I have seen the future of girls’ high school sports

The future world of athletics for high school girls may soon have one of the fastest-growing youth sports in the country: flag football. Columnist Joe Starkey takes a closer look.

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Sports

May 16, 2024 - 2:06 PM

Willowbrook High Schoolís Roslyn Sanchez, middle left, leads her team in celebration after winning the championship game at the first-ever Chicago Bears Girls Flag State Championship at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois, on Oct. 29, 2022. Photo by Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

PITTSBURGH — You might have watched the Nebraska women’s volleyball game that drew 92,003 fans in August. Or maybe you were one of the record 13.8 million viewers who tuned in for the women’s basketball Final Four.

I could go on. A record two million fans watched the women’s World Cup in person. The WNBA last year produced its most-watched season in 21 years — and that was before Caitlin Clark arrived.

We’re talking about a revolution here, or at least an evolution, and it’s only going to accelerate.

From CNBC.com: “Deloitte forecasts that in 2024, for the first time, women’s elite sports will generate revenue that surpasses $1 billion, a 300% increase on the industry evaluation in 2021.”

Now let’s add one more factor to the mix, and not a small one, considering that the most powerful entity in American sports is pushing it along: flag football. It’s moving faster than a Paul Skenes heater, and if my guess is correct, it will soon become a wildly popular college sport that will generate its own Caitlin Clarks and Angel Reeses and thus millions of eyeballs on television screens.

Taft High School safety Elena Gonzalez intercepts a pass during a semifinal game at the first-ever “Chicago Bears Girls Flag State Championship” in Lake Forest, Illinois, on Oct. 29, 2022. Photo by Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The Post-Gazette’s Mike White reported that flag football is the fastest-growing sport in the country for high school girls and is likely to become a PIAA- and WPIAL-sanctioned sport within a year.

The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that in 2023, about 500,000 girls — ages 6-17 — played flag football, an increase of 63% since 2019. Think about that. White reports that colleges are starting to sponsor the sport and will offer scholarship money (which means parents will be all over this, and possibly ruin it, but that’s a story for another day). It will be an Olympic sport for women and men at the 2028 Olympics.

The magic number for becoming sanctioned in Pennsylvania was 100 high school teams. It’s now at 103 and rising, thanks in no small part to Nike’s backing and to the fact that the Steelers are pushing from the western part of the state, operating the Pittsburgh Flag Football League, while the Philadelphia Eagles push from the east.

Do I need to tell you that if the NFL wants something to happen, it will happen? Football is America’s Game. Nothing else is close. Nearly every top-rated TV show every year is an NFL game. How many households don’t have kids growing up watching football?

Mike Marchinsky, the Steelers’ senior manager of alumni relations and youth football, spoke of the meteoric local rise of the sport. He works with Chris Curd, a former Pitt wide receiver who played with Larry Fitzgerald and is commissioner of the Pittsburgh Flag Football League (and coaches the Ellis Academy team).

“We started this program back in 2022 with six high schools; we had 22 teams in 2023, and now we have 36 high schools,” Marchinsky said.

My 15-year-old daughter began playing this season at Seton La Salle, and I can tell you, it’s a fun watch. Multiple games have been happening each Sunday at schools such as Moon, Ambridge, Sto-Rox, West Allegheny and Aliquippa. The playoffs are at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University, culminating in a 4 p.m. championship game.

In time, I would expect the best athletes at given schools to migrate to the sport. The fan experience has been festive, although the crowds (at least the ones I have seen) have been sparse. There is a certain charm in the newness of it all, before travel flag football and college scholarships inevitably come along. The games are fast and furious, 7-on-7, with plenty of scoring.

“You’re not excluded because you don’t have a certain height metric or don’t necessarily have the speed,” Curd says. “As long as you can move your hips and can get people on defense to miss you, that’s key. There are some elite-level soccer and basketball players (who play), but you have girls who aren’t necessarily hardcore athletes, and this game attracts them. It’s like an every-woman, every-person sport where you can come out and find your role.”

Flag football is already big in the south, Marchinsky says, and USA Football is already scouring the country for Olympic talent.

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