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The Robinson Knights and Alonso Ravens reside just 15 miles apart from each other in the same county in Florida, but last week, the two teams traveled to the Pacific Northwest to compete in front of a national audience, showcasing a sport that continues to grow throughout the country.
With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country, and the reason so many girls are now playing this fast-paced version of America’s most popular sport is simple — a 37-word piece of legislation known as Title IX.
Behind an impressive outing from sophomore quarterback Haidyn Spano, the Knights beat the Ravens 12-6 in the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic, which took place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and was broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube. The sport has been gaining popularity in recent years, particularly since Nike and the NFL partnered in 2021 to donate $5 million in product to grow the sport in high schools across the U.S.
In the late 1990s, schools from Broward and Orange Counties in Florida were looking for girls sports to add to achieve Title IX compliance, according to Jeremy Hernandez, the Director of Flag Football for the Florida High School Athletic Association.
“When the interest started coming to the FHSAA of counties wanting to add girls flag football, it was solely for Title IX compliance, to help out with those numbers,” Hernandez said.
Flag football was an attractive option at these schools for a variety of reasons.
For starters, it’s relatively inexpensive to add in terms of equipment and facilities, especially for schools that already sponsor tackle football. Additionally, flag football’s substantial roster size gives schools a larger drop in the bucket of equitable participation opportunities, and football is huge in Florida.
While the traditional tackle version of the sport has long been deemed a male domain — though the gender barriers are breaking down more each day in that respect — Hernandez posits the popularity of girls flag football in the state is a reflection of a previously stifled desire to play the sport they know so well.
“With Florida being a football state as it is, this is a version for them to be able to go out there and showcase their skills that they can throw and catch and run just as good as the boys,” Hernandez said.
While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. In 2002-03, the very first academic year the sport was sanctioned by the state, 103 schools participated, which was more than twice as many that were required for a first-year offering. The fact that so many schools were able to successfully field teams right away likely speaks to the success of the sport at the club level in the years leading up to its varsity launch.
A big contributor to the sport’s general popularity in the state, and now all around the world, has been the International Women’s Flag Football Association. Founded in 1995 by Diane Beruldsen, the IWFFA hosts its annual tournament in Key West, with as many as 49 teams from around the world, including a girls and juniors division. Beruldsen, who first began playing flag football in New York in the ‘70s, spent many of the IWFFA’s early years traveling throughout Florida and eventually beyond, starting new teams and launching leagues.
“In the early years with flag football, we had to create our own,” Beruldsen said. “I hit the road across the United States. In those days, I was teaching women how to play flag football. And today I teach women how to officiate, start leagues, develop leagues and how to coach.”
In 2020, the sport experienced another significant step forward. With financial and operational backing from the NFL, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics announced it was adding women’s flag football as a varsity sport at the college level. Of the 15 member schools currently fielding teams, five of them are Florida institutions. The only other state with multiple NAIA teams is Kansas with three.
Even though Nike and the NFL have given the sport an incredible boost in the last couple of years, Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level, which explains why programs like Alonso and Robinson have reached such an elite level.
Alonso has been to the state championship game four times, claiming two titles in Class 2A, while Robinson has won seven out of the last eight state championships in 1A. Between the two teams on the field last Friday, six players were first or second team all-state selections, and with head coaches who have been running their programs for 15-plus seasons, these powerhouse schools show no signs of slowing down.
That doesn’t mean, however, their competition won’t be catching up to them.
The Newsome Wolves, for one, have been causing fits for Alonso for the past couple of years, knocking the Ravens out of the state championship tournament in both 2021 and 2022.
But it was clear at Friday’s marquee event that everyone from Alonso and Robinson believes that a rising tide lifts all boats when it comes to pushing their sport forward.
The more competition, the better.
In his postgame response to how he felt about Friday’s game, Robinson coach Josh Saunders expressed this one-for-all mindset.
“I hope it showed everybody everywhere that you can play flag football like this in every state and get the excitement level that these kids have for it,” he said.
A replay of the Nike Kickoff Classic will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday.
Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.
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