NFL strives to bolster girls' flag football across all levels

Why more women are getting involved in Flag Football (1:33)

Head of Community and Grassroots Development at NFL UK, Afia Law, explains the new Flag Football programme from the New York Jets and Chicago Bears. (1:33)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Jaclyn Johns came across the formation and took the direct snap before tossing it to her quarterback, Julia Geis. Johns kept moving in the flat, angling herself toward the end zone.

Johns' high school team, Blessed Trinity from Roswell, Georgia, ran this play once before and she didn't get the ball back. This time, Geis looked her way. "I'm like, 'Do not drop this,'" Johns said.

A year ago, Johns wasn't on the team, initially skeptical about flag football. An all-around athlete, she'd played basketball and soccer since the age of 4 and lacrosse, earning a scholarship to Navy, since second grade.

But football was in her family. Her grandfather, the late Johnny Gresham, won a high school state title and played running back at Georgia Tech in the 1960s. Wearing his No. 30, it's a sport she never thought she'd be able to participate in until her high school started a girls' flag football team.

"Football was his main sport, and he went to the state championship one of his years and he won," Johns said. "I was like, 'I want to win.' That was one of my motivators."

She caught the ball and scored the touchdown for a double-overtime victory over Milton. Her teammates mobbed her in the end zone. The senior won a state title in a sport she picked up months earlier, in part from watching videos on YouTube and playing catch with her dad. Flag football as a competitive high school sport is new, different and, in the state of Georgia, almost everywhere.

It started in Florida, which added girls' flag football at the high school level in 2003. In 2011, the New York Jets gave $50,000 for the New York City Public Schools Athletic League to start a girls' flag football league within the city with 20 schools -- and have given the NYC PSAL $50,000 each year since, growing it to around 60 teams. Nevada held its first state championship in 2017 and the following year, Georgia considered the idea. It was in Georgia, with an investment from the Atlanta Falcons, where the push of national attention for flag football began. What began with one county and 19 schools had grown to nearly 250 schools playing by 2022, a microcosm of flag football's growth nationwide.

Seven states sanction high school girls' flag, and Alabama intends to sanction by fall 2024. Approximately 20 states have pilot programs. Involvement and success from the Falcons on the high school level in Georgia led to other NFL teams expressing interest in replicating Atlanta's model in their cities. Seeing the success in high schools, the NFL also offered grants to create growth on the NAIA and junior college levels as an emerging sport. The NFL offered more visibility with a Super Bowl ad and having the national team quarterbacks from the United States and Mexico as the offensive coordinators for February's Pro Bowl flag football game in Las Vegas.

It's football's future colliding with its present, offering opportunities to a previously untapped group of athletes.

"It's working because of people," said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Young women, if the opportunity presents itself, they want to play."

MENTION TO AMANDA Dinkel that she's responsible for the game's growth and she'll quickly defer credit. But if not for the Atlanta Falcons director of community relations, flag football might not exist in Georgia high schools or have grown to the level it has nationally.

In 2017, Dinkel attended an NFL youth and high school football meeting in Orlando where someone mentioned Florida high school girls playing flag football as a sanctioned sport. The small aside stuck. On the flight back to Atlanta, she and a Falcons colleague started discussing the idea.

Why not bring it to Georgia? Dinkel researched and presented the idea to the Georgia High School Association, which had interest but multiple concerns: Cost, transportation and making sure, if they offered something, they weren't going to pull it back. The GHSA told Dinkel it wanted to reevaluate in a few years.

Hearing the GHSA issues, Dinkel pushed the Falcons to fast-track flag football. She met with administrators in Gwinnett County and asked if the Falcons helped with funding for the first season in 2018, would they run a pilot program?

While Florida and Nevada had the sport, the Falcons became the first NFL team to become invested.

"We didn't know necessarily it was going to be a home run," Dinkel said. "We put it out there and said if it doesn't work, then we gave it a go and here we are."

