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Tackling Change: The PR Impact of Flag Football on the NFL

Published on February 27, 2024, 6:15 p.m.
by Alexis Anderson

The NFL is one of the most prevalent and popular sports and entertainment organizations in the United States. Its annual revenue in 2022 was $18.6 billion, with its most popular event, The Super Bowl, bringing in an average of $500 million alone. It is continuously growing and becoming more popular not only in the U.S. but also internationally, with games being played in London, Germany and Mexico City.

The type of football that the NFL plays requires tackling. However, the NFL has recently been promoting the sport of flag football. Moreover, its players have also been promoting and playing flag football outside of their regular season football games.

One example of how flag football is becoming more popular within the NFL

Photo via ESPN

is the 2023 Pro Bowl Flag Football Game. Years prior, the Pro Bowl game was purely tackle football. But in 2023, the NFL started having the top NFC and AFC players compete against each other in a flag football game instead. The transition from tackle to flag football maintained its popularity and was incorporated into this year’s Pro Bowl game as well.

It is likely the NFL changed its Pro Bowl game to a non-contact football game to prevent injuries, especially since some past Pro Bowl games resulted in very serious injuries. For example, in the 2015 Pro Bowl, former Cincinnati Bengals’ tight end Tyler Eifert faced an ankle injury that led to a major surgery, and although he was only out for half of the next season, he never played again at the NFL caliber he once had.

Flag football is not only growing in the NFL; the sport will now officially be included at the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. NFL players such as Tyreek Hill are highly considering playing in these games. A 2023 NFL article noted Hill’s interest when he said in his podcast, “You know how amazing it would be to assemble a super team to play in the Olympics.” The same article also stated that the NFL wanted to work with the players union on allowing them to participate in these games.

Photo via Sports Travel Magazine

Flag football is also becoming popular in youth sports. The NFL is hosting the NFL Flag Championships this summer. There will be 30 games overall for both girls and boys, featuring 280 teams, and it will be broadcast on multiple platforms. The NFL also has a program called NFL FLAG that is the biggest flag football league in the United States and the official flag football league of the NFL with 500,000 young athletes competing in all 50 states and an emphasis on growing women’s flag football.

Sean Sadri, assistant professor of sports media at The University of Alabama, shared his thoughts on the public perception of the NFL promoting flag football.

“In professional football, there have been a lot of instances and a lot of bad press when it comes to concussions and CTE and things like that,” said Sadri. “So a lot of parents were really apprehensive about signing up their kids for a sport that can be really damaging to them mentally, and they could potentially suffer major injuries. I think flag football is a way to get young kids interested in a sport with various injury risks at the next level.”

“Getting younger audiences interested in the sport through flag football, where their parents are more willing to allow them to do that, is kind of smart PR on their part,” Sadri added.

Randall Huffaker, senior instructor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at The University of Alabama, agreed: “I think it’s a way for the NFL to get people interested in football without having to actually suit up and play.”


Photo via GQ

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, has become a growing problem, not just within the NFL but also at the college and high school levels. Last year, a recent high school graduate who had played football all throughout school committed suicide, and researchers found the first known case of CTE among a high school football player. There have also been cases of suicides from CTE within the NFL. One of the most well-known was Dave Duerson, who shot himself in the chest instead of his head so researchers could study his brain for CTE, and after further analysis, it was determined he did have CTE.

A 2021 Public Relations Journal article discussed how “cultural ingrainment” can lead to an “invincible brand” in times of crises, such as the NFL’s crisis related to concussions. The NFL apparently tried to deny the seriousness of CTE when it first became a recognized problem, the article noted. While the organization changed game rules and organizational policies in response, it took a lawsuit for affected players to receive reparations. The organization eventually launched “the NFL Evolution online health resource and [focused] on youth football in response to declining youth football participation.” And the NFL brand continues to be successful today despite the CTE issue.

One of the authors of the Public Relations Journal article, Kenneth Plowman, associate professor at Brigham Young University, commented on the NFL’s public relations efforts to combat the CTE problem.

“This ongoing crisis is not going to be solved by PR people being able to handle crises better,” said Plowman. “They’ve got to address the source of the problem more.”

Within the Public Relations Journal article, the authors included this quote from a 2015 article written by Jay Marriotti where he stated, “By midcentury, perhaps, maybe football dies. Maybe it will carry on without tackling and equipment, like flag football. … Maybe all the concussion lawsuits will wipe out the NFL. Maybe [Chris] Borland and others in his footsteps will have a seminal effect. But for now, too many Americans are immersed in too many Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays to slow down the corporate hubris-and-greed train.”

In contrast, Troy Vincent Sr., executive vice president of NFL football operations, said on NFL Football Operations’ “Football for All” webpage, “When we talk about the future of the game of football, it is, no question, flag. When I’m asked what the next 100 years looks like when you look at football, not professional football, it’s flag. It’s the inclusion and the true motto of ‘football for all.’ There is a place in flag football for all.”

The Baltimore Ravens’ punter Jordan Stout shared his opinion on the growing popularity of flag football and the impacts it could have on the NFL.

“It could absolutely lead to the game changing entirely,” voiced Stout. “There could be a future where tackle football doesn’t exist — which could inevitably lead to the game losing its culture and tradition. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing can be interpreted differently by each person.”

Instead of the NFL trying to oppose flag football, the organization is

Photo via Sports Destination Management

embracing it entirely. From the program NFL FLAG that is contributing to flag football for all, to even including flag football in its Pro Bowl game and encouraging NFL players to play flag football in the Olympics, the NFL is taking the growth of this sport and running with it for its own good and the good of others.

In embracing flag football, the NFL is increasing its brand awareness, as well as practicing good reputation management, despite different controversies. Most importantly, the NFL supporting and promoting flag football aligns with its mission to “unite people and inspire communities in the joy of the game by delivering the world’s most exciting sports and entertainment experience.”

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