In its quest to gain further traction internationally, the NFL is eyeing flag football as a participation sport for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles—just as the city hosts Super Bowl LVI Sunday at SoFi Stadium.
“The International Federation of American Football (IFAF) is having those conversations right now,” Peter O’Reilly, an NFL executive vice president who oversees international, said in an exclusive interview on Friday.
“[That version] of the game is spreading around the world. This is just anecdotal, but I was just at the Pro Bowl and there were multiple countries playing it.”
The international style of flag football is a non-tackle, non-contact version of the game with five players on each side who are all eligible to receive the ball. A defensive player must remove a flag or flag belt to end a down. It’s played now by adults in 71 countries.
That version of the sport has gained popularity in the U.S., where there’s an NFL-sponsored league called NFL Flag, which serves as an umbrella for individual leagues playing all over the country, mostly at the youth level. Growing the game is key for the league as some parents have become reticent about allowing their kids to play tackle football because of injury concerns.
The IOC is responsible for adding or removing sports from Olympic play, but in any given year, the host city can ask for particular additions. For 2024, Paris asked for breakdancing to be included. That wish was granted.
As the 2028 Olympic host, the Los Angeles organizing committee can push for its favorites, although there are multiple possibilities and no guarantee any request will be approved.
The IOC has so far has added skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing for 2028 and men’s baseball and women’s softball, which won’t be played in Paris, are expected to return in LA. Lacrosse is also vying for a spot for the first time in those Summer Olympics.
Flag football would be a first for any rendition of the sport to be played in the Olympics, and lobbying from the IFAF and NFL will certainly grow stronger as the 2028 games grow closer.
“This is a real opportunity for us, especially with the games coming to the U.S.,” O’Reilly said, even though the sport remains a long shot for inclusion.
The IFAF represents football on a global basis, and sponsors a World Championship of flag football once every four years. Continuing to grow the game at grass roots level in other countries is its greatest goal.
The other major sports—baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer—all have world cup-style tournaments, pro-level leagues in other countries, participation in the Olympics and grass-root playing of those sports in country to bolster fan interest.
Without all that, the NFL’s plan has been to play regular season games in other countries, adding four in Germany in each of the next four seasons, beginning with Munich next season.
To go along with those games, the NFL intends to seed more flag football events in Germany at the youth level.
The traditional tackle game, played once a week, doesn’t lend to the tournament format.
“There’s pros and cons to that,” Reilly said. “Those other leagues are playing multiple times a week. We’ve played 30 games in London, so we’ve shown that once a week at the pro level can work. Then we engage at a deeper level with the media and youth football.
“That’s where the growth around the world in flag football is meaningful. We have our aspirations there in terms of maybe even being in the Olympic program someday.”
(This article was corrected to clarify the organizations involved in deciding what sports will be included in the 2028 Olympics.)