Is flag football the next Olympic sport?

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at the possibility of flag football being added to the Summer Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles, with a push from the NFL.

The NFL is pushing for it to be in the 2028 Summer Games in L.A.

A flag-football player carries the ball in his right arm.
The NFL is championing flag football as a more accessible version of the sport that might work in the Olympics. It could also help the league attract new customers. (Adam Hunger/AP for American Flag Football League)

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports' daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing here.

The Pro Bowl is happening this Sunday in Las Vegas. Normally, the NFL's all-star game is must-not-see TV, a watered-down, low-impact version of football in which everyone's primary goal seems to be just not getting hurt. But this year, there's a twist. For the first time ever, the Pro Bowl will be a flag football game.

Whether this results in a watchable product remains to be seen. But the move to a flag Pro Bowl raises a more interesting question: is flag football coming to the Olympics?

On the surface, it sounds far-fetched. Traditional American tackle football is certainly not Olympic material. Virtually all of the world's elite players are from the United States, and Canada is the only other country with a quality professional league. The complicated strategy and frightening degree of physical danger create a high barrier to entry, so it would take a lot for the rest of the world to catch up. Even if a competitive tournament were possible, the punishing nature of the sport makes it difficult to play more than once a week, so how could a tournament be tucked into an Olympic schedule that typically spans less than 20 days? Plus, at a time when the Olympics are prioritizing gender equality, high-level football is played almost exclusively by men.

But flag football is different. There's no tackling, so it's safer for people of all ages, sizes and shapes to play. Minimal equipment is required, and proper games can be played with as few as five players per side on fields much smaller than the standard 100-yard American gridiron. There's no blocking, just a quarterback throwing to their receivers while the defence tries to stop them, which means no complex schemes to learn. And many more women play flag football than the conventional game.

There's precedent too. Pared-down versions of established sports, like 3-on-3 basketball, rugby sevens and mixed doubles curling, have been added to the Olympics in recent years in an effort to make those sports more inclusive and give more countries a chance to win.

As for a path to the Olympics, flag football is already on one. Starting with the Summer Games in Tokyo in 2021, the International Olympic Committee began allowing hosts to add a few sports of local interest to complement the core program. Tokyo's choices included karate. Break dancing will debut in 2024 in Paris, a hotbed of the urban art form born in New York City.

The next Summer Olympics after Paris' will be held in 2028 in Los Angeles. L.A., like most major American cities, is a big football town. It's home to two NFL franchises (the Rams and Chargers) and a pair of prestigious college programs at USC and UCLA.

Last summer, L.A.'s Olympic organizing committee invited nine sports to pitch them for inclusion in the 2028 Games. Flag football was one of them, along with karate, break dancing, squash, lacrosse, kickboxing, cricket, motorsport and baseball-softball, which was dropped from the Olympic program again after Tokyo. There's no limit to how many of these L.A. can choose, though there is a cap on the total number of athletes that can compete in the Olympics.

Before the pitch for a 5-on-5 version of flag football was delivered, a sort of test run for the sport's viability as an Olympic event was conducted at last summer's World Games — an international, multi-sport event for sports that are mostly not in the Olympics. Both a men's and a women's tournament were held in Birmingham, Alabama — eight teams in each, representing 10 different countries. While the U.S. won gold as expected in the men's event, the American women got trounced in their final by Mexico. Not a bad proof of concept.

Flag football also has a very powerful ally in its corner. Both the pitch to L.A. organizers and the World Games tournaments were joint efforts by the International Federation of American Football (the sport's world governing body) and the NFL. That puts the weight of the host country's favourite professional sports league behind the push to get flag football in the 2028 Olympics.

Last year, high-ranking NFL executive Troy Vincent, a former All-Pro cornerback, wrote an op-ed for the league's website in which he argued for flag's inclusion in the Olympics and called it "the future of football." Citing statistics showing more than 2 million kids in the U.S. play organized flag and that "closer to 20 million" people in "more than 100 countries" participate globally, Vincent predicted "flag will dominate in neighbourhoods, schools and recreational leagues around the world" even as tackle will remain in the NFL and its youth and collegiate pipelines. The league has even appointed "global flag football ambassadors" including retired two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning and current NFL MVP finalist Jalen Hurts.

For Vincent and the NFL, flag football represents a way to get more people playing the sport, which means more potential customers. And the Olympics represent a unique opportunity for the NFL to gain a foothold in markets outside the United States and Canada — something it's struggled to do despite now playing a handful of regular-season games each year beyond U.S. borders. The world's richest sports league is always looking for ways to get richer, and it's not afraid to throw its weight around to do so.

We should find out whether the NFL-backed bid to get flag football in the 2028 Olympics is successful sometime in the upcoming spring or summer. L.A. organizers will have to make a decision around that time so they can present their list of sports they want to add at the IOC's general meeting in the fall.

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