While Dinkel had the plan, Jon Weyher, then the Gwinnett County athletic director, helped implement it. After Dinkel's pitch, Weyher sent it to his schools with a positive recommendation. A $100,000 grant from the Falcons and owner Arthur Blank solved cost concerns. To handle logistical issues and travel for officials, the schools hosted Tuesday night doubleheaders where three teams would play two games each at a central location.

Weyher thought maybe 10 schools would field teams and 150 girls would be interested. Instead, all 19 schools in the county played the first year. One school had almost 400 girls attend the initial meeting.

"We rode that excitement and that really motivated us," Weyher said. "Let's do it well and let's get these kids the best high school experience they've ever had. Some of them had never played a sport in high school before. So it was the very first night, we knew we had something special." The next year, Weyher asked the Falcons for additional grant money as they added five more counties and 52 schools. The GHSA sanctioned the sport in 2020 with 88 schools. In 2022, 247 schools in Georgia offered girls' flag football -- with more expected in 2023.

The past three years, the Falcons have given grants to at least 136 schools ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 in Georgia, Alabama and Montana, covering costs ranging from equipment to officials to transportation and coaching salaries. The grant application process for Georgia happens in March, Dinkel said, with Alabama a month later.

In Georgia, the Falcons have awarded grants to 144 schools over the past five years. In Alabama, grants from the franchise have helped 75 schools and in Montana, the Falcons provided grants to three schools last year and are in the process of determining grants for 2023.

The Falcons decide on grants based on factors including whether the school is starting a program or needs a boost. A startup gets grant priority. The Falcons also look at whether they've helped the school in the past, the income of the district and the surrounding area. This year, Dinkel said 20 new schools applied for grants. The process -- and financing -- in Alabama and Montana changes slightly. The criteria for what they are looking for remains the same.

"Trying to help make sure as we're dispersing it evenly and correctly throughout the entire state to help the state holistically," Dinkel said. "We're very methodical on where we place those grants."

Blessed Trinity was too late for grant money when it started the program in 2021. So its coach, Brandon Harwell, didn't have much of a budget in Year 1. The administration found money for flags and equipment from the tackle football team. Harwell bought four footballs on Amazon. The team wore junior varsity lacrosse jerseys and their own shorts. They made the state semifinals.

Last season, Blessed Trinity received a Falcons grant and had their own equipment and jerseys. They won the state title.

It shows the quick path to success, which is Dinkel's plan: Offer startup finances and from there, costs should be minimal. Schools can apply for grants multiple times, but the goal is to make sure they are helping to build something sustainable.

What began as a sketch in a Flowery Branch conference room turned into a 45-minute presentation Dinkel owns each time she walks into a room. More times than she can remember, she has seen immediate change from disinterest to engagement.

"When we first started in 2018 it was a majority of skepticism and very challenging," Dinkel said. "Nowadays, it's spread like wildfire throughout the entire country. Most [NFL] teams are [involved] in girls' flag football now, and it's definitely exploded. We have a little bit more backing and support and statistics to be able to show that it's growing."

WHILE THE SPORT continues to grow on the high school level, there has been slower growth for those who might want to play in college. But there are signs of progress with NFL assistance.

NAIA schools started offering flag football in 2020 and declared it an emerging sport; 19 schools nationwide will play this spring, including three NAIA HBCUs -- Xavier (Louisiana), Tougaloo (Mississippi) and Florida Memorial. On the NAIA level, an emerging sport is considered one with 15 to 39 schools sponsoring it. Its national championship will take place in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, supported by the Falcons.

Junior colleges will have their inaugural season this year, with five schools playing and another two ready to begin next season, also with the NFL's help. The NJCAA said the NFL, to help spur interest at junior colleges, gave a $150,000 grant to start expanding the sport. Additionally, Reigning Champs Experience, the company run by Izell Reese, who also heads up the NFL Flag program, offered 10 schools $10,000 grants to start flag football.

While it's unlikely to take women away from other college sports imminently because of the scarcity of scholarships and its relative infancy at the high school level, that may be temporary.

It's something those who play think about.

