross country and softball took off in the late ‘70s and early 1980s, with the number of female cross country runners more than tripling between 1975 and 1985. The 1990s belonged to girls soccer, which grew from roughly 120,000 participants at the beginning of the decade to almost 210,000 in 1995.
Beyond the more traditional offerings, several newer sports have hit their stride in the new millennium, including girls lacrosse and competitive spirit (99,750 and 161,358 annual female participants, respectively, according to the most recent NFHS High School Athletics Participation Survey), with ice hockey, sand volleyball and others also gaining some footing.
One of those others is girls flag football, which is currently sponsored by NFHS member associations in five states: Alabama (currently no state championship), Alaska (no state championship), Georgia, Florida and Nevada. And while that total remains low for the moment, it may not be long before the game’s increasing popularity grabs national attention. In fact, some years from now, it’s possible we will look back on girls flag as the emerging sport of the 2020s.
And if the first things that come to mind at the words “girls flag football” are the light-hearted powderpuff games during Homecoming week festivities, think again. In most states, games are played on 80- or 100-yard fields with seven or eight players on each side, and feature a lightning-quick tempo, intricate offensive and defensive systems and personnel substitution packages.
“I know there are schools that record their games, so I’m assuming they’re studying film, too,” said Jeremy Hernandez, assistant director of officials and flag football sport administrator for the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA).
Regular-season schedules range in length from 12 games (Georgia) to 20 games plus a “jamboree” date (Alaska), with the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) electing not to establish a minimum or maximum number of contests for its pilot year. The most notable variable between states, however, is the time of year the sport is played, as Alaska and Georgia – and now Alabama – run their seasons in the fall, while Nevada uses the winter season and Florida plays in the spring.
After several years as a club sport, girls flag football first ascended to the state association level when the FHSAA made it a recognized sport ahead of the 2002-03 school year. To achieve recognized sport status, the association required that at least 48 schools commit to having a season, a mark some new programs struggled to reach in their early years.
Girls flag encountered no such difficulty.
Led by Broward and Orange Counties, two densely populated counties in south and central Florida, respectively, 103 schools and 3,855 participants competed in the FHSAA’s first official campaign. By 2016, those figures had grown large enough to warrant a second state championship division, and in the Sunshine State’s 20th flag football season this spring, 284 schools will battle for an FHSAA title with 36 more conducting a regular season only.
“The numbers really shot up kind of quickly – it’s been one of our fastest-growing sports,” Hernandez said. “I believe a lot of our female athletes are already entrenched in that football culture, and just being able to play it themselves and show that females can be successful in that sport is probably one of the biggest factors.”
The flag football storyline in Nevada follows a similar yet unique path. Pamela Sloan, director III of athletics and activities for the Clark County (Nevada) School District (CCSD), originally hatched the idea from the results of a survey designed to boost female student participation in CCSD athletic programs.
“We needed better balance between our male and our female numbers,” Sloan said. “So, we took the bull by the horns and surveyed our female students, as we still currently do, and the (highest) interest was for flag football. We had conversations with our administrators about Florida and some other states that were doing it, and we just wanted to try to provide those opportunities.”
Rather than going directly to the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) right away, Sloan began a pilot program using all 34 schools in CCSD beginning with the 2013 season.
And much like in Florida, that was all it took.
Surging numbers required the adoption of junior varsity programs in 2014 and “B” teams in 2015, and by 2016, more than 1,900 girls were donning flag belts in Clark County, a remarkable climb from 785 in Year 1.
“The NIAA knew what we were doing, and we told them that we were going to come to the Board once we got established,” said Sloan. “And so that’s when we went to them and showed them all the success we had experienced in everything that we put together. And it’s been a huge success ever since.”
This season, 37 schools from the NIAA Southern League – made up mostly of Clark County schools – will take part in the association’s flag football program, which consists of classes 3A, 4A and 5A. Efforts to recruit more schools from the northern part of the state are ongoing but have been hampered thus far by concerns over colder temperatures.
“The only downfall is that we play flag football in the winter,” Sloan said. “We’re in Las Vegas and our winters are not extreme – like, 40 to 50 degrees. The winters up north are rough, but we would love to have the North compete and have a true state championship. That would be phenomenal.”
Another major growth component is the sport’s cost-effective nature. In contrast to sports like tackle football, ice hockey and lacrosse, which can require schools and/or individual players to purchase helmets, shoulder pads, goggles, gloves and other protective paraphernalia, students need little more than a pair of cleats or athletic shoes for flag football.
“We’ve heard of schools starting out wearing their old basketball jerseys or volleyball jerseys,” Hernandez said. “So, if you eliminate that cost by reusing an older jersey, you really have just your flags and a few balls, and then most schools have a football field or soccer field, so you don’t have to have any type of special field outside of what you may already have on campus.”
For some schools, however, that minimal cost of equipment can still be an obstacle alongside other typical expenses like transportation and travel, and compensation for coaches and officials. And as with any new initiative, success is hard to come by without additional funding and promotional efforts to generate interest. To help fill these voids, Nike and several National Football League (NFL) organizations have come forward to contribute to the cause.
In early February, Nike announced a massive $5-million partnership with the NFL that offered a one-time $100,000 payment to any state association willing to set up a flag football pilot program in 2021, as well as any others looking to grow their existing flag football provisions. Florida was the first state to receive grant money from Nike, and since flag football was already being played there, schools that applied received their money directly and used it to purchase new football uniforms, socks and other accessories.
As far as assistance from NFL teams, the AHSAA and the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) stand out as beneficiaries thanks to their relationships with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons organization began devising its plan to bring girls flag football to Georgia in 2016 and presented its idea for a small pilot program to Gwinnett County Public Schools – the largest school district in the state – one year later.
Entirely funded by the Falcons and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation (named for the team’s owner), 400 girls from Gwinnett County’s 19 high schools took the field in the fall of 2018 and completed a successful first season that culminated in the state’s first-ever Girls Flag Football Championship held in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The following year, five more counties – Cherokee, Forsyth, Henry, Muscogee and Rockdale – were added to the experiment to total 52 schools and 1,040 participants.
As teams reconvened at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for another round of championship games in December 2019, the GHSA decided that the two promising years of the pilot program were enough to officially take control of girls flag football, and announced it would begin sanctioning the sport with the 2020 season.
“Our relationship with the Falcons is terrific,” said Ernie Yarbrough, assistant executive director and girls flag football sport coordinator at the GHSA. “They provide grant money based on need to our GHSA schools that apply for it. For some, it helps pay for game officials; for others, it’s a coach’s stipend. It really is awesome. And they have really helped us grow, too. We went from 91 schools last year – our first year as a sanctioned championship sport – to 191 this year.”
With Georgia off and running, the Falcons turned their attention to Alabama, and are now seeing the fruits of their labors as the state began Year 1 of its pilot program at the beginning of September with 44 schools.
“They have been an unbelievable partner from the very beginning when this was introduced to our member schools back in April,” said Jeff Segars, AHSAA assistant director and flag football director. “They have put their money where their mouth is, and they came up with money to help our schools, whose budgets are stretched thin as it is. You go in to a superintendent or a principal and say, ‘hey, I want you to do this,’ and one of the first things they’re going to say is, ‘how much is it going to cost me?’ And with the help of the Falcons, we were able to help defer some of those costs. I don’t think we would be where we are without them.”
The AHSAA will also hold some form of a year-end tournament, though the concrete details regarding format and location(s) have yet to be determined.
The Falcons have since shifted their focus to yet another state – Montana – and have already made significant headway. This past spring, the Montana High School Association Executive Board approved girls flag football as a piloted sport with schools expected to begin exploring their options over the next year.
“The Atlanta Falcons are honored to be the leader in establishing high school girls flag football in Georgia, Alabama and beyond,” said Amanda Dinkel, the Atlanta Falcons’ director of community relations. “We view this as an opportunity to get thousands of girls involved in being part of the sport of football. Not only will they learn the fundamentals of football, but it also provides them access to being part of a team sport and an additional way for them to stay physically active. Most of all, we hope the girls are able to just have fun playing the game we all love!”
Izell Reese is president and CEO of RCX Sports, the official operating partner of NFL FLAG and its 1,500 youth flag football leagues around the country. His role as it pertains to high school girls flag football is to work directly with NFL teams and high school state associations to establish partnerships that lead to growth in female participation.
While the Falcons have been exemplary in their support, other teams including the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida, the Chicago Bears, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles in Pennsylvania, are stepping up with funding, hosting promotional events to drive interest, and holding training clinics for prospective players and coaches.
And according to Reese, those teams represent just the tip of the iceberg.
“The Seattle Seahawks have launched a pilot in their state, and we just had a call with the (San Francisco) 49ers, who are looking at supporting girls flag football in Hawaii,” said Reese. “So, there are several clubs that are getting involved. And I would say we’re having some type of conversation with all 32 clubs about supporting the association in their respective state or in other states. And it’s a team effort. It’s one of those rare times when you can see where all 32 teams are joining in to help and working together to promote this.”
Both past and current progress provide an encouraging outlook for girls flag football in the years ahead, but there is much work to be done before it becomes a standardized offering across the country. However, with the dogged persistence of state associations and entities like RCX, NFL FLAG, the Atlanta Falcons and others, the race to that end zone may be shorter than perceived.
“We’re pushing to get more states – and hopefully every state – in the coming years, and when I say, ‘coming years’, I’m saying two to three at most,” said Reese. “Just given the momentum we’ve built, I’ll be really surprised if two years from now every state isn’t playing. I think you’re going to start seeing flag football as one of the fastest growing sports nationwide.”
Nate Perry is coordinator of media relations at the National Federation of State High School Associations.