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Flag football: This year, the Pro Bowl; up next, the Olympics?

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Izell Reese thinks of himself as a visionary, the kind of man who finds solutions to big problems. As a teenage football star, he went unrecruited from his Dothan, Ala., high school. Undaunted, he walked on at the University of Alabama Birmingham, not only making the team but starting as a freshman. Four years later, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, and he played seven seasons in the NFL.

This might have been the most improbable thing he attempted — until three years ago, when he came up with the preposterous idea of trying to get flag football in the Olympics.

Reese’s long-shot dream has turned into one of the top priorities in the NFL’s New York offices. For two decades, league executives have searched for ways to grow their sport overseas, worried that the NFL — despite being the most lucrative league in the world — lacks the global reach of sports such as soccer, basketball and baseball. Regular season games in London, Mexico City and Munich have added international fans, as have recent television streaming deals, but NFL leaders want to get people outside of the United States to actually play the game.

They’ve decided that flag football, played five-on-five by men and women without helmets and complicated rules, might be the way to do that, and they believe if the sport gets in the Olympics, they can draw millions of new fans in places they never imagined.

“There’s something magical about the [Olympic] Games,” says Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events.

The schedule for the 2024 Paris Olympics is set, but flag football is on a list of nine sports that organizers of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics are considering, which means Reese’s wild idea has a chance.

Reese, 48, began running youth sports programs a few years ago, eventually starting his own company, RCX Sports, managing kids’ leagues for the NBA and Major League Baseball. In 2019, building on a connection with NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent — his teammate for two years in Buffalo — he took over the NFL’s flag football program, imaging his role as a “blank canvas” upon which to accelerate the sport’s sudden boom.

One day, Reese noticed the 2022 World Games were going to be in Birmingham, Ala. He had never heard of the World Games, which are held every four years for sports mostly not in the Olympics, and scrolled through the list of sports scheduled and saw it included softball, which he thought already was an Olympic sport. As he read more, he realized softball was out for Paris and trying to get back for Los Angeles, as were most of the World Games’ other sports.

“Suddenly, a lightbulb went off,” Reese says.

If he got flag football in the World Games, maybe he could get it into the Olympics, too.

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He didn’t mention the idea to Vincent for several months. The NFL had asked him to run its flag football leagues, not put the sport in the Olympics. Finally, in late February 2020, Reese cornered Vincent in a ballroom of Indianapolis’s JW Marriott the day before the NFL’s scouting combine.

“I know this sounds crazy,” he said, “but hear me out.”

Reese told Vincent about the World Games and the Olympics and about kids who were playing flag football in places such as China and Japan. He called the Olympics “a game changer” for the NFL and said getting the sport in the Los Angeles Games isn’t just a part of a solution to the NFL’s international problem — it’s “the solution.”

Vincent was intrigued. He and Reese flew to Toronto to present the idea to some of the league’s international executives who, like Vincent, saw the potential of the Olympics. Reese left Toronto and started work on getting flag football in the World Games.

“It became a big thing really fast,” Reese says.

At the end of 2020, when Vincent prepared his business plan for the coming year, flag football was No. 3 on the list.

Two years later, a total of 16 men’s and women’s teams from 10 countries on four continents played a flag football tournament at the World Games, with the American men winning gold and Mexico blasting the United States, 39-6, for the women’s championship. The next month, the International Olympic Committee announced flag football was on the list of sports being considered for Los Angeles 2028.

The NFL’s Olympic bid is an unusually organic movement for the league. Normally, the NFL pushes its most important initiatives with massive marketing campaigns designed to show off the league’s financial might. But the Olympics are run by the IOC, and the Olympic system is loaded with obscure individual sport and national federations whose leaders know little about the NFL or football.

And so, the NFL is moving carefully, not heavily advertising its Olympic hopes and relying on subtle presentations, such as flag football tournaments around last fall’s games in London and Munich. Even its decision to turn next month’s Pro Bowl in Las Vegas into a flag football contest and skills competition has been described more as the reinventing of a sagging all-star game than part of the Olympic push — though league executives say it is both.

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The NFL is relying on the Paris-based International Federation of American Football and its president, Pierre Trochet, a rare Frenchman who grew up playing football, to lead the bid. To keep the flag football push from appearing to be an operation driven by the NFL, IFAF officials have advised the league to take a secondary role, an unfamiliar dynamic.

“Most of the time, we are the leaders,” Vincent said. “This time, we are not.”

NFL leaders repeat statistics they hope will impress the IOC, such as that 20 million people playing flag football in 100 countries, including 100,000 new players in Mexico and thousands of children in Japan, where the sport is part of school curriculums.

They also talk about the thousands of girls in the United States who play flag football and the five areas in the country where it is sanctioned as a girls’ high school sport. And they say they are sure those numbers will be much bigger by 2028.

Time is short. Los Angeles 2028 officials have to make their recommendation by late spring or early summer in time for the IOC’s membership to vote at its general meeting in early fall, and flag football will be competing with baseball and softball, lacrosse, cricket, motorsports, karate, kickboxing, squash and breaking — many of which have been part of past Olympic programs.

Trochet, who became the IFAF’s president in December 2021, admits he “wasn’t really familiar with the IOC” when he started the job but says his lack of familiarity with the organization and its members is an “opportunity” to explain a sport they don’t understand.

Questions such as “Do players wear a helmet and shoulder pads?” give him an opening to sell the sport in excited bursts in a French accent that is decidedly not NFL.

“All of that brings curiosity because of how unique the proposal is,” he said.

With the IOC pushing this year’s general meeting from late spring to early fall, the IFAF and the NFL have an unexpected sliver of lobbying time that includes the Pro Bowl.

“I want us to build more momentum,” says Reese, who is adding several flag football events to Pro Bowl weekend. “That added window can only help. That’s why 10 countries are bringing flag football teams. It’s a big chance for us.”

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But even if Los Angeles 2028 organizers decide they really want flag football, there is no guarantee they will have room for it. The IOC has a limit of 10,500 athletes at a Summer Games, and Los Angeles is already expected to be close to that number based on the projected number of competitors in the core sports. That number doesn’t include longtime staples such as boxing, weightlifting and modern pentathlon, which are out of the Los Angeles Games for various organizational issues the IOC has given them time to solve. Los Angeles might have space to add only a sport with a small number of individual participants, such as the 32 athletes who will compete in breaking in Paris.

“I see [flag football] as a real stretch,” says Michael Payne, a former IOC executive who now runs his own marketing company and has written two books on the history of the Games. “The sport needs more international development before it qualifies for the Games.”

Football’s best bets, he says, are for Los Angeles 2028 leaders to want it so much they will make a deal with the IOC to add the sport along with one that has more momentum internationally, such as cricket, or for the NFL to build enough interest from IOC members to make a run at 2036 or 2040.

“I’ve learned over time that, in the Olympic world, you never say never,” Payne continued. “But [flag football] is tough. If I were a gambling man, I would not give it good odds.”

Reese, however, does not want to think about 2036 or 2040. Neither do NFL executives, who are fully behind his idea and only talk about Los Angeles 2028. If they can’t get football in a U.S. Olympics, then when will they?

“If this had been in another city, we’d be kicking the can down the road,” Reese said.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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