We have all seen the ups and down of the startup Alliance of American Football in recent weeks, and the NFL Combine is about to get rolling in Indianapolis. Then we have a local Arena Football entry coming to The Westchester County Center, the New York Street, in the coming weeks. Add in at least six other leagues in various forms of starting up, restarting or moving along (including the Stamford based XFL next year with half a billion dollars of Vince McMahon’s money and sports business veteran Oliver Luck at the helm), and you have A LOT of football of the traditional tackle kind in the mix for a concept…offseason interest…that no one has proven there is a market for, even the NFL.
However a New York based group is asking another question; Is the future of football flag? The topic was addressed at a midtown event at CSM Lead Dog on Thursday, when Wall Street guy turned American Flag Football CEO Jeff Lewis was joined by two players, former NFL’ers quarterback Jerrod Johnson and Pro Bowler Michael Griffin (who has also become known as “The Cupcake Guy” for his business that is getting a great pop on TV with a Microsoft commercial with former Titans teammate Brian Orakpo) to talk about all levels of Flag Football, from the grassroots efforts to their professional venture, which is coming back for a second season on NFL Network this spring with a million dollar prize (and may be returning to the Jets Florham Park practice facility for their early round games, which were staged there last year).
How big is Flag? “All the data we have shows fast growing participation in the millions around the world,” said Lewis. “It is coed, easy to play, low cost and most importantly gives people of all ages and skill levels a chance to enjoy football, stay active and be part of a fun team environment.” And while the issues of concussion (the NFL is a partner of the AFFL) were avoided or handled well, the athletic but less full contact nature of flag is a growing path for the game to younger audiences and participants, audiences who can use Flag to be both aspirational and inspirational as the top level of the AFFL develops as a property.
Some of the numbers Lewis put forth were very intriguing for fans in general and fit the audience that brands and media outlets are craving. He mentioned that in their first season, AFFL videos were seen by over three million fans on YouTube, with almost half of the viewers being under 25. Even more astounding is that they watched the videos for almost an hour, an almost unheard of time for anything not called Fortnite these days. Plus the nature of the game of Flag: fast paced, high scoring, lots of action and athleticism on the elite level makes it perfect for short highlights and for viewing on any screen.
“The level of competition is really high and for guys who love the game and want to stay involved, especially with the prize money at the end, it is a big plus,” added Griffin, who spent a majority of his career with the Titans, including two Pro Bowl appearances. He played with Michael Vick in season one of the AFFL, and is coming back for season two.
While there are thousands of Flag football participants in leagues in the New York area, the AFFL will have the most elite players, and probably several household names (Vick and Chad Ochocinco were two from season one) playing this spring at locations still to be announced. To date their registration for teams playing for the million includes over 3,000 players and five hundred teams, with over 300 of those players with professional experience. The regionals will begin in late April, with a title game on NFL Network in Houston in July. There will also be a group of international teams which will come from an event in Spain in a few weeks, and although the model for now will be more made for TV than big stadiums with big overhead, Lewis sees a bright multidimensional future for Flag, with high school and college leagues feeding into a wide audience on the elite level. “We think we are coming along at the right time, with no aspirations to take on the NFL model,” he added. “Flag is for everyone, and the level of competition will be even higher than last year, we are excited about where this can go as a property for all.”
While many are looking to literally “tackle” year round football, the AFFL is taking a simpler, maybe even more disruptive approach that cost effectively doesn’t challenge, but enhances, the status quo. Is it a good bet for success? Time will tell, but the market appears to be there, just check your local park for players.