Imagine a sport as straightforward as soccer, but already beloved by the majority of Americans. One with all the potential star power of the NBA, but drawing from a much larger pool of starting-caliber players. A game as kid-friendly as baseball, but faster and more dynamic. This isn't a dream sport. This is flag football.
That aspirational view of the gym class standard is the pitch for the American Flag Football League, the latest NFL alternative to make headlines around the sports world after announcing recently retired football stars Michael Vick and Justin Forsett would participate in its inaugural game. The June exhibition is set to serve as a preview of what fans can expect from the league's first full season, which is scheduled for summer 2018.
"This league could potentially be just under the NFL," Vick says of his decision to participate in the AFFL's debut and serve as one of its advisers. "It will give guys another opportunity to play the game in a safer way."
Despite the fact that more to-be-announced NFL alums will participate in the June 27 game, AFFL founder Jeff Lewis insists his league is "not old-timers' day."
A longtime hedge fund manager, Lewis was inspired to start the league when his son's flag football games (he's now in sixth grade and still playing) turned out to be much more entertaining than he anticipated. "If this game is so much better than other games played by people this age, what would it look like if it were played by great players?" he recalls thinking at the time. After a few years mulling the concept and a summer of data-driven research, he left his job to organize the league last October.
"It was amazing how almost everything that we discovered was consistent with the idea that there's both a big market for people who would like [flag football] and a big supply of people who could play," Lewis says. "The point [of inviting retired NFL stars] is to show what the game looks like at a really high level because no one's seen it before."
He calls the 2018 plan the first ever U.S. Open for football: Eight 12-man teams organized by the league will enter a tournament alongside eight teams who qualify from an open-call tournament. It's American Idol meets March Madness, with prize money waiting at the end for the winning team (how much is still being negotiated). The league-organized teams will be paid, but as Lewis puts it, players will "benefit greatly from winning."
"I can say 100 percent no, I never thought that I would be taking flag football seriously," jokes former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, an adviser to the league and founder of Sports Innovation Lab, a market research firm whose clients include IBM and the NFLPA. "But this is really taking advantage of a lot of different trends—it's similar to esports in the sense that you feel like you could actually do what you just watched."
"More people in the country can relate to flag football than they can to tackle—I didn't play tackle football until I was in high school, because when I went out it cost $35 and we couldn't afford it," adds Donovin Darius, a former NFL safety who is also an AFFL adviser. "So I played on the playground—two-hand touch, one-hand touch, whatever I could."
According to the latest numbers from USA Football, 2.2 million kids ages 14 and under play tackle football, while 1.7 million play flag—considerably closer figures than one might expect. For high schoolers, flag participation rose 10.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, a trend that seems likely to continue as concerns about player safety in tackle football endure.
But it's not always about safety being first: Vick said he played flag football in high school (while also playing tackle) and "won the championship," naturally.
"It's just fun," explains Lewis, who points to the fact that so far about 85 percent of the plays in the league's trial runs have been passing plays. "What people love about football are the great athletic plays—the [David] Tyree catch, the [Odell] Beckham catch, the Julio Jones catch. These are the things that kids have up on their wall."
Vick, whose prolific arm earned him many a "human highlight reel" plaudit, agrees.
"Everybody wants to see the football thrown around," he says from Atlanta, where he's promoting his seven-city V7 Elite Playmakers football camp. "They want to see deep passes and how accurate the quarterback is, and that's what you're going to get the entire time." The AFFL rules actually incentivize long throws, as touchdowns over 50 yards earn an extra point.
For Lewis, keeping the game "fun" also means keeping it fast, something he's written into the rules—the clock will run almost the entire game—but is also ensuring through technology. "We wanted to create a game that could solve the problem that's generally out there in professional sports: that everything's taking too long," he says, adding that he thought writing the rules was going to take three hours, "and it took four months."
Crucial to keeping the game snappy will be the high-tech magnetic belts, a far cry from the primary-colored vinyl most associate with the game.
"A guy's running really fast when a flag gets pulled off him—do you really want to rely on the judgment of a ref who's probably not as fast as the players that he's chasing?" Lewis asks. Instead, uniform belts with magnetically attached flags (the magnets can be adjusted to increase or decrease the degree of difficulty) will contain sensors that show where exactly on the field a flag gets detached. "We figured, if there's an instant answer to the question of knowing where the guy is on the field, let's get it right and get it moving."
There will even be a fantasy component, and because the game requires two-way players, defensive stars will finally get stats all their own.
The chance for football players to develop their personal brands, both through fantasy stats and through showing more personality on the field, is another aspect of the game that many of the former players—finally free from layers of protective gear and a fairly rigid team hierarchy—are excited about.
"For NFL players, the benefit is that I get to extend my career—most guys don't get to leave the game on their own terms," Darius says. It's immediate in the sense that they get to play longer, plus they're getting the kind of exposure that could lead to long-term rewards. In a world where everyone's a free agent, building a social following and name recognition could be a potential boon for players who often wind up relatively anonymous even with some success in the NFL.
"This is an opportunity for football players to be characters, to be seen," Lewis says. "In the NBA, players get to have personality, and that's part of what makes the game compelling. In the NFL, you get penalized for taking off your helmet! Here, there's not going to be any way for them not to be recognized."
The emphasis on developing player personality might bring to mind another much-hyped (and ultimately doomed) NFL alternative, the XFL. And though the AFFL is clearly its opposite as far as violence is concerned, the promise of "fun" is shared.
"There were things learned from the XFL experiment," says Kacyvenski, who mentions Tim Tebow as a great flag football prospect (barring an MLB run, of course). "It pushed the envelope, and there's actually some cool stuff there on the engagement and media side that transfers over to changing how viewers consume football."
Given all the different components of the new league, the fact that it's a substantially safer way to play football is almost an afterthought, though a welcome one. Asked whether he thinks former pros will find it tough not to get physical, Vick laughs.
"I think it will be a relief!" says the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback. "Guys who've played in college and the NFL know the type of damage that tackle football can do to your body."
The AFFL is positioned as an alternative to the NFL, not a replacement—though the surging popularity of flag football and lowered injury risk make it seem, at least at first glance, like an appealing one. "I don't think it's one or the other," Kacyvenski says. "People who consume want options, and the more options the better."
With tackling out of the picture, does that mean a professional women's flag football league could be one of those options? "We've had quite a few women asking, 'Can we play?'" Lewis says. "Certainly down the road, not immediately. We see enormous potential in this as a women's sport, but we can't do everything all at once."
"The one thing I understand is that girls got game too," says Vick, whose oldest daughter is the quarterback of her flag football team. "I watch my daughter play, and she's doing some of the things that I was doing in seven-on-seven. Circling around, moving a little bit—it looked like she'd been watching me! That motivated me to be a part of the league. There are a lot of women who itch to play the game of football, and I think anybody can do anything they put their mind to."