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Flag football: The NFL's future from the USA to Vietnam

March 21, 2023

Issues around concussions have haunted the NFL in recent years, but the rise of flag football has changed the game for American football both in the US and around the world.

A flag football game in Vietnam
Flag football is growing in popularity around the world, including in Vietnam

With the NFL draft in April, the next generation of stars in the sport are on the verge of arriving on the big stage. But the future of American football lies beyond even the college game.

In 2023, the NFL's Pro Bowl - an event with the league's star players - included a flag football game for the first time. Recognition of the inclusive, accessible version of American football that is played by people of all ages and genders thanks to its non-contact, low-cost, and easy to understand rules is also recognition of how flag football is reinvigorating the sport's participation numbers and development strategies.

A new study led by the Boston University CTE Center has found that, for those playing traditional tackle football, "repetitive blows to the head may also lead to less white matter in the brain, potentially causing impulsive behavior and other thinking-related problems, whether or not someone has CTE."

This is just the latest piece of evidence around the violent nature of American football and the concussions often associated with playing the game, both of which have led to a decline in those playing tackle football. As Forbes reported in 2020, in the 11 years between 2008 and 2019, "the total number of youths aged 6 to 18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000."

Enter flag football

The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) says there are an estimated 20 million flag football players across more than 100 countries.

In Japan, half a million elementary school children per grade now have the chance to play flag football every year while in Mexico there were 100,000 new flag football players in 2021 alone.

Most intriguingly, across IFAF's 72 national member federations, flag football will this year overtake tackle football in terms of organized participation opportunities.

With Mexico's women beating the United States at the World Games in 2022, Papa New Guinea on the verge of entering its first IFAF tournament and US high school participation of women's flag football up 40% since 2018, it's clear the sport is booming across the world.

Touchdown in Vietnam

Vietnam, also one of the 72 IFAF members, is also enjoying a boost in participation, albeit not at the same level.

The sport has been around in the country for around a decade, but now it has approximately 400 registered players in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with the majority playing in the latter, where the creation of the Vietnam Flag Football League (VFFL) three years ago changed the game.

Flag Football in Vietnam
Sue (far right) lines up with her teammates ahead of a snap in a VFFL gameImage: Minh Duy

"We started out struggling to get enough players each week. We used to play in random parks and the street on Saturday," Anetnga told DW. "We have grown to now having real tournaments on real fields with sponsors."

Anetnga plays for The Swarm, one of six teams in a league now in its fourth season. By using Reclub, a digital platform that allows users to manage teams and competitions, review stats and be a part of the flag community, the VFFL's development has been steady.

"This year is the first time the league has had more local Vietnamese players than foreigners, which speaks to the stability of the sport," Luis Aloma, co-founder of Reclub and fellow player, told DW.

Duong Phan has been playing for nearly a year, and is President of the RMIT Wolves.

"I think the spirit and energy of flag football connecting everyone is one of the factors that makes this sport is so special in Vietnam," he told DW.

"A big part of why I like flag football is the people I've met," Anetnga said. "I've made a lot of friends playing it, especially with the other Vietnamese women that play. It's quite fun and the lack of tackling/contact makes it even safer than soccer.

"Some people underestimated me because I am a local girl, looking weak and they thought I would give up soon so I wanted to prove them wrong," Sue, who plays for the Saigon Southside Brotherhood, a team made up only of Vietnamese players, told DW.

"Flag football has helped me learn how to play as a team and build trust in each other, regardless of age."

Flag Football in Vietnam
Even outside the VFFL, Vietnamese teams hold cup tournaments against each other such as this one in Da Nang.Image: Luis Almo

Capture the flag

The next edition of the flag football world championship is in 2024 in Finland, where a record 24 men's and women's national teams are expected.

Flag football is also among nine sports shortlisted for inclusion at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, with a decision expected later this year. If the sport is included, IFAF believe that "uniting football with the Games can deliver powerful growth benefits for all parties, unlocking new audiences and supercharging global participation."

Vietnam is certainly one of those countries. Flag football is on the verge of taking the next step in the country, and in doing so is a reminder of how popular and important this safer, more inclusive version of an already popular sport has become in recent years.

"What I'd really like to see is Vietnamese kids playing it on their own the same way kids play soccer. Even just seeing kids throwing a football in the street would be cool," said Anetnga.

Edited by Matt Ford