Phoebe  Schecter

The United States is gearing up for the start of a new National Football League (NFL) season on September 7 and it's impossible not to know about it.

By far the USA’s favourite sport, American football has achieved an extraordinary level of cultural saturation, making it the envy of every sports and entertainment property operating in the country. 

You only need to take the example of last season’s finale - Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona - which scored a record US broadcast audience of 115 million. For context, that figure is more than double the total US TV audience of the last four Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies combined!

Football not only ranks as America’s favourite sport across every demographic. The NFL is also that "holy grail" of an established sports property which is continuing to grow its audience - including among the youngest segments: children and Gen Z.

What’s more, it is growing exponentially in untapped international markets. Last year, for example, the first-ever regular season NFL game in Germany saw demand for tickets in the millions.

But American football is an outlier in other ways, too. For one thing, it’s the only professional US team sport never to have featured on the official programme of an Olympic Games. Second, and perhaps not unrelated, it’s the global sport with arguably the most ground to make up when it comes to the development of its women’s game.

The recent FIFA Women’s World Cup has highlighted and strengthened the extraordinary movement happening in women’s sports right now, driven by a new, more engaged generation of fans and athletes - and underpinned by growing awareness of the enormous commercial potential.

On the day of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, I was playing my own final versus Spain - as part of the GB women’s flag football team that secured its first-ever European Championships gold in Limerick, Ireland, among a record 32 teams from 20 nations.

British players celebrate after winning the European Championships flag football gold in Limerick ©Ian Humes/IFAF
British players celebrate after winning the European Championships flag football gold in Limerick ©Ian Humes/IFAF

The scale of our stage was far removed from the Sydney Olympic Stadium. Still, as I picked up my medal, I thought about how the Matildas were playing in 300-capacity country venues 10 years ago and allowed myself to dream.

I am convinced that flag football is the future of American football.

Flag is the definition of a next-generation sport: short, fast, creative, clippable. It matters because, as the newest, most inclusive and accessible version of American football, flag football is the format that gives women and girls an equal chance to shine - alongside and on the same stages as boys and men.

Flag football offers a new and real chance to address the historical gender imbalance. In fact, it’s a shift that is already happening, especially in the United States, with women and girls driving the fastest growth amid exploding participation as more and more States - California the latest - add girls’ flag football as a varsity sport, and more and more college scholarship opportunities come online.

Beyond the appetite for women and girls to carve out a space in American football, there are two major accelerating factors underpinning the global growth of flag.

Few people could have failed to notice the scale of the NFL’s commitment and investment, both centrally and via the League’s 32 Clubs, which increasingly put flag football at the centre of their respective community and international development programmes.

The past year, in particular, has been game-changing, not least with the reimagined Pro Bowl Games, which placed flag football at the heart of the NFL’s annual all-star showcase in Las Vegas. A crowd of almost 60,000 inside the Allegiant Stadium - a record for a flag football game - watched the best current NFL talent go head-to-head and helmets off in the short-format game, coached by two of the world’s greatest female flag football quarterbacks.

One of those women – my friend, the incredible Diana Flores of Mexico – also starred in the NFL’s epic, multi-Emmy award-winning Super Bowl half-time commercial, one of several high-profile spots the League has produced to promote flag football this year. These sit alongside significant investment in flag football competition programming and storytelling across NFL platforms.

In addition, the NFL is engaging creatively with the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) via a partnership that makes flag football the cornerstone of joint development efforts spanning every continent. It’s a global push in which major, multi-sport events can serve as a crucial catalyst.

Diana herself is a case study in what’s possible. A little over one year ago, she was an unknown Monterrey student who steered Mexico to a famous victory over the United States in the inaugural flag football gold medal game of The World Games.

Today, Diana is a global celebrity - an ambassador for the NFL and IFAF, who has made appearances alongside the Mexican President and US First Lady; on global television - including the NBC Today Show; in magazine spreads - Vogue, Forbes; at the Emmy’s, at Cannes. Heck, she has even become the first woman and flag footballer to be featured in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Through it all, and in the tradition of women’s sports stars the world over, Diana has stayed humble and true to herself, choosing to prioritise opportunities to inspire young girls and boys at the grassroots - whether that be at home in Mexico or around the world in places where flag football is growing so fast. Places such as Rabat, Morocco, where she recently helped organise a girls-only camp for players from less advantaged communities.

As a fellow IFAF Committee member and Global Flag Football ambassador, I have joined Diana at some of these events and it’s incredibly powerful to see the impact of what is happening on the ground.

Flag football is an extraordinarily empowering sport for women and girls.

It’s not just the sense of empowerment that comes from breaking barriers. Flag football is special - uniquely inclusive in the way it turns differences into superpowers. There is a place for everyone in flag, which makes the sport an incredible tool to build confidence, especially among young women. You see the transformation very quickly. And it’s all the more significant when you realise that 40 per cent of the girls involved in NFL FLAG in London, for example, don’t participate in any other sport or physical activity at all.

I truly believe there is power in flag football that comes from giving women a space where they can learn to work together in a society that is always trying to pitch us against each other.

What I also see is the importance of that visibility and representation – for young girls to have a role model like Diana, who looks like them and is now celebrated on a global stage.

With Diana, we know what’s important now is to use this platform to open more doors for the next generation of flag football players and women in American football. We’ve waited a long time and, while it’s great to be racking up all these firsts, it comes with a responsibility to make sure we’re not the last.