NAIA is partnering with the NFL to kick off a women’s flag football season in spring 2021. Early indications are the addition will be a major boost to NAIA and its member schools are eager to see students return to campus in the next school year.
“The announcement has injected some excitement into the whole conversation for next year,” says Mike Higgins, NAIA’s director of championships.
Games will be 7 vs. 7 and played typically on the same field as men’s football—hence the springtime to avoid competition. The field will be slightly narrower and a little shorter than the men’s counterparts.
Higgins anticipates a strong start in the South and Midwest. Florida, in particular, is a hotbed with 8,000 young women already playing it in high school.
The initiative continues a growing trend to increase opportunities for women’s collegiate athletics. NAIA has seen great success launching women’s lacrosse and women’s wrestling—currently the association’s fastest-growing sport, although Higgins predicts flag football will assume the top spot quickly.
When introducing a new championship sport, NAIA has a tiered level based on interest and resources. There is an emerging sports designation, invitational level and championship. Flag football was initially pegged for invitational but Higgins says strong interest has presented the chance of starting at the top designation. NAIA will soon be seeking bids to host the championship, adds Higgins.
“There is a large base of athletes and the backing of NFL, which has injected funds to help market this and allowed us to do more things to promote it within our association,” he says.
Conversations began in late 2019 before the NFL met with NAIA at the American Football Coaches Association annual convention in Nashville in January. “It was clear the NFL wanted this fast-tracked,” says Higgins.
Beyond Florida, states with high numbers include Georgia, Nevada, Michigan and California. There is also strong interest in Tennessee and Kentucky, among other localities.
Additionally, coaches can recruit naturally good athletes who may play soccer, track or basketball—an advantage over specialty sports like archery that requires a previously learned skill.
Higgins remains as confident as possible that the sport will kick off despite COVID-19, which remains a challenge for schools of all sizes to get students on campus. Sports can play a major role in that mission. The prospect of starting a new division only adds to that cause.
“We think this is an answer to get more kids on campus and present more opportunities for women to play a varsity sport,” says Higgins.