Feb. 17—Flag football is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, especially among young girls in the Newburyport area.
Perhaps you were watching the NFL Pro Bowl a couple of weeks ago, and you noticed there were a bunch of flag football games going on at halftime? Or maybe you recently stumbled across an article on the New York Jets, and how they’ve partnered with Nike to expand the high school girls flag football league from eight to over 40 teams across New Jersey and Long Island?
Currently, there are six states — Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New York — that have sanctioned girls high school flag football.
And that number is poised to grow … and quickly.
The NFL has continued to throw its weight behind the growth of flag football — both with boys and girls — as an alternative to actual football with its NFL Flag program. and the popular Seacoast Youth Flag Football League (SYFFL), which has been partnered with NFL Flag for over a decade, has seen an increase in female interest and participation over the last handful of years thanks in part to the NFL’s Female in Flags promotion.
“It’s a great sport,” said Amesbury native and SYFFL founder Jeff Johnson. “This past fall was our biggest year for the girls as we had a total of seven girls teams playing. and this spring will be our first year offering a girls league as we have only offered it in the fall.”
In 2019, the SYFFL had 158 girls playing, but that still only made up about 7.5% of all the league’s participants. In year’s past, the organization could only offer co-ed leagues, which, while still fun for all, posed certain challenges — and, in some cases, acted as a deterrent — as boys started to mature pysically around 9-10 years old.
If, say, an 11-year-old girl wanted to start playing flag football, would she necessarily want to do it playing against boys her own age?
Some, of course, would. Others wouldn’t.
But, as more girls have continued to show interest and have signed up to play in the SYFFL, the organization has been able to offer more opportunities.
This upcoming spring season, the SYFFL is offering co-ed divisions for ages 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12 and 13-15. However, for the first time in its spring season, the organization is offering all-girl divisions for 15U, 12U and 10U girls. The SYFFL offers leagues in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, with sign-ups for the all-girl leagues in Mass. broken down into Amesbury, Newburyport, Pentucket District and Triton District.
“They’ll play co-ed up until they’re 8 years old and then be able to go whichever direction they want,” said Johnson. “All of the kids who play get NFL jerseys, and we’ve been able to hold our ‘Super Bowls’ on the local high school fields like at Newburyport High.”
The more girls who sign up to play, the more teams the SYFFL will be able to field in the coming years.
“It’s such a great sport to get into,” said Rowley’s Amy Aylward, whose 8-year-old daughter, Hensley, has played in the SYFFL for four seasons. “She absolutely loves it. It was the first sort of organized sport she got into, and it’s been such a confidence booster for her. Playing with a bunch of boys, at first, she was a little timid. But her second season playing she scored her first touchdown, and you could just see the confidence and the smile she had.
“It’s just done wonders for her and many other girls in the league.”
And it’s not just states across the country that are beginning to add girls flag football as a sanctioned high school sport. In the summer of 2020, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) announced that women’s flag football would become a sanctioned sport, with 15 schools committed to hosting the first league last spring.
So, if you want to just play to have fun, you can do that.
But, if you’re serious about the sport, more and more scholarship opprtunities are becoming available at higher levels of play.
“Oh yeah, there are big opportunities out there, and they’re growing,” said Johnson.
The SYFFL spring season will start April 23 and run a total of eight weeks (1 scrimmage, 5 regular season games, playoffs). The organization has a season in the spring as well as one in the fall.
“She loves it,” said Rowley’s Alena Laird, whose 7-year-old daughter, Lily, has played in the SYFFL for four seasons and is classmates with Aylward at Immaculate Conception. “We call her the flag monster because her defense is so amazing!
“She continues to thrive and she keeps getting better. She even loves to watch NFL football now and she knows all of the players. She just loves football and loves to play football. It’s her favorite sport.”
And now, with the growing opportunities both locally and nationally, who knows how far that sport will take her?