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Flying Flag football: The sport that’s reaching new heights

American football’s non-contact sister is seeing rapid growth across the world, enough to warrant Olympic recognition. 

Whether it’s viral Super Bowl performances, the impact of international series games being held in countries across the planet, or perhaps it’s the Taylor Swift effect. 

High stakes league games are held annually in London, with recent expansions into Germany as well as future trips to Spain and Brazil on the horizon.  

But it’s not just the contact version of the sport that’s thriving… Flag is the most inclusive and accessible form of American football. It is played by more than 20 million people, across more than 100 countries, and the rapid growth of the women’s game was key to earning the Olympic vote,” NFL Flag’s international development manager Afia Law told BBC Sport. 

To find out more about the rise of flag football, I spoke with Team GB player Jack Jarrett. 

Jarrett – who’s also a coach of the sport – told me: “A few years back it was on the rise, but not quite as big as it is at the moment. And I think the feedback from the NFL has been a big thing, and obviously adding it to the Pro Bowl just skyrocketed the publicity from there. 

“We’ve seen a substantial rise in the number of teams over the past few years, but yeah, the biggest thing has been last year’s announcement with the Olympics. BAFA – who are the governing body for American football contact and flag in the UK – have announced several things that they want to do with flag football, pathways that they want to open up to try and reach out to younger audiences as well, help those like myself who are in the GB programme, and just dent all of the pathways in-between. 

“We’ve got organisations like JagTag, which is the Jaguars UK Foundation and NFL Flag that have been slowly making their way across schools, especially down here in the south in the London area, that has been working its way up North as well. They have had massive turnouts. 

Team GB Flag player Jack Jarrett. (Image credit: Jack Jarrett/Instagram – @jjtothehouse)

“So, I think that’s where the initial growth is coming from with the accessibility of it, and then from there it’s whether people want to kind of continue that into an over 18 version, or if they want to move to the tackle side.” 

What would Jarrett’s message be to anyone who’s considering taking up the sport, I hear you wonder? Well that’s exactly what I asked him, and his response was simple. 

“Just do it. Simple as that. You’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to make some fantastic friends. So, I think by far the most important thing is just to get out and try, no matter who you are or what you can bring to the table, just go and give it a go because you’re going to enjoy it, I can promise you that.” 

The Flag football craze is rapidly spreading across the UK, with teams and leagues able to be found from the busiest cities to the most remote corners of the land. 

Indeed, it’s actually the fastest growing discipline of the game not only across Great Britain, but the entire world, that’s according to The British American Football Association’s (BAFA) website. 

One such club is the Newcastle Blackhawks, a team based in the North East of England (You can find the Blackhawks on Instagram and Facebook!) 

The Newcastle Blackhawks in action. (Image credit: James Barker)

As well as visiting the Blackhawks to see one of their training sessions up close, I spoke with club chairman John Hill to learn more about the club, and indeed what their experience of the growth in Flag has been like through their lens. 

Speaking about the club, Hill would say: “We founded the Blackhawks back in 2010. There were about eight or nine of us, turning up every Sunday to train on a muddy grass “bowl” of a field out in Heaton. We’d often have to jockey for space with softball teams, and more than once we had amateur golfers launching practice shots over our heads from the raised bits at the side. 

“Back then, the league wasn’t as developed as it is now, but we were lucky to cut our teeth against excellent sides like the Sheffield Vipers, the Sheffield Predators and the Woodham Warriors over in County Durham. 

“Now we’re part of a thriving league with teams from all over England, Scotland and Wales, and we’ve got a squad of around 27. We currently play in the second division, but we’ve got a really exciting mix of returning veterans and new recruits, and we’re setting our sights on immediate promotion back to the Premiership this year.” 

Speaking on the growth of the game, Hill would say: “I still remember when some folks from the UK scene put together a livestream to cover the Britbowl finals in 2015 and 2016, and I’m sitting behind a microphone commentating with some great players, and thinking: “Yeah, we’ve all really made something special here”. 

“It’s only gotten bigger since then. The NFL has stepped up its interest in flag, and its introduction as an Olympic sport will only raise its profile further. On the national level, the Great Britain women’s team’s amazing win at the 2023 Euros has shown that there’s some real talent here, and we’ve got some phenomenal youth teams getting kids into the game early. The next couple of decades is honestly going to be super-exciting for flag in this country.” 

Newcastle Blackhawks warming up ahead of their training session. (Image credit: James Barker)

The message is clear, Flag football is thriving, and they’re extremely proud of their sport.  

So, it’s fair to say that there’s never been a better time to pick up a flag and get playing. Who knows, it could take you all the way to the Olympics.