Flag football scoring big in Illinois with record participation amidst national surge in popularity

It’s one of the hottest sports around. Flag football is so hot right now it was just added to the 2028 Olympic Games.

In a FOX 32 special report, Anthony Ponce takes a look at the growing popularity of the sport.

Meet the Kansas City Chiefs. No, not those Chiefs, but rather the Lemont Park District's Kansas City Chiefs. They're just one of eight teams in the district's league tearing up the flag football field this year.

"Our league is a fall league. We have 84 kids registered for our program," said Greg Hooper, the Lemont Park District’s superintendent of recreation.

Hooper says this is the first year they've offered flag football.

"Something our community has been asking for some time is a flag football league. We’ve got a number of residents in town that were very interested in this program," Hooper said.

As Lemont kicked off its program this year, they are one of the 27 NFL Flag Football leagues in the Chicago area alone.

"NFL flag football is the youth sports league nationwide for flag football," said Izell Reese, director of NFL Flag Football. "It is the largest NFL Flag and organized flag football league in the world and we’re currently over 700,000 kids playing nationwide."

The latest stats from NFL Flag show Illinois ranks 15th in the nation for the most participation and the number of players doubled over the last two years. The Lemont Chief's 12-man roster is just a fraction of the roughly 10,000 kids playing flag football across Illinois. David Genslinger is their coach.

"I think a lot of kids just love playing football and this is a different way to do it, without all the pads and the helmets. There’s been a lot of excitement on our team for it," Genslinger said.  

"Some of the growth has stemmed around more youth leagues starting to pick up the program. It’s affordable. It’s accessible," Reese said.

While flag football may be more accessible to young players because you don’t have high equipment costs and there are less injuries, its popularity is seems to be soaring for another reason.

"One of the big avenues, especially the NFL has been very much behind is the inclusion of a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily play traditional tackle football. So there has been an emphasis on getting girls into the game of flag football," said Professor Karin Pfeiffer, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University.

Lemont's league is co-ed for third through eighth grade students. While players develop many skills, one of the big benefits of playing flag football is this.

"There’s some dexterity and skill level and athleticism that they’re getting from just having to grab the flag, which they do believe translates into a better ability to tackle down the road," Pfeiffer said.

For right now, the best part about the game these players say is just having some fun and taking it to the endzone.

"I like playing with my friends. Running around," said Max Carney, an 8-year-old wide receiver for the Chiefs.

"I like the part best about scoring touchdowns," said the Chiefs’ 8-year-old running back Owen Genslinger.

How many has Owen scored?

"None so far, but I’ve gotten really close," Owen said.

"The kids all seem to want to do the "griddy" after the touchdown so there’s been a lot of that," Genslinger said.

And pickleball may have to move over as a popular sport for adults. NFL Flag has started hosting tournaments for adults.