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Flag football’s rise in popularity spurred by Nike, NFL commitments

Beyond the flashy dollar signs and viral game clips, the participation numbers of girls in flag football reveal that real growth is happening where it matters. (Alan Youngblood/Special to the Ocala Star-Banner via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Highlights of girls and women making stunning plays in flag football have been going viral in increasing numbers in recent years, and that’s because the sport is spreading like wildfire across the country, partly due to the recent initiative between Nike and the NFL that committed $5 million in product to grow girls flag football in high school athletics. State athletic associations can now apply for a one-time donation of up to $100,000 in product to go toward launching or supporting girls flag football.

In the latest augmentation of the initiative, Nike and the NFL have invited two of the top high school girls flag football teams in the country to square off this Friday as part of the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic celebrating the return of football season across the country. In the grandest spotlight the sport has yet been given, the Alonso (Fla.) Ravens will take on the Robinson (Fla.) Knights at 3 p.m. (PT) in a game that will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube from Ronaldo Field at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

Beyond the flashy dollar signs and viral game clips, the participation numbers of girls in the sport reveal that real growth is happening where it matters. When the NFL and Nike first announced their initiative to grow girls flag football, six states sponsored the sport (Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York).

Since that announcement, one academic year has passed, and two more states have officially added the sport — Arkansas and Alabama — with California set to launch its program in 2023. In 2010, there were 6,235 girls playing high school flag football. By 2018, the latest data set available, that number had grown to 11,209 and that was three years before the boost from Nike and the NFL.

One person who has noticed the recent flame of popularity for the sport is Diane Beruldsen, founder of the International Women’s Flag Football Association (IWFFA), who has been playing and growing the sport of women’s flag football since the 1970s.

“I have to say, with the NFL’s advertisements, their excitement, they really have increased the number of flag football players for girls and women,” Berulsden said. “The last three years, I’d say, flag football has really bloomed.”

Just like all other sports, women have been playing football since its inception. They may have been off in the margins, away from mainstream attention and approval, but they were there. Women’s tackle football leagues have existed in the U.S. since the 1960s, as recently documented in “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League,” and continue today with not one but two elite leagues (the Women’s Football Alliance and the Women’s National Football Conference) pushing the game forward.

According to Diane Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

It’s no different with flag football, which women have been playing since soon after its inception in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“In the early years, we had to fight for field space,” Berdulsen said. “It would be the men first, then the boys, then the girls, then the women last.”

According to Beruldson, the first organized women’s flag football league was started in 1971 by Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department and still continues today, now with 28 teams. Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, more leagues formed across the U.S. Beruldson herself spearheaded leagues in Brooklyn (1985), New York (1990) and Key West (1991). By 2001, the annual tournament she hosted in Key West included 49 teams and had added divisions for girls and juniors between the ages of 8 and 15.

It’s no surprise that when Florida became the first state to sanction girls flag football as a varsity sport in 2002, there were 103 schools and 3,855 participants across the state. Today, 320 schools in the state have teams.

Nevada had similar success when one of the state’s school districts launched a girls flag football program in 2014 after a student survey aimed at increasing girls participation in athletics revealed flag football received the highest interest amongst prospective new sports. Thirty-seven schools in the state now sponsor the sport for girls.

In Georgia and Alabama, financial support from the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons has been instrumental in launching their programs through grant money that schools can apply for and use for a variety of needs such as game officials and coach stipends. Georgia had 191 teams participate in just its second year of sanctioning the sport last season, and Alabama has 44 schools registered for its pilot program this year.

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity.

For one, it’s a relatively low-cost sport in terms of equipment and facilities for athletic departments to add, especially for those that already sponsor tackle football. It also taps into the massive popularity of American tackle football. Its familiarity makes it attractive to new players, parents, and athletics supporters.

Lastly, its roster sizes are large enough to significantly increase the numbers of girls participating in sports for a given school, district and state.

“According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there are one million fewer female high school athletes participating in sports than their male counterparts. This discrepancy is largely due to football,” Nike said via email. “As one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., flag football provides girls with another opportunity to play and compete in sport and has the power to make a difference during a crucial period in their athletic development.”

Beyond the financial commitment from the NFL and Nike, flag football has other appealing attributes that are contributing to its growing popularity. (Treasure Coast News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Given that the noted disparity in high school athletics participation numbers is hardly a recent finding, it’s logical to wonder why now? Or more accurately, why not until now?

The obvious answer is that gendered social norms have always deemed tackle football a strictly male sphere. The women who played the game in the early decades went boldly against the grain, and many girls and women playing tackle football today still face significant backlash.

If individual families and communities haven’t been encouraging girls and women to pursue football in grand numbers, it’s no surprise that large organizations haven’t done so either, which reveals a fourth attribute that makes flag football so appealing — it’s not tackle football.

With increasing awareness and concern over concussions in athletics, especially in football, and persistent reluctance to see traditional tackle football as a girls game, flag is a very alluring version to promote.

Within flag football, there are many different variations. The main demarcation is how many players are on the field at a time. Beruldson believes the 8-on-8 variation played and taught by the IWFFA has the most to offer athletes. Whereas in 5-on-5 and 7-on-7, there is no blocking allowed, the 8-on-8 version includes blocking and most closely resembles the 11-on-11 tackle version of the game, making it a sport that requires and values a wide variety of body shapes and athleticism.

The existing national tackle football leagues for women — the WFA and WNFC — are thrilled with the explosion of flag football at the youth and high school levels. From their perspective, flag football is a direct gateway to the tackle version of the game.

“As flag develops, girls want to put on helmets. It’s just some girls are tackle football players,” said Odessa Jenkins, founder and CEO of the WNFC. “I don’t care what you do, how many flags you let her pull, she wants to tackle. She wants to get physical.”

Women’s football leaders across the board are also thrilled by the fact that flag football is now a sponsored varsity sport at 15 colleges in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Once again, the NFL was integral to this development, partnering with the NAIA to create the infrastructure and operations required to add the sport and serving as the presenting sponsor of the NAIA Football National Championships.

The recent rise of girls flag football across the country may give the impression that the sport was pulled out of thin air, but women have been playing and growing the game on their own for decades. What we’re seeing now is the incredible growth that’s possible when power players like Nike and the NFL come together to promote the natural athleticism and desire to play.

“What drives us is the possibility of inspiring more girls and women to see themselves in sport,” Nike said via email. “This grant demonstrates Nike’s continued commitment to inspire girls to continue to keep playing.”

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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