The Case for Flag Football As an Olympic Sport

The Olympics are unlike any other sporting competition on the planet. For 16 days, over 300 events representing 35 sports and every country in the world competed to take home their prized medals, and I have looked forward to watching the Summer Olympics every four years for as long as I can remember. But there’s always been something missing. One of the United States’ most popular sports, and a top 10 sport worldwide, tackle and flag football, could be Olympic sports by 2024, but obstacles remain for that to become a reality. First, we’ll explain why the road to getting American Football included in the Olympics has not been an easy journey, followed by why we believe flag football is the logical solution and choice as a future Olympic sport.


According to an article by, the biggest logistical problems facing the sport of American Football being included in the Olympics are very similar to those facing Rugby. With the large numbers of participants on each team, the “gender equality” formats where both men and women participate in every sport, and the compressed 3-week schedule that would be tough with a more physical game like football and Rugby. Furthermore, for American Football, the barrier to entry is high due to the cost of equipping all players with pads and gear. Therefore, it has also been slowly adopted in many foreign countries, especially in poorer countries.

Olympic Sport


Knowing all this, it’s hard to see how either sport would be a good fit for the Summer Olympics. Rugby is a lot like Soccer in that very little is needed to play the mark in terms of gear and practice at its base level, and it has a much larger international following. This, among other reasons, has recently allowed Rugby to be cleared for the Olympics starting in 2016 by changing the traditional style to a less conventional “sevens” format, which is faster paced with fewer people, which could help carve a similar path for American Football, or flag football more specifically.


Even more and more high school, college, and pro teams are starting to reduce the number of contact practices, still sporting soft-padded headgear and shoulder pads for added protection. But what if we could limit the contact players see before high school and middle school while also addressing some of the concerns for the sport related to it being fully accepted into the Olympics? There have been many talks recently revolving around the safety of tackle football, and not just in the NFL, where concussions are a major concern. Starting as far back as the youth football level, recent evidence has surfaced supporting the idea that even short of a concussion, repeated head impacts and collision can manifest in similar brain injuries later in life for kids tested between the ages of 8-13. Many researchers suggest kids shouldn’t be playing football at all, suggesting that kids’ heads are “a larger part of their body, and their necks are not as strong as adults’. So kids may be at a greater risk of head and brain injuries than adults.”


As of 2015, studies show that flag football is the fastest-growing youth sport in the United States, greatly outpacing the growth of traditional tackle football. Many individual high schools are making the switch to flag football over tackle, getting other schools in their regions to follow suit and creating organized leagues and divisions. It’s even an officially recognized varsity sport in many states, and with women, especially flag football, it is a way to allow easier participation versus the physical nature of tackle. And he’s not the only one. Recently, Drew Brees was interviewed by Peter King for NBC’s pregame show and had some strong words on why he believes flag football is the answer.

“I feel like flag football can save football,” Brees said. Brees coached his son’s flag football team and played flag football himself through junior high, never playing tackle football until high school. “I feel like (flag football) is a great introductory method for many kids into football,” Brees mentioned. “Otherwise, I feel it’s straightforward to go in and have a bad experience early on and never want to play it again. Once you put the pads on, there are so many other elements to the game, and you’re at the coach’s mercy in many cases, too. And to be honest, I don’t think enough coaches are well-versed enough regarding the true fundamentals of the game, especially when the pads go on at the youth level.” Many other pro athletes and coaches have expressed similar sentiments, singing praises for the sport of flag football, and the sport’s rise in popularity echoes that.

Flag football isn’t a fluke or just a recreational development tool that feeds into tackle football; it’s a full-fledged movement with its own identity and purpose, and it’s time we recognized that distinction. Internationally, it is gaining popularity much faster than traditional American football, where the barrier to entry is much higher with the need for full pads and gear. In Mexico, for instance, flag football is booming in popularity, where most consider it to be the #2 sport to Soccer and closing fast, with an estimated 2.5 million kids participating just at the elementary school level. International teams are starting the trip to some of the more popular American flag football tournaments, with representation from Panama, Indonesia, Bahamas, Mexico, Canada, and more common. Participation and interest in flag football are exploding everywhere you look.

