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Flag football at the Olympics might be the key to the NFL’s overseas business plan

  • The NFL says it has a plan to grow its international business to $1 billion annually and attract its next set of fans.
  • The league projects it will attract 50 million consumers internationally over the next 10 years.
  • The league is pushing for flag football to be included in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The NFL says it has a plan to grow its international business to $1 billion annually and attract its next set of fans.

But the league has some work to do first. And it involves flag football.

“Over the next five years, we want to expand NFL flag football,” said Damani Leech, chief operating officer of NFL International.

In an interview with CNBC at the NFL’s annual meetings this past week, Leech discussed the next phase of NFL expansion overseas. He said that in the next 10 years, the NFL projects it will attract 50 million consumers internationally. That would add to its 180 million consumers domestically and over 150 million international fans who already consume the most popular U.S. sport.

“That’s our big number that we’re focused on,” Leech said.

Here’s a look inside the NFL’s 10-year international plan.

NFL needs flag football in the Olympics

“We’ve got to make the game matter,” Leech said when discussing the importance of expanding the sport overseas.

And to do that, the NFL needs the Olympics.

The league is pushing for flag football to be included in the Summer Games. Flag football resembles gridiron football, except there is no tackling, and pads and helmets aren’t necessary for participation.

“If flag football becomes an Olympic sport, more countries will invest in playing that sport,” Leech said.

It wouldn’t be the first time football aimed for Olympic inclusion.

American football was included in the 1932 Olympic Games as a demonstration sport. Since then, it hasn’t been recognized. In 1996, apparel company Reebok lobbied unsuccessfully for gridiron football to re-enter the Olympics landscape with a commercial featuring Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.

But the International Olympic Committee did recognize the International Federation of American Football as a governing body in 2013. That could help the NFL as it pushes for the 2028 Olympic Games.

During Super Bowl weekend earlier this year in Los Angeles, Leech said the NFL organized a U.S. versus Mexico flag football game featuring both men and women – an Olympic requirement. Casey Wasserman, the media executive who chaired the push to nab the Summer Olympics for Los Angeles in 2028, was in attendance. He was the chair of the host committee for the Super Bowl in LA, as well.

LA28 officials did not make Wasserman available for comment to discuss the matter. However, Leech said the CEO of Wasserman Media Group is “supportive of the idea” to include flag football.

“I think they were impressed by the speed of it,” Leech said of other LA28 officials watching the five-on-five football game. “It’s position-less football where everyone is a receiver, and everyone is a quarterback. You see the speed of it, and it’s entertaining.”

Also, the NFL is aligned with flag football’s 2022 World Games, which will be held in Alabama from July 7 to July 17. The games feature men and women from teams from countries that include Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico.

Leech added that the World Games would be “a good opportunity to show the IOC what this sport looks like. That it is competitive and attractive.”