NFL pushes to grow flag football in Latin America and beyond

At her sinewy 5-foot-3, Andrea Castillo looks like a soccer player — something she once grew up with in Panama.

But it didn’t take long for her to realize that “the beautiful game” wasn’t for her.

She was 12 and just entering secondary school when she gave up fútbol for the fledgling flag football. It proved a good move for the now 18-year-old, who led Panama to a bronze medal at quarterback this summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I think about it a lot,” she said of the decision to leave one of her country’s most popular sports for one that had little more than a cult following. “I grew with flag football. … I’ve had the opportunity to be in all these events and have all these achievements at a young age.”

The sport has evolved almost as fast as Castillo’s career. And while the global appeal of the National Football League has helped fuel the rise of flag football in Panama and elsewhere, the only thing the two sports have in common is the shape of the ball.

Flag football is typically played with five people on a side on a field about two-thirds the size of an NFL gridiron, resulting in a wide-open game played at a breakneck pace. It also makes speed, agility and creativity more important than size or brute force, a reason women and girls flock to the game in large numbers.

The California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in the state, is considering a proposal to certify flag football as a high school sport. Six states have already taken this step, and at least 20 others are investigating it.

The NFL is also on board.

The Rams and Chargers sponsor a league that includes 16 flag girls football teams in Southern California, and more than 10,000 girls play in NFL-sponsored leagues across the country. At the collegiate level, 18 National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics schools in 10 states are playing women’s flag football this season, as are a handful of schools in the National Junior College Athletic Assn. even.

With more than half a million participants and 1,640 active leagues, flag football is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, according to the NFL

Andrea Castillo celebrates after helping Panama win a bronze medal in flag football at the 2022 World Games.

Andrea Castillo celebrates after helping Panama win a bronze medal in flag football at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama in July.

(Dustin Massey / World Games 2022)

“That’s the beauty of flag football. Anyone can play. It’s accessible and inclusive.”

— Andrea Castillo, Panama quarterback

“You can see the opportunity and now bringing the sport to high school girls, that’s a generational impact that we’re having,” said Jonathan Franklin, the Rams’ director of social justice and football development.

Franklin said the NFL has emphasized flag football for girls because virtually every high school in the country has a boys’ tackle football program.

“If we look at inclusion and opportunities, there wasn’t necessarily access for girls to play in a safe way,” he said. “Through this pilot program, we wanted to make sure we were giving girls the opportunity to own their sport, to develop their sport, to inspire that passion, that desire.

“There are sports just for boys, right? Let’s create opportunities for girls now.”

The sport also has a large following in Latin America, thanks in part to the simplicity of the game. As with soccer, all you need is a small open space, a ball and a handful of friends.

And gender doesn’t matter, Castillo said.

“That’s the beauty of flag football. Anyone can play. It’s accessible and inclusive,” she said. “We don’t have a problem with the gender thing in Panama in flag football. There were a lot of women and they play football and we did a great job.”

“It empowers women. There is equal representation on the field. So there are no limits.”

– Diana Flores, flag football quarterback

Diana Flores from Mexico City was drawn to the sport when she was 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for Monterrey Tech, Mexico’s premier college program — took her to practice and she loved it, giving up piano and dance lessons to play flag football instead.

Since there were no teams for girls her age back then, she had to play against players twice her age, a handicap she turned into an advantage.

“I’ve played with girls who were taller than me, faster than me of course,” she said. “But I’ve learned to focus on my abilities, on the things that have made me better and to work on them. … It gave me the opportunity to grow as an athlete and as a person.”

Eight years later, she made the Mexico national team and competed in the first of four flag football World Cups she has competed in to date. That year, as Mexico’s quarterback at age 24, she beat the United States twice — the second victory came in the World Games Finals, where she completed 20 of 28 passes for 210 yards and four touchdowns in a 39-6 romp.

The Mexican women’s team is the most successful in the history of the sport, winning three golds, one silver and one bronze at the International Federation of American Football World Championships, a competition held every two years.

“It empowers women,” Flores said of flag football, which in Mexico challenges not only sporting but also gender stereotypes. “It ensures equal representation on the field. So there are no limits.”

According to Flores, an estimated 3 million people play flag football in Mexico, where colleges are beginning to offer scholarships to women.

“This is just a first step in opening up new avenues and opportunities. Not just in Mexico, but worldwide,” she said. “That’s why I’m excited to be an ambassador and to open these doors.”

One door she hopes will open soon is the one that leads to the Olympics. Along with motorsports, cricket, karate, baseball/softball, lacrosse, kickboxing, breaking and squash, flag football is one of nine sports to have applied for entry into the 2028 Los Angeles Games in the past month.

The sport seems to have key aspects that the International Olympic Committee is looking for: it is fast, has a manageable number of players and a strict time limit – halves last between 15 and 25 minutes depending on the competition.

Squads are 15 players deep and no contact is allowed, meaning no tackling, diving, blocking or screening. Instead, players carry flags hanging from a belt at their sides. In order to “tackle” the ball carrier, an opponent must pull one of the two flags.

There are no punts or kickoffs. Pass rushers must start seven yards from the line of scrimmage, and quarterbacks have just seven seconds to get rid of the ball; They can’t run with it unless they pass it to a teammate first.

The inclusion of flag football in the World Games, first held in 1981 to highlight events vying for a spot on the Olympic calendar, was an important step in gaining global recognition. (This summer competition saw 3,600 athletes from 110 countries compete in 30 events, including wheelchair rugby and tug-of-war.)

The IOC is expected to announce its decision on additional sports for the Los Angeles Games at its General Assembly next spring in Mumbai.

Flores does not hold his breath.

But then again, she said, she doesn’t need an Olympic medal to validate her career. Flag football has taken them to competitions in Italy, Denmark, Israel, the United States and Central America. She wants to give something back to the game by helping it grow.

“I’m here and I’m one of the best in the world, you know? To show all little girls that they can do that, I think we’re going to do that,” she said. “We inspire women and young children to dream big. And to see that it’s possible for her dreams to come true. It is possible to do whatever they want.” NFL pushes to grow flag football in Latin America and beyond

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