What started as a passion for the game of flag football has blossomed into something much more for American Flag Football League founder and CEO Jeff Lewis. The New York City native’s dream of bringing a new brand of football to the masses originally came to fruition back in 2014, while watching his son play flag football – a game and culture for which Lewis quickly found himself engrossed. Last June, Lewis took the first step towards bringing his newfound passion to the masses, with an event at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, featuring talent that included ex-National Football League stars.
Produced by those who put together the World Series telecast and equipped with 80 percent of the cameras used in an NFL postseason game, the AFFL spared little expense presenting fans with a quality viewing experience. And while Lewis admits the event might have gotten off to a rough start, the AFFL is learning – and growing – from the event, as it prepares to embark on the next step of the process.
“There was actually a terrific article that Wired did – I don’t know how they knew all of this stuff when they were there but they were talking about how the first half of the first game was a total mess,” Lewis recalled. “I don’t know how they knew that but they were 100 percent right. There is, in everything that’s new, going to be learning – I hope, otherwise you’re not going to get better, right? For sure, absolutely there was a lot of learning for us in those first two games. But it was still really clear right away that with the level of competitiveness, enthusiasm, the engagement of the players with each other and with the fans, that what we thought this would be about, was what it was about.”
That next step came earlier this month, when the AFFL announced an agreement with the NFL Network to broadcast 11 live AFFL games, as well as distribute the highlights from the AFFL ‘s 2018 U.S. Open of Football Tournament – a 132-team, single-elimination event that will pit a team of former professionals against a team that has emerged victorious from the 128-team open national bracket. Coverage will begin on June 29 and run through July 19, finishing up with the Ultimate Final, a battle for $1 million.
BREAKING: @NFLNetwork will televise 11 live AFFL games, and distribute highlights from the 2018 U.S. Open of Football Tournament. The historic first-ever broadcast deal for professional flag football airs June 29 – July 19, concluding with a $1 million winner take-all final. #FlagFootball #AFFL #USOF #FootballFortuneFame
According to Sports Illustrated, NFL Network viewership was up 11 percent overall in the ratings, from the previous year, during the halfway point of last year’s regular season. The station provides plenty of coverage for football junkies who watch regularly and Lewis knows that capitalizing on that is crucial.
“It’s very interesting the way the media landscape is changing, obviously,” Lewis admitted. “There are so many cross-currents in terms of different types of ways of distributing content but, at the end of the day, I’m still pretty sure that if you want to go find football fans, it’s a pretty good bet that a good place to look for them is at the NFL Network.”
But Lewis’ developing professional league isn’t the only new game in town. Several weeks ago, World Wrestling Entertainment chairman and CEO, Vince McMahon, announced plans to revive the XFL – a tackle football league he formed back in 2001, in the hopes of cashing in on the NFL’s success. The second rate, often forced, circus sideshow football lasted just one season. Now, in the midst of developing his own league, Lewis isn’t quite sure what the developmental model is for XFL, though he’s not threatened at the thought of another football league because it’s a much different product.
“I’m not, as a football fan, craving seeing sort of second-tier quality tackle football. That’s not a thing I wake up in the morning wanting to see. I don’t really feel like [the XFL] is a competitor with us, because we’re not playing tackle football at all and I also think we’re going to play at a higher level than they will. I don’t think they’re a competitor with the NFL because it’s not going to be remotely the same quality. I definitely understood the purpose the first time and it’s not as clear to me this time.”
Lewis isn’t focused on what anyone else is doing, but instead, on making the AFFL the best it can be and he believes that gaining the audience’s attention comes down to three crucial things – caring about the outcome, caring about who is playing and thinking that the athletes performing are of the highest quality. Otherwise, people will check out the product on the field for a while, but ultimately taper off. And while Lewis knows satisfying those characteristics can be an enormous undertaking, the AFFL doesn’t rely on offensive and defensive lines, like the NFL, which means the potential for a glut of athletes who might be a little small for tackle football but can provide the speed to be explosive at flag football.
The league does contain star power, with several household names in former NFL players Michael Vick, Justin Forsett and Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, retired NBA veterans Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer and former Olympic gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson – all of whom will front the four pro teams. But what’s it like transitioning from a different sport to flag football? Lewis suggests that if that athleticism is there, all of the pieces can certainly fall into place and lead to success.
“Just by definition, once you’re not getting hit, you don’t have to have a body that can take a hit,” Lewis said. “It just changes the possibilities as far as who can play the game – and play it well. I think over time, as we evolve, we will see our players not always necessarily be people who played football primarily. Nate Robinson is that guy! He was an outstanding high school player, a good college player and was really not considered as a professional. Obviously, a tremendous basketball player but I think he’s conceivably the prototype to this game – a guy with that kind of speed, that kind of quickness and those kinds of hops. And remember, being a few inches shorter makes it easier for you to pull other people’s flag and harder for other people to pull yours. And he can kind of make up for whatever he’s lacking when going up for a ball because of his jumping ability.”
With a healthy combination of size, speed and talent, it’s going to take time to discover what might be the perfect flag football team lineup. A tall player might be difficult to cover, but too many big players means a slow team that cannot keep up, however a small and speedy team means no shot at coverage. There’s certainly a science to it, one Lewis is excited to see as his league continues to mature – and there will be plenty of time to shape the AFFL.
The NFL Network partnership might just be the first step towards shaping the AFFL and getting it to an audience who is hungry for more of the sport it loves. If Lewis and those around him are able to provide a competitive and well-produced product at the upcoming tournament, this could very well be the beginning of a refreshing dose of competitive football, one that’s always missing during the summer months.