At the adult level, it was a record year for flag football. New major tournaments are popping up worldwide, seeing thousands of teams competing across all age groups, formats, and styles. Cash prizes have been at an all-time high, expected to eclipse over $100,000 in team giveaways in the next calendar year. Sponsors have also started taking notice, with the likes of EA Sports, Nerf,, Red Bull, and other major brands seeing the value and growth of flag football to reach their target audience effectively in large numbers. Women’s participation is at an all-time high, mirroring its popularity at the youth level. It is the preferred format for American football in most Central and South American countries. So how does this all lead back to the Olympics and include American football as an official sport? First, let’s review a little history of where the mark stands today with the International Olympic Committee or IOC.

Historically, To be included in the Olympic Games as a demonstration sport, you have to have an International Federation and have held a World Championship competition. This must occur at least six years before a scheduled Olympic game. The International Federation of American Football primarily focused on tackle football but including the flag in its tournament lineup, met this standard, was approved in 2012, and gained provisional recognition in 2014. This could pave the way for American football to be included as an official sport and flag football as possibly a discipline of said sport; however, the IFAF has since faced setbacks due to an alleged scandal, event mismanagement, and misappropriation of funds that cannot bode well for the sport’s inclusion short term. Fortunately, in 2007, the IOC adopted a new, more flexible rule set allowing programs to be up for review after every Olympics starting in 2020, clearing a path for all sports to present their case for being included by winning a simple majority vote. So, American football has the opportunity to be included in the most prestigious sporting event around the world, but how do we overcome the obstacles presented by the sport’s structure to fit the mold of a successful Olympic sporting event?


There’s flag football for every way tackle football doesn’t fit the mold as a logical choice for the IOC. Here are the top 4 reasons flag football should be considered to be included as the next Olympic sport.

1. It’s Less Physically Demanding than Tackle Football

As we’ve already established, flag football is a much safer alternative than tackle football. Fewer hits and collisions equal fewer injuries, and flag football is already a proven success model being praised for preserving the game for future generations. But when it comes to the Summer Olympic Games, safety is just one aspect of the physical demands of the sport, considering you have less than a 3-week window to fit in all levels of competition and the year-round activity needed to practice and qualify. Imagine playing 6-7 full-contact football games with a limited roster within a span of ~16 days, not to mention other possible qualifying events throughout the year. For flag football, it’s not uncommon to play 6-7 games on a weekend or sometimes even a day, so the sport is more than equipped for this style of tournament play.

2. International Flag Football Interest is Exploding

As mentioned above, this is a major issue when determining whether a sport is fit to be considered. While traditional American-style tackle football is top-rated worldwide, flag football appeals to more countries. It’s a lower barrier to entry as far as cost and equipment go, doesn’t require full-length and striped football fields to participate, and is easier to hold larger tournament competitions and leagues to inspire local interest.

3. It Requires Fewer Participants

Depending on which format would be used (our guess is either 5v5 or 7v7), flag football requires far fewer participants than traditional tackle football. Part of this is because it is a less physically demanding sport and requires fewer substitutions. Another aspect is the need for fewer specialist players, such as kickers, punters, special teams, offensive linemen, etc. Each traditional tackle football team would probably carry 50+ competitors; flag football would probably need 15 players, cutting that number to less than a third. This is important because the Olympics cap their total participants to 10,500 athletes and coaches. It again allows more countries to compete, especially poorer countries, where fielding a smaller and less financially demanding team coupled with the reasons above makes more sense.

4. It’s Not Just a Men’s Sport

Gender equality is a major emphasis for the IOC. The 2012 Summer Olympics marked the first time all sports included competing women in their category. Today, any new sport added to the Olympic Games must consist of male and female participants. There is not nearly enough interest from women participators for it to make sense for tackle football. While there are some female players, and even some female tackle football leagues and organizations, it just doesn’t fit the mold, especially with the other issues relating to physicality and entry barriers. As detailed above, this is not a problem for flag football, with female participation booming internationally.


Alcohol scholar. Bacon fan. Internetaholic. Beer geek. Thinker. Coffee advocate. Reader. Have a strong interest in consulting about teddy bears in Nigeria. Spent 2001-2004 promoting glue in Pensacola, FL. My current pet project is testing the market for salsa in Las Vegas, NV. In 2008 I was getting to know birdhouses worldwide. Spent 2002-2008 buying and selling easy-bake-ovens in Bethesda, MD. Spent 2002-2009 marketing country music in the financial sector.