The growth in popularity of American Football in the UK is well documented, which is why it comes as little surprise now when people stop and watch us practice on a Sunday afternoon in a local park.
There are no pads, no helmets but this it’s still football – easily identifiable to anyone who loves the sport, or who just has a passing interest.
The euphoria of a touchdown grab is just a great as it is for our ‘kitted’ brethren – as is the bitter taste of defeat in the dying minutes of a game – but we, usually, all walk off the field without war wounds or worries about concussions and long-term injuries.
Flag football, or just ‘flag’, is often dismissed as a sport for those neither brave nor tough enough to play the “real” thing, however the UK is one of the countries where this version of the sport has really taken off and for reasons which, when the rules are explained, seem fairly obvious.
Huddle up and let me break it down for you…
In flag, well the version played in the UK and governed by the British American Football Association (BAFA) anyway, there are five offensive and five defensive players on the field (which measures 50yds by 25yds) at any time. The O has four downs to pass half way and another four to score. So far, straightforward. Right?
Now for the major differences: the most obvious one is that flag is a non-contact sport and tackles are made by ripping a flag from a belt round a player’s waist – rather than by taking them out à la JJ Watt. The quarterback also lacks the ability to run without first handing off the ball. However if the ball is then thrown back to them they can run – unless the line of scrimmage is in the red zone. Extra points/P.A.T’s are scored as another end zone attempt form the 5yd line – or the 10yd line if going for two.
Also, every player is an eligible receiver and this is what makes flag a great introduction to football or a recreational version of the sport. It is accessible to anyone regardless of age (under 12 teams are springing up around the country and the adult league is 16+), physical ability or gender (UK flag is a mixed sport). Great coaches will develop a playbook that is suitable to everyone on their roster – fast and agile or not-so-fast but good hands.
A little over a year ago I rocked up to my first training session with the Aberdeen Oilcats – one of the top teams in the UK. I had tried out before with a kitted team, but decided it wasn’t for me, mostly due to the risk of injuries to my fingers, wrists and hands and being a writer for a living means I kind of rely of those body parts to pay the bills. I also knew that at 5’11’’ and 20st, I was destined for life in the trenches as a lineman – a breed of player I have great respect for, but that I had no desire to join.
So, I tried flag and from day one I was hooked. I was taught to run routes, catch the ball and score touchdowns. It also helped that my teammates are great bunch of guys, made up from a vast range of ages and backgrounds. We’ve got students, oil workers, marketing professionals and retail workers aged between mid-teens and early 40’s.
This is a trend you will see throughout the league as well as a genuine love for the sport and camaraderie between players of opposing teams which comes from playing a minority sport purely for the fun of it. We know we’re not destined for the NFL, but that doesn’t matter.
However, it is worth pointing out that flag football and kitted football are not mutually exclusive. In the States, flag is a key tool in a coach’s arsenal for player development, teaching the fundamentals of the game without worry about avoiding hits. A lot of UK kitted teams also field flag teams during their offseason for non-league tournaments to keep players in shape and to give people further down the depth-chart valuable game time.
One over-arching fact about flag though is that it is exciting to play and watch. Two 20-minute halves, five-a-side format and every player eligible makes for a fast-paced sport, with far fewer stoppages and the ability to play multiple games in one day.
If you don’t believe me, check out Reflex Football League on Youtube for examples of just how exciting the sport can be – or come down to a game day or training session and chat to players.
With Great Britain finishing ninth overall at the recent Flag Football World Championships in Miami and new teams springing up all over the country each season, the growth of the game in this country is obvious to see and flag gives the armchair fan the chance to play the sport themselves, without worrying about being left looking like Ross from Friends after playing rugby.
Chris Rae is a PR Officer working in the third sector and a former newspaper reporter. He plays Centre for the Aberdeen Oilcats and has been Carolina Panthers fan since long before last year’s fairytale season. He can be found on Twitter @ChrisJRae.
Photo copyright: James Brewerton.