The National Football League moved towards flag football for the Pro Bowl this year and the much-needed pivot resonated with fans.
According to one person at the forefront of the flag football movement, Izell Reese, the non-contact version of the game is a dark horse to be the fastest-growing sport in the world.
A former NFL player, Reese retired from pro football two decades ago and faced the challenge of figuring out what to do next. His passion for sports led him to pursue a career in youth sports development and he eventually became the president and CEO of Reigning Champs Experiences (RCX Sports) and executive director of NFL Flag. RCX Sports is an Atlanta-based organization that works with all four major sports leagues, including the NFL, and oversees various youth programs like Jr. NBA Leagues, NHL Street, and NFL Flag.
“I don’t think I’d be sitting here where I am as CEO of this phenomenal organization if sport hadn’t taught me the things I needed on and off the field. Getting drafted into the NFL was a childhood dream come true. But now to go full circle and impact so many kids it means the world to me,” said Reese.
Reese was in Las Vegas for the re-envisioned Pro Bowl Game, which is now a successful flag football-based competition. He was also overseeing a global NFL Flag youth tournament, which hosted 200 teams from 10 different countries around the world.
“Coming out to the fields to check in with the teams and seeing how excited those kids are is the best part of my day,’ Reese shared. “I’m always excited. I always look forward to this big event that wraps up the season with a championship game.”
RCX Sports and NFL Flag continue to expand internationally for youth aged five to 17. They have seen explosive growth in participation over the years.
“What really makes it unique is the NFL tie-in. The NFL has made it a priority for the kids to be a part of the brand,” Reese explained. “Each athlete can represent a team and feel like part of the NFL. We are at 600,000 participating and growing especially with this global expansion.”
“The NFL’s priority of making sure this is affordable for kids is huge for them to play. Even though the experience is enhanced, it’s still meant for all kids to participate for an affordable price.”
Good news also arrived for Reese and his colleagues recently, as the states of New York and California announced the recognition of girls flag football as a high school state championship sport starting in 2024. This approval came on the 37th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day.
“Young women in sport now have the opportunities that I had to fall in love with football and be on that field. Over the last three years, we’ve pushed the envelope of flag football for women,” he noted.
“New York just made it a sanctioned sport and announced that girls can play for their high schools. As well as three years ago the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), NFL, and RCX Sports partnered to make women’s flag football a collegiate sport. Creating new full scholarship opportunities for women in football. Also, our junior colleges have followed and we’re in heavy conversations now with the NCAA about pushing that envelope as well. They have a path to play. They can see it in their future now.”
“One of the things that we’ve seen is the expansion of females on the field but also you have female league operators where they’re running their own leagues. Female officials. Female coaches. And I think that is vitally important to the sport and the growth and not just on the field but in the other aspects of the game.”
On top of it all, Reese’s vision of getting flag football into the Olympics has turned into one of the top priorities in the NFL’s New York offices. The schedule for the 2024 Paris Olympics is set, but flag football is on a list of nine sports that the organizers of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics are considering, which means Reese’s idea has a chance.
“This also opened the door for an Olympic path. These young girls that will play NFL Flag can be part of that and now even at a young age, they can see a path in this sport for them going forward,” Reese raved. “Now, they see a vision where women could play for their high school, college team or represent their country.”
Similar to the sport exploding in the US, Canada is on the move for more NFL Flag football tournaments. The rise in participation in NFL Flag in Canada has expanded from three tournaments in the last year to six this year and is growing.
“There were three different teams here from Canada participating in the NFL Flag youth tournament. Some amazing NFL Flag leagues already play in Canada with our initial launching. It’s only going to grow from there. I’m excited for Canada, I’m excited to continue to see them play and compete,” Reese said.
“I got a chance to be at one of those tournaments when it was in Toronto last year. It was just amazing watching those young men and women compete and be a part of it. Those tournaments qualify them to be here for the championship.”
Despite offers from provincial and national bodies over the years, the CFL currently has no branded flag football initiative. The NFL will continue to take the lead in growing the sport north of the border and hopefully lay the groundwork for Team Canada’s Olympic showing in a few years’ time.