Flag football is the stuff of gym classes and afternoons at the park, but Jeff Lewis sees much more for this football hybrid than maybe anyone else in America. And the hedge fund manager and entrepreneur is ready to show off the professional version of flag football to the rest of the country.
Lewis has spearheaded the launch of the American Flag Football League, gathering investors and planning the league’s growth and marketing strategy to make sure people understand exactly what he’s trying to do. The AFFL isn’t intended to compete directly with the NFL, but rather provide an alternative outside of the pyramid of high school, college and NFL football that currently exists in the US.
The AFFL will host a showcase on June 27 in San Jose to give people a sense of what they’ll see when the eight-team league debuts for real in 2018. Lewis has recruited a number of former NFL players, including Michael Vick, to play in the showcase and test out his theory that this is the version of football fans really want to see.
Lewis says he’s learned from the mistakes of past leagues like the USFL and even Vince McMahon’s XFL, but he said that league’s head-first dive into play on national television has helped him gain perspective on what he’s trying to accomplish with the AFFL.
“In some respects it’s a cautionary tale for anybody trying to start anything,” Lewis said. “But there’s a lot of that that’s actually kind of inspiring. They were some amazing characters that had some great ideas and at some point you just have to go for it. I love that story and I tried to learn from not only their mistakes but the mistakes of others.”
Speak to people involved with the AFFL and they all say the appeal of a professional flag football league is obvious. It’s a fast sport that doesn’t need to have the long delays and stoppages that NFL and college football that draw the ire of viewers on television and in the stands. And flag football replaces big hits and crushing blocks with speed and flash.
“Everything you’d see in a highlight package of Saturday or Sunday football games will be on display,” Lewis said.
Starting a brand new league also allows them to implement technology in the sport from the ground up. The flags will be magnetically connected and, when grabbed, will immediately tell officials where a player should be ruled down. The league also hopes to add technology to help fans visually understand the game better.
Watching other sports leagues struggle with technology like instant replay made Lewis think his league should remove all human error from the equation.
“For the life of me I can’t understand why there’s a guy standing behind the catcher calling balls and strikes,” Lewis said. “What are the Yankees worth? Three billion dollars? And you have a guy standing back there making mistakes every fifth pitch? There’s something sort of out of kilter about that. It just doesn’t make any sense.
“The reason they didn’t use technology 100 years ago is because they didn’t have it,” he continued. “It’s kind of like saying ‘I’m going to walk from New York to my office in New Jersey because that’s how it’s always been done.’ Well, there’s this invention called the car. Maybe the car isn’t a bad idea! And maybe someday they’ll be an autonomous drone available that will be better than the Lincoln Tunnel.”
Lewis’s technology-first approach to building the league appealed to Isaiah Kacyvenski, a former NFL player who became an advisor for the league. Kacyvenski started the Sports Innovation Lab in Massachusetts and said Lewis worked hard to build a league where technology serves its fans and doesn’t slow the game down.
“He wants to have the most technologically advanced league in the world,” Kacyvenski said. “And I think that’s a great goal to have. I think it’s exciting, and people will be excited about that.”
The event in San Jose will be billed as Team Vick vs. Team Owens, as wideouts Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco have also signed on to play at Avaya Stadium. With Vick and other NFL veterans involved it’s easy to call the AFFL the football version of Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league, which pits retired players against each other in a slightly different form of traditional basketball. But Lewis doesn’t see his league full of retired players getting a second chance at playing football when it officially launches next year.
“This is not nostalgia,” Lewis said. “That’s not the purpose of our league. We want people to watch our games because our players are great. Not because they used to be. We have a game that opposed to other forms of football, will allow a retired place to continue to participate. By reducing the physical toll of the game, we can continue to access the world class skills of someone who is still world class.”
The AFFL does have one advantage over the NFL: take away tackling and players are much less likely to get injured.
“One of the things that we always focus on is that player safety is of the upmost importance,” said Donovin Darius, a former NFL player who also advises the AFFL. “Just like any sport players will face some sort of risk of injury. I think that flag football is no different. But what we have done is we have designed our rules to prevent injuries in a variety of ways. We focus a lot on the fundamentals, skills on both sides of the ball.”
Lewis thinks with the right attention, flag football could become a Division-I sport for women “unbelievably fast.” He points out a few states already have flag football as a varsity sport for girls in high school, and its popularity with young kids means there’s a huge potential market for the sport if kids know there’s a way to play it professionally.
Kacyvenski says a flag football league can tap into the business of football as an American identity.
“You’re sitting at home on a couch watching a game and thinking ‘I could do that. I want to do that.’” I think that’s where Jeff wants the thought process to go,” Kacyvenski said. “Which is really opening this up to every man and every woman.”
Lewis hopes what fans in San Jose see on the field surprises them, both in the quality of play and who is out there scoring touchdowns in the professional league.
“We might see some funny shapes and sizes,” Lewis said. “But we’re going to see people that are really and truly great.”