- The American Flag Football League, airing on NFL Network, features a handful of former NFL stars, including Jacoby Jones, Seneca Wallace and Jason Avant.
Jahvid Best will return to a football field Saturday. A first-round pick in 2010, the running back had hardly carried a ball since his NFL career ended five years ago following a string of concussions -- that is until the new American Flag Football League came calling. At first, he wasn’t sure how serious the league was going to be. Flag football, after all, has long been considered a game meant for backyards and children. But then he got to training camp and saw the collection of ex-pros team captain Justin Forsett had assembled—receivers Jacoby Jones, and Jason Avant, quarterback Seneca Wallace—and saw how seriously they were taking the endeavor. “That’s when I knew it would be a good competition,” Best said.
After beating a squad led by Tajh Boyd and Nate Robinson last week, team Godspeed will face a group captained by Chad Johnson Saturday afternoon in Indianapolis, with the winner taking on the country’s top amateur team Thursday at 8 p.m. ET in Houston. AFFL CEO Jeffrey Lewis and NFL Network, which is broadcasting the games and boosting the league on its website, are hoping that fans looking for action on one of the calendar’s quietest sports days will agree with Best: That flag football is worth the time.
Lewis says the idea for a league came to him after coaching his son’s flag football team and wondering how entertaining the sport might be if it was played by the best in the world. This winter, AFFL advisor Tim Brosnan connected him to NFL Network executives, who were intrigued by the possibilities of melding the football fans see on TV with the sport they are more likely to play in a local park—and especially of doing so during the NFL’s short annual hiatus between June minicamps and August training camps.
The AFFL now joins similar summer amateur tournaments like "The Basketball Tournament" in hoping to find the model for an “American Idol” of sports, or at least to reach the size and cultural relevance of the Little League World Series. In year one, it already has the advantage of being connected to the country’s largest sports league, which has promoted flag football on NFL.com and across its social media accounts. That bond also differentiates the upstart from other football challengers like the Arena Football League, the soon-to-be-reborn XFL, and so on.
Lewis is happy to discuss the things his league does differently than the NFL. The gameplay is faster, it’s easier to connect with players who are mic’d up and not shielded by helmets and pads, and it aims to tackle the age-old question about how experienced amateurs might look playing against top-notch athletes. But don’t ask him if he views his creation as a competitor to the NFL. “There isn’t anything that can be a competitor, with all due respect to all these guys who want to light a bunch of money on fire,” Lewis said. “Why on Earth would anybody try to compete with a phenomenal product?” Instead, he wants the games over the next week to look like a “an exuberant practice by an NFL team,” just another way for football fans to get a fix.
As NFL Network’s SVP for programming Mark Quenzel puts its, “It all is football at the end of the day.” For years, the NFL has supported flag football associations and sees it as a part of the sport at the youth level. To Quenzel, it represents a more accessible way to fall in love with the the game and to learn the lessons football has to teach. In his mind, flag football can be the beginning of a funnel that leads back to watching the Cowboys on Sundays. For others, flag football is viewed as a replacement for the violent gridiron game. “Is Flag Football the Future of the NFL?” Complex asked last year. ESPN’s “Highly Questionable” crew debated the same topic Thursday afternoon. And across the country, parents and local leaders are wondering whether kids should be playing with flags instead of helmets.
But Lewis has purposefully shied away from marketing the AFFL as a safer alternative. “It’s a contact sport … It’s not tackle football, but it’s not tiddlywinks,” Lewis said, “I don’t think it’s fair for me to walk around and talk about how safe it is.” Plus, he added, “I’m trying to get people to enjoy watching it—telling them that it’s safe, that’s not going to make people interested. It’s not a topic for us ... At the end of the day, watch our game because it’s football.”
If there is a way in which flag football develops as an alternative to the traditional sport, it could assume the role softball has taken vis-à-vis baseball—a sport dominated by women. At least five states have already sanctioned flag football as a girls’ varsity sport, and female participation is a big reason why the sport has been cited as one of the fastest growing nationwide.
From a business perspective, the potential routes to success here are varied. “The ratings have not been huge,” Quenzel said, but he also didn’t expect them to be. “This is a growth thing,” he added, signalling interest in a multi-year partnership with the sport and saying that he’s been pleased by the percentage of viewers that have come from younger age groups, as well as the traction highlights and stories from the games have gotten on social media. The NFL’s online feeds have seen a 12% increase in engagement compared to the same stretch of the offseason last year, for instance.
Meanwhile, for the ex-pros involved, the draw is simple. “When you’re away from the game for so long, you forget how fans respond,” says Wallace, Godspeed’s QB. “It was crazy to see the amount of coverage and people that hit me up after the game—it was like I just played against the Jets.” In particular, Wallace is glad that the young quarterbacks he trains in Dallas have gotten to see him play.
Best, who coaches high schoolers in California, has enjoyed a similar experience, and he has now fully bought into flag football, even if he doesn’t think it will take over the NFL. “Coaching high school, I get a lot of concussion questions, obviously with my history,” he said. “I love football. It’s tough. I love the fact that football has contact in it; that’s why we were attracted to it. It’s hard to take that away. But flag football is something that can give you the excitement of football. It’s as close as you can get.”