The One Thing the NFL is Doing Right.

This is a short thing that's the result of a couple of offhand comments made in the Tuck Rule Discord server (no shade to the lovely people in there at all) that made me think about it. Not sure how much sense it'll make, but it seemed too long for a Twitter thread, so why not do a short article about it instead?

So here's the thing: the NFL's strategy when it comes to spreading the sport has changed a lot since the early 2000s. This is partially because of the changed landscape of professional sports and partially because of a shift in league vision, which in turn is the result of recent developments at the lower levels of the sport.

You see, it hasn't been talked about much since a spate of articles about eight years ago, but high school and youth football participation rates have cratered over the last decade. Kids just aren't playing the sport anywhere as much, either because of parental decision because of safety or more accessible alternatives. You know what has grown on the youth/HS levels in the last decade? Soccer and rugby. The "soccer mom" stereotype is kinda old hat at this point as the sport is now the affordable alternative to football in much of the country. The effect that this has had is that soccer and rugby are consequentially the fastest growing sports in the US, not just in terms of fresh players, but fans too. This is because rugby and soccer both have a historically powerful base of fans at the local amateur/semi-pro level, and attempts to meddle with that have resulted in castrastrophic effects (like soccer going from the 2nd most popular sport in the country to practically nonexistent until the NASL in the 1960s). Most rugby and soccer fans in the US are not joining up with MLR or MLS clubs (although generally they are), but finding clubs closer to their home towns and going to games, or even participating.

This is a benefit that American football does not have, uniquely. Even the Canadian Football League does, the Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL), which has been around for even longer than the CFL has (in its current form). Meanwhile, the last serious American football minor league, the Continental Football League, folded in 1969 after four seasons, when its hopes of becoming the third major league didn't materialize. Although, the COFL disappeared not without producing coaches and players who would later become NFL and CFL stars, like Kenny Stabler (who played in Spokane) and Bill Walsh (who coached San Jose).

The NCAA and NAIA have been considered the NFL's de facto minor leagues for years, but there's several issues with this. For one, you have a limited time in college, that is, however long you're in school, and it's arguably not even amateur, but pay-to-play at the levels where colleges don't give out athletic scholarships. It is strictly a one-way street: you go there to play, if you're in the top 0.0001% you get to maybe have an NFL tryout, if you're not then you move on with your life. If an NFL player washes out, there's nowhere for him to really go but abroad, or try his luck in whatever spring league de jour is desperate for warm bodies at that moment. He can't go back to college. If he fails out of the NFL, and doesn't want to try out for another league, he's done, and moves on with his life. It's not a sport conducive to longevity; it takes a very long time to taxi onto the runway (many NFL players start playing the sport around age 8) and it may or may not even pay off past the age of, say, 25. It is by far the most cutthroat of any of the major sports by popularity in the United States.

Part of this is because of the nature of the game itself. It is the most violent code of football on Earth, and it's not really close. The way the game is played may have to change whether the NFL wants it to or not, but the NFL seems to at least be partially aware of this reality and the degree to which it's hampering the sports growth, because they've elected to...promote flag football instead.

Flag football has been around a while--yours truly played YMCA flag football as a kid because it was more affordable than the local tackle league. It's typically been geared towards children, but the NFL for the last several years has pivoted towards using it as its primary vehicle in evangelizing the game among girls and countries lacking the money and infrastructure for the full 11 man game. Its much lower costs, much lower barrier for entry, higher emphasis on agility and passing accuracy rather than power, and adaptability to tiny fields make it much more conducive to entry-level players, and ex-players. This initiative has been, by and large, very successful. With the NFL's backing, the NAIA made women's American flag football an Emerging Sport, a classification opening it up for eligibility to become a full Championship Sport when enough colleges sponsor it. The sport has especially found popularity in Latin America, where the NFL has particularly focused, and both of Mexico's national flag teams medaled at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

But what about the tackle sport? The NFL is acutely aware that the sport is exceedingly popular abroad, but instead of international forays into NFL expansion teams, has instead elected to support native leagues in other countries, similar to the relationship between Major League Baseball and pro baseball in Japan and South Korea. They bailed the CFL out in the late 1990s after the latter league's failed American expansion and have signalled that they have an interest in the CFL staying a fixture of both Canadian culture and Canadian football generally. It would not be out of the realm of possibility to see the NFL extend similar support to the European League of Football in the coming years. It would be much more prudent than the massive expansion of the season and logistical nightmare that NFL expansion into Europe would necessitate.

The NFL is one of the most powerful sports leagues on Earth, and does a lot of things wrong. But this is the one thing it's very much doing right.