"What if the University of Georgia had a flag football team?" said Katheryn Wilson, who plays at Mill Creek (Georgia) High. "I could see them having a flag football team before a lacrosse team because they are in the SEC and the only SEC schools that have [women's NCAA] lacrosse are Vandy and Florida."

Is that plausible? The NFL is having conversations about flag as one of the league's areas of growth. Documents provided by the NFL said over 100 NCAA schools expressed interest in adding flag. The league has a 20-page PowerPoint presentation for universities explaining the benefits. A partnership with NIRSA -- the intramural and club sports arm on the college level -- can help pave a path to becoming an NCAA sport because it will show interest. Vincent said the NFL met with the NCAA to talk about the process of making flag football a varsity sport during the combine in March.

A Power 5 athletic director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the sport would gain traction collegiately with grassroots high school efforts.

"And that kind of just begins its own momentum," the Power 5 athletic director said, pointing to the recent growth of women's wrestling, beach volleyball and acrobatics and tumbling. The athletic director said he believes flag football could be viable as an NCAA sport, but said he hasn't done much research.

Another Division I athletic director who spoke to ESPN said Title IX numbers have to make sense -- and it could be different for public versus private schools. Interest could start with a school needing to increase its number of female athletes. Then, it would come down to three things: Finances, a return on the investment and if it could assist in increasing university enrollment.

"So you start there," the athletic director said. "In terms of what's the intent, what's the purpose of it."

With Title IX, it would depend on how many players were scholarship athletes. If a school needs 15-20 athletes to balance out numbers -- flag football is typically 7-on-7 or 8-on-8 -- then the sport could make sense. If numbers need to be closer to a men's tackle football team, other sports like rowing or swimming and diving could be more logical.

Provided Title IX implications work, there are other factors. If a school already has football, soccer or lacrosse, a playing venue exists. Beyond the scholarship, there are costs of locker rooms, office space and coaching positions.

There's also the reality of opponents. For a startup sport, teams in the same general area to minimize travel costs would be paramount. In NAIA, for instance, 11 schools are in the southeast.

"There could be some ways there where, based on geography, it makes sense," the athletic director said. "If you're one of the only ones in a certain part of the country that's going to add it, it could be tough to be that leader. You'd maybe need to ask around and go in with a group.

"But if you're in a pocket of the country this is already popular from a high school standpoint and there's some feeder systems that you could get into, in theory, I could see how it could be successful."

NCAA schools in Florida and Georgia could make sense. Wilson said if flag had been an NCAA option, it's one she would have considered. Instead, she said, she's playing college lacrosse.

WHEN THE PANDEMIC shut down so much of the United States, the NFL, like every other professional sports league, reassessed everything. Who is playing and watching their sport?

Vincent had visited Atlanta in December 2019 and saw flag football's growth in Georgia. Searching for an answer to the league's question, he realized girls' flag football was something to build on.

"There's a real growth opportunity here. Why? Why is that?" Vincent asked. "... When you think about flag, girls' flag, high school and even below, flag is the most inclusive and accessible format of American football."

Vincent worked with Reese and focused their attention on high schools, promoting flag with the NFL's involvement. It's about opportunity, but it's also about growing a fanbase.

Vincent attended games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta post-pandemic. As he watched, he kept having the same thought.

"This is the future of football," Vincent said. "And we were watching it firsthand. It was like, 'Wow, look at these young ladies.' That was the pivot."

At first, Vincent said, about one-third of NFL teams were skeptical about getting involved in girls' flag. But they had the model in Atlanta.

"Then when you start seeing how it had state impact, how it had fandom impact," Vincent said. "It had local enthusiasm impact. It had community impact."

The plan for growth exists -- starting in high schools, where more states have shown interest. There are still barriers -- cost will always be a factor, even if it is a relatively cheap sport -- but more NFL teams are getting involved, including Miami, Philadelphia, Minnesota and both the Jets and Giants.

