How Taylor Swift's inspiring girls to follow Olympic dream

1 week ago 20

GB women lift the trophy after winning the 2023 European Flag Football ChampionshipImage source, AndyKeith.Photo

Image caption,

NFL analyst Phoebe Schecter (front right) helped Great Britain win the European Flag Football Championship in Limerick last year

Taylor Swift is proving to be American football's gift that keeps on giving.

The global superstar's relationship with Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce lured scores of new fans to the USA's National Football League last season.

Her presence at the Chiefs' Super Bowl win in February helped make it the most watched ever, with a record number of female viewers., external

From the UK to Australia, the American singer-songwriter is not just bringing new spectators to the sport, she is inspiring young girls to play it too.

And that is helping one of the world's fastest growing sports - flag football - grow even faster before making its Olympic debut.

USA's favourite sport earns Olympic vote

After a failed attempt at inclusion for Tokyo 2020, the International Federation of American Football (Ifaf) agreed a partnership with the NFL, targeting Los Angeles 2028.

In 2017 the NFL launched its own programme, external for flag football, the non-contact version of the game, and last October it was one of five sports added to the Olympic programme for 2028.

"It's really special for a lot of young people, that they now can play at the pinnacle of sport and represent their country in flag football," former Great Britain player Afia Law, now NFL Flag's international development manager, told BBC Sport.

Flag is the most inclusive and accessible form of American football. It is played by more than 20 million people, across more than 100 countries, and the rapid growth of the women's game was key to earning the Olympic vote.

"Female participation has really been the driving force," said NFL analyst Phoebe Schecter, who has also played both flag and tackle football for Great Britain.

"People used to say that flag was a female sport whereas men would play tackle, but it's for everyone now. People see how explosive it is, the incredible contested catches, and it doesn't matter what your gender is, this is a place where you can just compete and have a great time."

GB trailblazers enjoy European glory

Image source, AndyKeith.Photo

Image caption,

Great Britain players such as Kate Bruinvels (left) and Kellie Barrett (right) have had to cover their own expenses to represent their country

Yet Great Britain's teams have not just been having a great time, they have been winning too. Schecter played on the women's team that became European champions last August, then helped coach the Under-17 girls as they also became European champions in September.

There have been many obstacles for the current women's team. Kate Bruinvels had to set up a crowdfunding page, external to raise the £750 she needed to compete in Ireland last summer.

Meanwhile, after discovering flag football at primary school, Kellie Barrett and her family formed their own club - the Coventry Cougars - so that she and her sister could keep playing.

But Loughborough College now offers 10 flag football scholarships for male and female athletes aged 16-19, and the British game is set for a funding boost before the World Championships in August, for which Great Britain's women and men have qualified.

"We've been successful without that help - how successful can we be with it?" asked Britain captain Barrett.

"My hope is that we're going through this hardship now, whereas any girls just starting to play won't have that barrier. They won't have to take on any financial burden."

'Taylor Swift's bumped along my girls' interest'

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Tremaine Edwards is one of several NFL players who have supported flag football, helping to launch the second season of London's girls flag league last month

The NFL Flag programme expanded in 2018 to the UK, where 500 schools and 30,000 players now participate in flag - 53% of them female. A girls league was also launched in London last year, expanding for its second season to 260 girls from 21 schools.

And as well as going on to play for Britain, the most promising British youngsters can earn a free education through flag football, perhaps even a career.

Flag is now a varsity sport in the US - for men and women - with college scholarships available for international student-athletes. A new professional men's league - the American Flag Football League, external - begins on 27 April, with a women's division set to launch in 2025.

Even in Australia, many athletes are considering switching sports to flag football. One female ex-Australian Rules player has been offered a US scholarship after playing in just one international flag tournament.

"I've got two little girls, aged seven and eight, who love the game now," said Gridiron Australia chief executive Wade Kelly.

"They love netball as well but now flag football's taking over. Taylor Swift maybe bumped that along a bit, but that's all they want to play now, down at the park or at the beach.

"As a dad, to know they can go and get an education that's paid for in the US, see the world, go to the Olympics, maybe even turn pro - it's a legitimate pathway for them, and a really exciting one."

From the Pirates to the podium?

Media caption,

Super Bowl 58: Travis Kelce says 'it's fun to gather the Swifties in the Chiefs Kingdom'

Flag football became an Olympic sport just three weeks after Taylor Swift attended her first Chiefs game.

Since then, many UK flag teams such as the East Kilbride Pirates have reported a boom in awareness and interest, from newcomers and also from tackle players wanting to switch over.

That isn't all down to the Taylor Swift effect, but there is no denying that it has reached far beyond the NFL arena.

"People, especially young girls, are now aware of the sport in a way they never have been before," said East Kilbride's club chair Amanda McDonald.

"It's amazing she's got people talking about it, which can only be good for the game and perhaps act as a gateway to get people involved who otherwise might not have.

"For the first time, there's a pathway all the way to the podium. We're about to start a new team for the 14-17 age group and, who knows, one of them could be a future Olympian."

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