League sees flags in future of football
It starts with statistics, startling even to some in the sports industry: Nearly 3 million people played flag football 13 or more times in 2017, and over 6.5 million played the sport once or more during that period — more than ice hockey and lacrosse combined, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
That’s a sizable grassroots base. Is it enough of a foundation upon which to build a pro league and one in which prospective franchise owners are willing to make a mid-seven-figure investment? That’s the challenge facing the American Flag Football League founder and CEO Jeff Lewis, a former Guggenheim Partners senior managing director, who is hoping to transform what has been one of the few growing team participation sports into a spectator sport with all the attendant businesses: event, media and sponsorships.
The AFFL, which started with a demonstration game in 2017 featuring Michael Vick and Terrell Owens, has some advantages other startup leagues covet. Primarily, there’s the support of the NFL, with games on NFL Network through a revenue-sharing arrangement. Additional advantages include being a simpler version of tackle football when safety concerns have participation numbers declining, and costs that anyone familiar with tackle football would find inconsequential.
“Do a spreadsheet on [the costs of] a tackle football league and your head will explode,” Lewis said. League executives did not disclose costs or investments in the league.
The AFFL’s embrace from the NFL includes an 11-game schedule on NFL Network and promotional support extending to this year’s season starting alongside the NFL draft April 25-27 in Nashville. “It’s a fan development tool; it’s played at the right time of year and we’re already heavily invested in flag football, so it made sense,” said Mark Quenzel, the NFL Network’s senior vice president of programming and production.
AFFL averaged around 91,000 viewers for its live NFL Network broadcasts in 2018 (late June through mid-July). The July 19 championship was tops with 133,000 viewers in the 8 p.m. ET window. Quenzel said the AFFL did as well or better as any NFL Network programming after the NFL draft, with strong demos. “The 18-49 demos were a lot higher and that’s what everyone in this world wants,” he said.
Said Lewis: “We’ve built a core audience of 100,000 — to think that in 10 years we could get that to 300,000 is not pie in the sky. Our defining difference from every startup is that we’re playing a game already established as the game. And we’re complementary, not adversarial.”
Tim Brosnan, former MLB executive vice president of business, is now the AFFL’s consultant and industry consigliere. He gets credit from Lewis for making inroads with the NFL. “An association with any premier sports league — and the NFL is one of the most premier — lends authenticity,” Brosnan said. “That kind of authenticity would take years to build.”
So far, Anheuser-Busch InBev was the biggest AFFL sponsor. “The events were good and the crowds were enthusiastic,” said Nick Kelly, ABI head of U.S. sports marketing. “Like any startup league, they’ve got to build up awareness.” The league does not have sponsors yet for the coming season.
Lewis hopes to form four pro teams this season and next — the first season featured a four-team pro bracket — and eventually expand to 24. The pro finalist would continue to play the winner of the 128-team amateur tournament.
Lewis said around a dozen investors are looking at franchises. “People who own stadiums are interested,” said Dominic Curcio, Guggenheim Partners vice chairman and an AFFL board member and early investor.
Flag football is remarkably splintered. There’s a plethora of leagues, playing under a variety of rules and field sizes. USA Football is the sport’s national governing body, but that still leaves some opportunity for the league with the most wherewithal.
Generally left unsaid by the league is the notion that flag football is an answer to the head-trauma concerns that have parents steering their children away from tackle football. “We’re not trying to make too big a deal out of concussions and all that, because the NFL is our friend in this thing,” Curcio said.
“I don’t see flag replacing the [traditional] game,” said Danny Wuerffel, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 as a quarterback at Florida and who captained an AFFL team and is on the league’s board of advisers, “but it opens access to a lot more people.” Indeed, a 50-year-old high school football coach led his team to the quarterfinals of the AFFL tournament.
“Who says flag is not the future of football?” said Darrell “Housh” Doucette, MVP for the Fighting Cancer team that crushed a team of former NFL and college football players for the AFFL championship, winning $1 million.
“I have the football IQ and skills, but I wasn’t going to get an NFL shot,” said Doucette, who is 5-8 and weighs 140 pounds. “Who says there’s not a thousand more people like me?”
It all depends on whether those impressive grassroots numbers can be monetized. “MLS did a really good job of leveraging all those kids playing soccer,” Lewis said. “They leveraged that for financing, for sponsorships and to build crowds. We have that same opportunity.”
Said Brosnan, with 24 years at MLB as a guidepost: “Everything is there but the top of the pyramid. It won’t be an easy task to build the top, but all the ingredients are there.”