NFL encouraged by new Pro Bowl format, champions flag football

ByStephen Holder ESPN logo
Friday, February 10, 2023

The NFL viewed this year's new Pro Bowl format as a bit of a test case, with league officials eager to see how it might be received by players and fans alike.

It did not take long to reach a conclusion.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said this week the current form of the Pro Bowl Games -- built around a series of flag football games and skills competitions -- is here to stay.

"I don't see us going back in any way," Goodell said of the event, which concluded Sunday in Las Vegas. "I think this is the future for us."

He underscored the need for a change, saying, "We had to make a determination that the Pro Bowl in its [former] state was not something that represented the NFL. I've talked about that many times. We made the pivot to say we're not going to play this game in the same context."

Goodell's evaluation was reflective of how the event was received.

Players liked the increased level of competition from the former tackle football games that were remembered more for players attempting to avoid injury than playing actual football.

"We had the best of the best guys out here, and so it's fun to see guys get competitive," Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith said.

The transition was not without adjustments. Some players pointed to their unfamiliarity with the rules as an issue, while Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs said: "Let's get the running backs some touches." Jacobs had three rushes and no catches.

Fans also responded well. A spirited crowd of 58,331 "paying customers," as Goodell emphasized, represented a strong showing, considering no one knew what to expect with the new approach.

The NFL is putting its full-throated support behind flag football, from the grassroots level all the way to the international circuit on which multinational competitions are held. The NFL is also backing an effort led by the International Federation of American Football to make flag football an entry in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Host countries have the ability to propose additional sports to the Games, and flag football is among those that will receive consideration. There is, however, competition from many other sports, like cricket and kickboxing. Skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing have already been approved for the '28 Games.

"We feel pretty confident in our position because of the growth of the game around the world," said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's executive vice president of club business and league events.

Nausicaa Dell'Orto, a member of the Italian women's national team, competed in the World Games last year in Birmingham, Alabama, and has become something of an ambassador for the game. She joined NFL officials at the Pro Bowl and is in Phoenix for Super Bowl week providing anecdotal evidence of the message the NFL is trying to impart.

Of particular interest to her is the growth of women's flag football. Already, a handful of college programs in the NAIA are offering scholarships. The college sports governing body -- which is a smaller association, akin to the NCAA -- held its championship tournament at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in conjunction with the NFL. There's also momentum to grow the sport at the junior college level.

"Right now, girls usually stop playing after school," said Dell'Orto, who plays for a club team in Milan. "Now, they don't have to. This is about empowering girls. And I love that."

There's another part of this conversation the NFL is less vocal about, but is no less a reality. The heightened awareness of the impact of tackle football on the body, and in particular the brain, has given many parents pause about signing their young kids up to play.

That's a fact the NFL continues to wrestle with as it thinks about the growth of its sport. But bolstering flag football as an alternative provides an option to those who might have reservations.

In fact, it's how one of the league's top quarterbacks got his start in the game.

"I played flag football, then played tackle in sixth grade, and if I could do it over again, I would've waited even longer," Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowl quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and [former Chicago Bears stars] Mike Singletary and Walter Payton lived in our town, and their kids were around our age. Mike didn't let his kids play tackle until much later. And Walter didn't let [his son] Jarrett play tackle until his junior year of high school.

"These guys who have had the hits and know what impact it has on their bodies, they know that there's a place for football and it serves a great purpose. There's nothing wrong with flag football on the way to tackle, eventually."

NFL officials don't quite frame the issue the same way. But they admit, as O'Reilly put it, that flag football is an "entry point to the sport. It makes the funnel wider."

The international growth of flag football -- the Mexico women's national team upset the Americans at the World Games -- fits nicely with the NFL's thirst to continue globalizing the game. The league will stage five games in Europe in 2023 and plans to return to Mexico City once stadium renovations there are complete.

The move toward making flag football an Olympic sport meshes with those international efforts as the NFL attempts to maximize profits from its international audience.

"I think [flag football] is just going to help launch us even faster," Goodell said.

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