The fields of NZCIS in Upper Hutt are usually reserved for the Wellington Phoenix and Hurricanes, but today they presented the future stars of flag football.
Twelve schools from Auckland and Wellington took part in the first New Zealand Schools Flag Football Championships, a pilot programme run by the NFL.
The sport is a non-contact version of American Football, similar to ripper rugby.
“We had about 200 schools in four days initially register, which was overwhelming and fantastic,” says Charlotte Offord, the NFL’s general manager for New Zealand and Australia.
“I’m not going to lie I didn’t expect that much interest to start off with. It’s great to see Kiwis want to give something new a go.
“We believe if you can get these kids playing at a young age they’ll become fans organically and for life.
“Our goal is to heavily invest in flag and with it becoming an Olympic sport, what that does for us is create another pathway for young athletes,” says Offord.
First and foremost, it’ll take the winner of today’s competition on a path to Orlando, Florida next February to take part in the Pro Bowl where they’ll represent New Zealand against 14 other nations.
The NFL have spared no expense coming to New Zealand, paying for all of the teams’ flights and accommodation while in Wellington and will also take care of costs for the team travelling to the Pro Bowl.
It’s part of American Football’s big push to grow in Australasia, with both the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams pitching to call the region part of their Global Market Programme.
The NFL says the programme grants clubs access to international markets for marketing, fan engagement and commercialisation activations, meaning the Eagles and Rams have exclusive rights to promote and recruit in New Zealand and Australia.
Both teams sent their mascots, cheerleaders and former players over to Upper Hutt to give Kiwis kids a taste of the NFL.
“I like it, a lot of offense going on, not much defence, we got to get the defensive tackling up, but we definitely got some athletes here looks like they’ve got somewhat of a rugby background so I like the effort from everybody,” says former LA Rams running back Todd Gurley.
“I think playing any sport and activity can help translate over, whether you know flag football or not just from practice habits, I feel like of that can coexist and be relative to any sport.”
It’s something former Eagles punter Sav Rocca agrees with after converting to American Football after starting his professional sporting career in Aussie Rules, making more than 150 appearances for Collingwood.
“Rugby and Aussie Rules is very hard hitting, so to introduce the flag side of it where there’s not so much of that, little bit more evasive stuff is advantageous for kids,” says Rocca.
“It’ll bring different people who may not have been able to achieve things in other sports and flag football might be one that’s for them.”
With more than 20 million people worldwide playing flag football according to the NFL, the sport’s organisers hope it can become a gateway for Kiwis into American Football and strengthen the international field ahead of its debut at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.