The Jets helped start leagues in New Jersey and Long Island in 2021 and 2022. More than 100 schools in Long Island or Hudson County, New Jersey, are expected to play flag this season. All of the schools have received grants from the Jets, from $4,000 to $10,000 -- and the team said it has donated over $1 million in total for girls' flag football, including the annual PSAL donation. They also purchased Nike uniforms for schools in addition to the financial donation. The Jets and the Chicago Bears also have helped start girls' flag in the United Kingdom with 12 participating teams.

"The communities have embraced it. It's not just the girls playing, the coaches coaching or even the schools," said Jesse Linder, the Jets' vice president of community relations. "It's the parents, it's the siblings, it's the towns supporting this, coming together to really put this to the next level."

The Falcons, though, were the first team to really push flag successfully statewide, and the NFL invited Dinkel to speak at the league meeting in October, presenting on girls high school flag during a 20-minute block about how to grow football.

"If I ever had a presentation I needed to kill it on, it was that one," Dinkel said with a laugh. "And I was excited that it went well."

NFL owners surrounded her after, asking questions and seeking contacts. Other teams had their community relations staffs reach out to Dinkel in the weeks after the meeting to help. Now, Vincent said, all 32 teams have interest.

"If not for Amanda and Rich McKay, we're not in this place today," Vincent said. "We needed someone to be an example of what it could be, and Atlanta is that."

IN FEBRUARY, VINCENT and his staff held a future planning meeting, and flag football was a topic. There's a larger strategy now and a real future.

The NFL featured Diana Flores, the quarterback of the Mexican women's national team, in a Super Bowl ad.

Among the league's ideas: Scholarships for international-born players to play flag at colleges in the United States, growth of flag overseas, NFL-sponsored adult leagues and pushing flag football as an NCAA sport.

There's also another concept the league is getting behind: Getting flag football into the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Flag football already made an appearance on the international level at the World Games in Alabama last year. The World Games, at times, has been a precursor to a sport reaching the Olympic level -- rugby sevens was a World Games sport from 2001 to 2013 before becoming an Olympic sport starting in the 2016 Games. Beach volleyball and triathlon also started as World Games sports.

Last year in the World Games, Mexico beat the United States for the gold medal in flag football. Eight teams from four continents competed.

"If it was in the Olympics," Johns said, "everyone would want to do it."

MATT PRATER WENT to his Arizona Cardinals coaches with a somewhat unorthodox request: Could they help him with some concepts and some plays?

Not for anything with his day job as the team's kicker -- the 38-year-old entering his 17th season in the NFL -- but for assistance with his second job: Assistant high school girls' flag football coach.

"Anyone that would sit down with me for five minutes and answer some basic questions, I would ask them for drills and different things," Prater said. "And basically they have linebackers and corners and safeties in the 7-on-7.

"So the linebackers have to pass rush, they have to drop in the zone, and occasionally they cover people."

The head coach at Casteel High School, where Prater's daughter, Ava, plays, asked him this offseason if he had interest in helping out. Prater almost immediately said yes. He helps run drills and comes up with defensive plays, although he's not the one calling them, and works with the kicker and punter.

Prater has seen the growth from the girls because many came to the game without prior playing history. He started teaching basics -- how to run a slant route or play Cover 3 -- and it has been rewarding for someone decades into his football life. Last year, he started to see progress during the team's run to the state title game.

"All I'm doing is trying to teach them the basic stuff that I know," Prater said, but he also has pulled from coaches he has had in the past. He has used a specific mantra from his former Detroit Lions coach, Jim Caldwell, "be loose and aggressive, be confident," when he's talking to the defense.

When Ava, a linebacker/running back, first told her dad she wanted to play, Prater didn't realize the scope of flag football's growth. A spectator in 2022, he watched on side fields in lawn chairs. This year, he has coached in games in high school stadiums in Arizona.

Prater's coaching run may be short-lived. Arizona sanctioned the sport in the state starting next school year and moved it from the spring to the fall, when he'll likely be busy with his day job, kicking for the Cardinals.

But his tenure as assistant coach opened his eyes to the game's potential.

"Some of the girls out there are so talented, you know what I mean?" Prater said. "They're great at any sport they played, but getting to play football and then they're learning the game, too.

"It's really cool for the girls."