Copyright 2018 Collier County Publishing Company
All Rights Reserved
Naples Daily News (Florida)
The sound of spring is changing in Florida. Yes, there are still plenty of bats and baseballs hitting gloves, but the whistles and cheers are often focused on another sport: girls flag football.
One of the state's fastest-growing sports is football, just not the kind traditionally played by boys. As documented by FloridaHSFootball.com's Joshua Wilson, more than 260 Florida high schools sponsored girls flag football programs in 2017.
That's still a far cry from the 573 boys football programs fielding more than 41,000 athletes across all classifications in the state in 2015 (the last year for which comprehensive data is available), but it marks consistent and concerted growth; six new programs began play in 2017 and 18 started in 2016.
Neither Collier nor Lee county schools have girls flag football teams. The athletic directors at both school districts say they aren't opposed to adding the sport, there just hasn't been enough interest yet.
"It's come up at a couple different AD meetings," Lee County Schools director of student services and athletic director Pete Bohatch said. "There is some interest, but overall we'll just wait and see how it plays out. We have nothing formalized."
Mark Rosenbalm, Collier County Public Schools' coordinator of interscholastic athletics, said he's in favor of offering a diverse amount of sports. However, he is wary of introducing another girls sport in the spring, when there's already lacrosse, softball, tennis and track.
In 2010, lacrosse became a varsity sport in Collier County, the last time the school district added a sport. Lacrosse's popularity has taken off, with a boys and girls team plus a girls JV team at every Collier public school.
However, having up to 50 girls lacrosse players at each school — 25 varsity, 25 junior varsity — has drawn athletes away from other sports, Rosenbalm said. Softball in particular has suffered. Naples High and Barron Collier, both former softball juggernauts with multiple state championships, don't even have JV teams this season.
Lee County schools are struggling to find enough girls for lacrosse, which it added as a varsity sport in 2012. Only five of the 13 public high schools have girls lacrosse programs.
"I encourage it. I think it's great," Rosenbalm said of girls flag football. "In a different season it might be better. Maybe in winter where there's only (girls) soccer and basketball to chose from. That would be a better fit, but we don't get to choose that. The FHSAA does."
Two other states — Nevada and Alaska — also recognize flag football as an official sport, though they have less participation than Florida at this stage.
Still, the amount of players competing between football and flag football is still stark, even if growth in Florida tackle football between 2013-14 and 2014-15 was virtually flat.
To put the expansion of flag football in perspective, in the 2014-15 school year nearly 2,900 girls competed for boys tackle football programs in the Sunshine State.
There were 6,615 who played flag football. Considering the number of girls in tackle football makes up less than five percent of the total population, there is still significant room for growth.
Bohatch said Lee ADs have floated the idea of eventually adding beach volleyball, which is a club sport throughout the state and not an FHSAA-sanctioned sport yet.
The idea, Bohatch said, is that if the county is going to add a girls' sport, it should be one that girls can continue at the next level. Beach volleyball is an NCAA sport, flag football is not.
Traditional high school football is struggling under the strain of concerns regarding concussions and head trauma, yet flag football continues with relatively unfettered growth.
The growth is consistent with interest in the sport. While lacrosse — which likes to claim itself the nation's fastest-growing sport — is also on the march on Florida, it's flag football that has established a more significant foothold. The sport debuted as an official Florida High School Athletic Association sanctioned sport in 2003, five years after legendary high school football visionary Bill Massey founded the first county flag football league, featuring a full 60 teams that wanted to go home with the Massey-backed tournament title.
Five years later, flag football gained entrance as an official FHSAA sport, leading to steady growth. By 2008 there were 157 teams with more than 4,000 student-athletes competing. Nine years later, 100 more teams are competing and another 2,000-plus more student-athletes have joined.
The reasons for growth are multifaceted. From a student-athlete perspective, the game is fast, explosive and an accessible form of the most popular televised sport across all demographic groups nationwide. From a school infrastructure standpoint, flag football is relatively inexpensive — annual charges are typically covered by a sum of around $500 — and provides a valuable counter ballast to traditional football when determining Title IX compliance.
That double benefit has been a powerful lure for new schools that want to try the sport. And once they try it, most teens are hooked.
"Growing up, I was the girl who played everything," Robinson High senior Macy McClintock told TBO.com. "I cheered, danced, did gymnastics, ran cross country and track, and played soccer, basketball and softball. But flag is the sport that I have stuck with. It is easy to love and each girl's passion for the sport inspires another's.
"Every girl deserves to have that epiphany, like I did in second grade, that football can offer so much. If I had the power, I would ensure that every school offered flag football because every girl deserves the opportunity to be part of such a great sport, team and community."
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter