NFL Sees Flag Football as Way to Widen Top of the Funnel, Working to Add Sport to ‘20 Olympics


Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement from the National Football League (just months after Rob Gronkowski announced he was hanging them up) sparked a round of hot takes surrounding the future of the game (see: USA Today’s story entitled ‘The Andrew Luck effect: More NFL players are going to retire young’). A new report from the National Federation of State High School Associations (on sports participation) indicating that nearly 71% of the 43,375 athletes that stopped competing between 2017 and 2018 were football players, has only served to fan the flames.

Despite the negative trends, NFL COO Maryann Turcke is confident that “the future [of the game] is friendly” and that “there’s going to [continue to] be a lot of people who want to play professional football.” To ensure that remains the case she’s actively working to grow flag football participation. The idea is that the barrier for entry is much lower for flag than it is for tackle (because no equipment is needed) and that playing will “help people to understand and love the game” – some of whom who will inevitably go on to play professionally.

Howie Long-Short: There’s no doubt that NFL players have become more conscious of the risks that the game poses, four times as many players under the age of 30 retired in ’16 as they did in ’11. But that still only represents +/- 20 guys. The fact remains that most players don’t play long enough to go out on their own terms and the list of those that would be willing to pass up millions of dollars to walk away early is even shorter. There’s no reason to believe the NFL has an existential crisis on its hands.

Promoting flag football to widen the top of the prospective player pool funnel is a wise strategy and one with little downside. While most kids aren’t destined to be professional football players, the data shows that “there’s a way higher probability of a fan becoming an avid fan if [he /she] participates in the game” and as Turcke reminds “avid fans are valuable” - they are the ones who buy tickets, jerseys etc.

Turcke’s goal is to see flag football recognized as an Olympic sport in time for the 2020 Tokyo Games. She believes that “winning medals at the Olympic Games is a huge source of national pride” and that “these countries with monstrous populations would figure out a way to mount a team” if there were a reason to start playing. There is a group within the league office currently working to make it happen.

Of course, bringing football to the world stage is not solely a charitable endeavor for the league. Turcke says that “making flag football a global sport will generate fandom for [the NFL] around the world” and help the league to drive “revenue growth in the global markets” - revenue growth that will help the league reach its goal of doing $25 billion/year by ’27.

Fan Marino: Joe Tsai’s recent purchase of the Brooklyn Nets came at a $2.35 valuation. By comparison, the Carolina Panthers sold for $2.275 last year. Those with $2.5 billion burning a hole in their pocket may be wondering whether an NBA or NFL franchise is the better long-term investment. Revenue projections aside (FYI: NFL did $15 billion last season, NBA did $7.4 billion), Turcke suggests that having “more equitable revenue distribution” (remember, NBA teams negotiate their local broadcast deals) and the ability to sell “hope” on an annual basis (see: competitive balance) provides NFL team owners with stability not found in other sports.

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