The NFL is pushing for the development of sponsor football in Latin America and beyond

In 5-foot-3 shoes, Andrea Castillo looks like a soccer player—something she grew up in in Panama.

But it didn’t take long for her to realize that the “beautiful game” wasn’t for her.

She was 12 years old and had just entered high school, when she gave up fútbol for the sake of the budding sport. football flag. It proved to be a good move for the 18-year-old, who this summer led Panama to a bronze medal at the World Games in Birmingham, Ala.

“I think a lot about it,” she said of the decision to leave one of her country’s most popular sports for one with no more followers than a religious sect. “I have been growing with the knowledge of football. … I have had the opportunity to participate in all these events and have all these achievements at a young age.”

The sport flourished almost as fast as Castillo’s career. While the global appeal of National Football League Helping fuel the rise of flag football in Panama and elsewhere, the only thing the two sports have in common is the shape of the ball.

Five-man soccer is usually played on a side on a field about two-thirds the size of the NFL network, making for a wide open game played at a fast pace. This also makes speed, agility, and creativity more important than size or brute strength, which is why women and girls flock to the game in huge numbers.

The California Interscholastic Association, which governs high school sports in the state, is considering a proposal to recognize flag football as a college sport. Six states have already taken this step, and at least 20 more are exploring it.

The NFL is also on board.

rams And the chargers They sponsor a league of 16 girls’ soccer teams in Southern California, and more than 10,000 girls play in NFL-sponsored leagues across the country. College-level 18 National Assn. Of the 10 intercollegiate athletics schools playing women’s soccer this season, as do a handful of schools at National Junior College Athletic Assn. level.

With more than half a million participants and 1,640 active leagues, according to the NFL, soccer is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States.

Andrea Castillo celebrates after helping Panama win the bronze medal in flag football at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala. , in July.

(Dustin Massey / World Games 2022)

“This is the beauty of football science. Everyone can play. It is accessible and inclusive.”

Andrea Castillo, quarterback, Panama

“You can see the opportunity, and now to bring sports to high school girls, this is my generation’s impact,” said Jonathan Franklin, director of social justice and football development for the Rams.

Franklin said the NFL has emphasized girls’ banner football because nearly every high school in the country has a boys’ soccer tackling program.

“As we look at inclusion and opportunity, there was not necessarily access for girls to play in a safe way,” he said. “So with this pilot program, we wanted to make sure that we give girls a chance to own their own sport, grow their sport, and create that passion, that desire.

“There is only boys’ sports, right? Now let’s create opportunities for girls.”

The sport also has a huge following in Latin America, thanks in part to the simplicity of the game. Like soccer, all it takes is a small open space, a ball, and a group of friends.

Castillo said sex doesn’t matter.

“This is the beauty of flag football. Everyone can play. It is accessible and inclusive,” she said. “We have no problem with sex in Panama with flag of football. The women were represented a lot, they played football and we did a great job.”

“It empowers women. It gives equal representation in the field. So there are no limits.”

– Diana Flores, flag of the midfielder

Diana Flores from Mexico City was attracted to the sport when she was eight years old. Her father—who played the quarterback on Monterrey Tech, Mexico’s top college program—taken her to training and was addicted, ditching piano and dance lessons to play flag football instead. .

Since there were no teams at the time for girls her age, she had to compete against players twice her age, a handicap that she turned into an advantage.

“I was playing with girls who are taller than me, of course faster than me,” she said. “But I learned to focus on my abilities, the things that made me better, and to work on them. … It gave me the opportunity to develop as an athlete and as a person.”

Eight years later, she was promoted to the Mexican national team, and played in the first of the four flag football tournaments in which she has appeared so far. This year, as Mexico’s quarterback at age 24, she beat the United States twice — her second World Games final win, completing 20 of 28 passes for 210 yards and four touchdowns at 39-6.

The Mexican women’s team is the most successful in the history of the sport, winning three gold, silver, and bronze medals at the Fifa World Championships, a biennial competition.

“It empowers women,” Flores said of soccer in Mexico that challenges not only sports stereotypes, but gender stereotypes as well. “It gives equal representation on the field. So there is no limit.”

According to Flores, an estimated 3 million people play flag football in Mexico, with colleges beginning to offer scholarships for women to play.

“This is just the first step to open up new paths and new opportunities. Not just Mexico, but around the world,” she said. “That’s why I’m so happy to be an ambassador and start opening those doors.”

One of the doors you hope will open soon is the one that leads to it the Olympics. Flag football is one of nine sports that asked last month to be included in the 2028 Los Angeles Gamesalong with motorsports, cricket, karate, baseball/softball, lacrosse, kickboxing, cricket and squash.

The sport appears to have key aspects that the IOC is looking for: it’s fast, it has a manageable number of players and a strict lead time – with two halves lasting between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on the competition.

The rolls are 15 players in depth and no contact is allowed, which means no interference, diving, blocking or screening. Instead, players wear flags that hang on their sides on a belt; In order to “tack” the ball carrier, the opponent must pull one of the two flags.

There are no kicks or kicks. Impulsors must begin the pass seven yards away from the line of scrimmage, and the quarterbacks have only seven seconds to clear the ball; They can’t run with it unless they hand it over to a teammate first.

The inclusion of the soccer flag at the World Games, first held in 1981 to highlight events competing for a place on the Olympic calendar, was an important step in gaining global recognition. (This summer, 3,600 athletes from 110 countries competed in 30 events, including wheelchair rugby and tug of war.)

The International Olympic Committee is expected to announce its decision on additional sports for the Los Angeles Games at its general meeting next spring in Mumbai.

Flores is not holding her breath.

But then, she said, she doesn’t need an Olympic medal to validate her career. Football took her to competitions in Italy, Denmark, Israel, the United States and Central America. What you want to do is give back to the game by helping it grow.

“I’m here and I’m one of the best guys in the world, you know? Until I’m able to show all the little girls that they can do it, I think that’s what we do,” she said. “We inspire young women and children to dream big. To see that their dreams can come true. They can do whatever they want.”