The football landscape in the United States is getting increasingly crowded. Once dominated by the NFL and NCAA, now football fans are offered various other viewing options throughout the year including the Alliance of American Football (AAF) and the XFL.
The American Flag Football League (AFFL) is also in the marketplace for football viewership, though founder and CEO Jeff Lewis doesn’t view it as a competitor to the NFL, NCAA, AAF or XFL.
“We’re not secondary (to the NFL),” Lewis said. “For a long time flag (football) might have been perceived as somehow threatening to football. Now everybody sees flag football as part of football, not a criticism of it, not a breakaway republic. It’s part of that mosaic.”
Lewis said the AAF, which began play February 9, 2019, and the XFL, set to kick off in 2020, will always be compared to the NFL because they are tackle football leagues. While both are spring leagues and view themselves as complementary options to the NFL—the XFL even addresses that in its Frequently Asked Questions section—the end goal for a player in the NCAA, AAF or XFL is the NFL. The AFFL, on the other hand, is the pinnacle of flag football.
Featuring 128 amateur teams and four teams comprised of professional athletes (including Michael Vick, Chad Johnson, Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer), the AFFL, which began in 2018, is a bracket-style, single-elimination tournament, similar to a domestic soccer competition, like the U.S. Open Cup in the United States or the FA Cup in England. Played on a 100-yard field, games are 7-on-7 with no linemen, kickers or fumbles. The AFFL champion takes home $1 million.
According to The New York Times, the number of 6 to 12 year olds playing flag football has increased by 38 percent to more than 1.5 million in the past three years; nearly 100,000 more than those playing tackle football amid concerns with injuries and CTE. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees helped co-found Football ‘N’ America, a flag football league where he coaches his sons, and the NFL pledged in August 2018 to give yearly grants to 400 Boys & Girls Clubs for flag football programs that could impact 100,000 players between the ages of 6 to 18.
The AFFL reports there are 6.5 million flag football players in the United States.
“I think we’re on the cutting edge of something,” former NFL quarterback Jerrod Johnson said. “I think what we’re doing meshes well with social media, meshes well with pop culture, meshes well with hashtags. I think one of the biggest things about this game is people can digest it a little bit better because it feels more intimate because you see players’ faces. … The game fits very well with how society is going.”
The NFL certainly doesn’t view the AFFL as a competitor. The NFL Network broadcast 11 AFFL games live during its inaugural season and plans to showcase another 11 in 2019, including the national championship on July 15 in Houston.
Approximately 3,000 players (300 with professional sports experience) and 500 teams have already registered for the upcoming season.
“I can show you my phone right now, I have so many text messages from guys asking where they can sign up and how they can join,” former Tennessee Titans safety Michael Griffin said. “It’s amazing how many people reached out.
“… This is an opportunity for guys to get a second chance to go out there and compete.”
Lewis said he anticipates over time the AFFL will have city-specific teams with their own identities as the league continues its growth from year to year. There were more than 36 million views on AFFL social media channels last season and live TV audience grew 58% throughout the season. The league has continued to see increased popularity among its social channels, with approximately 4,000 new followers from February 15-22.
“At the end of the day,” Lewis said, “we feel we really have something that’s in step with the future.”