The American Flag Football League Had Its Day In San Jose, But Making It The Future Will Take Time

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SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA — Michael Vick is no longer an NFL-caliber quarterback, but he can still throw the damn football. Give him time in the pocket, and he can hit a receiver running a wheel route in stride. He can survey the field and thread the needle through traffic.

I know this because I saw him sling it in San Jose in the year 2017, two years after he last played in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vick took part in an exhibition put on by the American Flag Football League, a venture started by investor Jeff Lewis, who wanted to show off the variation on football that trades tackling for grabbing a flag attached to a player’s hips.

The end result is a 7-on-7 game that values speed and athleticism above all else, and Lewis is betting that football fans want fast fun more than they want the visceral violence and rigid structure the NFL currently offers. The June 26 event was a trail balloon meant to showcase an alternative—not a replacement—for the most popular sports league in America.

And the result was indeed fun. Once the players familiarized themselves with the sport’s rules quirks and the speed of the game, the product was entertaining. Vick threw eight touchdowns and had 547 yards passing in a 64-41 running clock exhibition as part of what Lewis called a “document” of legitimacy for the sport of flag football itself.

“We think the game has enormous enormous potential,” Lewis told UPROXX after a perfect early summer night in San Jose. Lewis said it was the fourth time they’ve played an exhibition with the ultimate goal of a league in mind, and the results continued to be good.

“The same exact thing happens every time. Great athletes, tough guys, football players turn into little kids and start having fun,” Lewis said. “Our whole point is that this is supposed to be fun. All sports are basically just kids games played by grown men.”

That fun included letting players tweet during games, conduct interviews between plays, and letting fans get an up-close view of the action for a reasonable price. The rules are slightly different: quarterbacks have four seconds to throw the ball or the play is ruled dead. Kicking on special teams is replaced by throwing, and a first down is reaching the 25 of midfield rather than the expected 10 yards.

A replay of the game was broadcast on July 13 on Twitter, giving those who weren’t in attendance a glimpse of what the sport looks like on one of the deadest sports days of the year. If you tuned in, you saw a fast game that relied heavily on technology to spot the ball and keep play moving.

Wired has more about the technology used to track the players, which started as a biometric sensor put on players that tracked their overall health. Think a baseline test for concussions that’s measured during a sport itself, and is then able to test players after they’ve experienced a helmet-to-helmet hit.

SMT, who came up with the technology, worked for six months with the AFFL to build a flag system they installed at the venue to track players wearing a special harness with magnetically-attached flags. Once the connection is disrupted, the system alerts officials, and they know exactly where forward progress was stopped. Spider cameras and end zone cams broadcast the game’s action so fans can see exactly what Vick and quarterbacks like Jimmy Clausen and Jerrod Johnson saw on the field.

The host venue, Avaya Stadium, is a beautiful 18,000-seat arena built for the San Jose Earthquakes that opened in 2015. The venue’s open end holds the “world’s largest 4k bar” and features a constant stream of airplanes landing behind its scoreboard. In the perpetual 78-degree-and-sunny world of San Jose, it’s a perfect setting to test out the AFFL’s technology and host the kind of people the league wants to invest in the sport.

And those investors were certainly on hand, though few others were. The event was not well-advertised locally, with a few hundred people turning out to take a chance on $10 tickets, with the gate revenue going to charity. The downtown area featured few signs that a major football event were happening, though if you looked closely on the afternoon of the event you could have spotted Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens wandering downtown while Ochocinco smoked his signature pregame cigar.

“The purpose of this game was not to generate revenue by selling tickets,” Lewis said. “We wanted to essentially create a document: what does high-level, 7-on-7 football look like?”

While the league shied away from safety comparisons to tackle football, it was always the first thing mentioned by anyone I talked to who wasn’t associated with the AFFL. Security guards, fans in the end zones, and those at the concession stands are all worried about the health of their favorite football stars, and flag football is a very real alternative to the traumatic-brain-injury-laden product the NFL currently provides. That might not be an exciting selling point from a marketing perspective, but it’s certainly on the minds of those who watched the exhibition in person. And it definitely came up with those playing in the
game itself.

“Obviously injuries are inevitable but I think it’s a lot safer,” Terrell Owens told UPROXX. Wearing an Earthquakes jersey and remarkably reflective sunglasses before the team warm-ups, he said player safety is a huge appeal as an athlete considering flag football.

“You obviously want to consider your health,” Owens said. “A lot of guys when they do walk away from the game, sometimes the reason is to sustain their health and be able to enjoy their families and their kids and things of that nature.”

Lewis wants the AFFL to survive on its own merits, and a “safer” version of NFL football might not be the best marketing angle, but it’s certainly one way to look at a version of football that can still be played at a high level by players like Vick and Ochocinco after their NFL primes.

The AFFL wants to be known as fast, exciting, and high-quality. But it will never be the first choice of a premier NFL player. For many players, it was a chance to show NFL teams they deserve a second chance in the league.

Nikita Whitlock, a former New York Giant who had nine catches, 152 yards and a touchdown in the exhibition. Whitlock is a 5-foot-10, 251-pound full-back whose lone claim to fame was his home being vandalized by racist graffiti. But on the flag football field, he was fast and surprisingly elusive, racing past defenders in the open field and giving Team Owens a chance against the pinpoint passing from Vick on the other side. Whitlock is a free agent after an injury and suspension-filled 2016 season, but he’s clearly looking for a way back into professional football.

The hill for flag football to climb is tall, both in its perception as a sport and the league’s actual ability to grow. But the current state of Major League Soccer is not a bad goal for the AFFL to shoot for, though Lewis hesitated to compare it to other sports and other sports leagues. The people who love MLS are passionate and care about it despite the other soccer options in other parts of the world that are certainly played at a higher level. For every American who is an Arsenal or Barcelona fan from afar, there are genuine Earthquakes fans coming from a diverse background to embrace their local side and moving Forward As One. It’s how MLS has grow in in markets where the NFL will never go, like Columbus and Portland and Orlando.

The day after the AFFL event, I switched my travel arrangements and took in a San Jose Earthquakes game against the Seattle Sounders before my flight home. This time, the venue was more than half full for a US Open Cup match-up. The closed end of the stadium was taken over by the San Jose Ultras, a supporters group who waved flags and chanted throughout the match. The AFFL wants to start a Flag Football US Open, drawing teams from all over the country to do battle. Cities with dedicated MLS venues like San Jose are a perfect place to start, and they get loud when the sports in front of them matter.

“I think these stadiums are going to be phenomenal venues for us in the future,” Lewis said, giving high praise to the “gorgeous” Avaya Stadium. “Maybe someday we outgrow them, but in the meantime they’re modern; they’re intimate. This place is phenomenal.”

Right now, flag football simply needs attention, from potential fans to those who want to play football at a high level but have been unable to find a place in the NFL. Everyone involved seemed to think once it gets that attention it will grow, but patience is always a virtue when you’re starting from scratch.

“Once they start to see and the coverage—how they present it, package it—I think a lot of guys will start to come off the couch,” Owens said before the pilot event. “But I’d tell those guys, before they come off the couch: please stretch.”