There could soon be a new official sport coming to the Garden State.
Girls flag football, which has operated as a club sport since spring 2022, could be on its way to becoming the 35th sport sanctioned by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, come Dec. 1, 2025.
With today’s proposal to graduate the sport from club status and create a two-year pilot program passing unanimously at the NJSIAA’s monthly executive committee Wednesday, New Jersey becomes the 21st state to approve (or plan to approve) a pilot program for girls flag football. Seven states fully sanction it now.
Girls flag football has seen a meteoric growth in numbers in recent years. NJSIAA Executive Director Colleen Maguire noted that this past spring, there were 83 teams and over 2,000 girls participating, with an expected increase in the years to come.
Under the pitot program, athletes will still be able to play another spring sport along with flag football, as has been permitted to date, as long as the school allows it.
For now, “schools still have the autonomy to run it how they want to,” Maguire said. “Most allow the flexibility but there are some that only let them play flag. But under a pilot, we have loose rules in place and let schools do what they want to do.”
While in pilot status, there will continue to be no true sanctioned state postseason tournament. Maguire said the main point of the pilot program is to get each girls flag football team operating under the same set of playing rules, since currently, a number of leagues and conferences around the state follow either NFL Flag or USA Football rules.
Maguire said she won’t step in and have teams change how they operate until the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) writes flag football rules, which it hasn’t done yet, but is expected to ahead of the 2024-25 school year. All NJSIAA sports follow NFHS rules.
Maguire also said the state won’t step in when it comes to funding these programs.
So far, schools have at least partly funded their teams via grants obtained directly from either the Jets, Giants or Eagles. Some of those grants have run out, and Maguire said the NJSIAA won’t be getting involved in providing funding for these programs while the sport is in pilot status.
“That’s another reason it’s good to give a two-year window because it’ll let schools see what their budgets look like now as the NFL funding goes away and are they committed to still funding this?” Maguire said.
The pilot program takes effect for spring of 2024 – this academic year – and runs through spring of 2025, with Dec. 1, 2025 serving as the final deadline to approve flag football’s sanctioning as an official NJSIAA sport.
At that point, it would then be subject to normal NJSIAA regulations and girls would have to choose between flag football or another spring sport.
Maguire seemed confident that following the pilot period, flag football would become sanctioned.
Maguire noted that the proliferation of flag football increases spring opportunities for female student-athletes, who currently only have four offerings in the spring, but six in the fall and seven in the winter.
“It’s the natural progression, and if we’re going to add a girls sport, it’s going to be in the spring,” she said.”
If and when full sanctioning happens, Maguire recognizes there could be a downside in diminished turnout for established spring sports, with athletes opting to play football instead.
“The growth is there in just two years. Everything is pointing toward it’s going to continue to grow and schools are reporting increased interest,” Maguire said. “But this is why we do pilot programs — because we don’t want to rush into anything and this one is a little trickier because we’re introducing a new sport into a season so there are probably going to be unintended consequences.”
But Maguire also cited participation numbers from 2018-19 pre-COVID to 2023 and said there’s been a 10-plus percent decrease in lacrosse and 15 percent in softball.
“There’s already attrition happening in those sports with girls not playing in the spring,” she said. “Could flag football continue to increase that? Yeah, but could it also fill the gap for girls that are leaving other sports,” she added, indicating that as some athletes leave softball or lacrosse for flag football, slots open for new athletes in the established sports.
Any final determination on girls flag football’s future in New Jersey won’t come for two years.
“We just need to put the schools on notice that it could be coming so they can start to plan,” Maguire said. “But, we also need that feedback. Some schools may say it’s great they [the NJSIAA] like it, but we don’t want to sponsor another new sport. So that’s what we need the time for.”
Jake Aferiat can be reached at email@example.com
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