Flag football is having a moment. Will its NFL Super Bowl commercial mark a turning point?

For the NFL, there are few frontiers left to conquer. The 32-team league is almost inarguably the USA’s vastest and most predictive source of entertainment, accounting for 82 of the 100 most-viewed television shows last year while generating an estimated $18 billion in annual revenue.

Sunday, it’s expected that more than 110 million people will tune into the Super Bowl, perhaps the last nearly universally shared pop culture experience in an increasingly stratified landscape. Advertisers will pay $7 million for a 30-second elevator pitch to the masses, for products both emerging and eternal.

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Count the NFL in that group: The league will once again advertise within its own showcase, an act that on the surface seems like selling birdseed to a nest of robins. Yet it’s more a testament to the NFL’s ability to micro-market, to spread the gospel of football until there are precious few non-believers, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or homeland.

That brings us to “Run With It,” a spot that in its full two minutes aims a beam of light toward the NFL’s potential blind spots of fandom, while highlighting what it believes will be a key weapon in what chief marketing officer Tim Ellis often calls the “future-proofing” of the league: Flag football.

Sauce Gardner and Jalen Ramsey prepare to spring into action during the NFL's "Run With It" ad, airing during the Super Bowl broadcast.
Sauce Gardner and Jalen Ramsey prepare to spring into action during the NFL's "Run With It" ad, airing during the Super Bowl broadcast.

Ellis says internal statistics indicate two-thirds of Americans consider themselves NFL fans, which would dovetail with Nielsen ratings and, anecdotally, a trip to a grocery store on an autumn Sunday morning. And the league has identified three “acquisition targets” that could boost that number: Women, youth and Latinos.

Enter Diana Flores.

She’s the 25-year-old quarterback of Mexico’s world champion women’s national flag football team, entities that millions of viewers will be learning about for the first time on Super Sunday. Flores will be impossible to miss:

She dashes away from sideline reporter Erin Andrews to abruptly cut a plausibly live interview short, spins away from star defensive backs Sauce Gardner and Jalen Ramsey in the bowels of the stadium, avoids security in the parking lot with an assist from tennis legend Billie Jean King and eventually slides down a mall escalator to evade Davante Adams, who’s clad in a parrot costume.

Along the way, in the spirit of Super Bowl ads that try mightily for mass appeal, there are cross-generational Easter eggs, such as a cameo from YouTuber MrBeast (133 million subscribers) and four-time Super Bowl QB Jim Kelly.

“Many of our more mature fans will have no idea who MrBeast is,” says Ellis. “But we try to bridge generations. We’re encouraging a dialogue at home so younger fans can talk about who MrBeast is to their parents, while parents can tell their kids, ‘This is Billie Jean King, she really drove women’s sports forward and that’s why she’s in here.’

“Diana is driving sports forward in a different way.”

Indeed, the ad closes with Flores, yellow flags still in place at her sides, running down a leafy L.A. street flanked by Vanita Krouch – QB of the U.S. women’s flag team – and Bella Rasmussen, the first female football player to receive a name, image and likeness deal in high school.

All are toting footballs, ostensibly helping carry the sport into a new age.

'A gateway to tackle'?

Undoubtedly, flag football is having a moment.

The pigskin alternative was thrust into the spotlight when the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all-star game renowned for its unsatisfactory competition level due to players understandably wary of injury, adopted the flag format. The all-star weekend in Las Vegas played to mixed reviews, though the Feb. 5 game was perhaps the most compelling element.

In that sense, you can look at flag as the NFL’s troubleshooter: It provided a more photogenic and potentially more compelling answer to the game’s all-star quandary. And a decade after greater correlations between football and brain injuries emerged and youth participation dipped, flag remains a safer and presumably more appealing option for parents with injury concerns.

“It is a big part of our strategy to incorporate flag alongside tackle, as an option, as an alternative to play,” says Ellis. “Sometimes, it ends up being a gateway to tackle. But if not, that’s great.”

The NFL’s grassroots efforts to grow the sport have long included flag initiatives around the world, but now the league is aiming for the biggest and most mainstream avenues. Earlier this month, California approved girls flag football for interscholastic play, the nation’s most populous state becoming the ninth to add it as a sport.

And flag football remains under consideration from the International Olympic Committee to be included in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, which would be a massive lobbying win for the league.

Yet even if the IOC’s capricious sport selection whims don’t fall their way, the NFL’s effort has paid dividends globally and domestically.

All 32 teams have community liaisons aiming for the sport’s inclusion in high school and other arenas. And both men’s and women’s flag football was included in the 2022 World Games, held in Birmingham. The U.S. men prevailed over Italy in the gold medal game.

The women’s winner was Mexico, which beat the U.S. 39-6 in the gold medal game, outscoring six opponents 241-38. Then again, they had Flores, star of Sunday’s spot, on their side.

“She is, legitimately, the best flag football player in the world,” Marissa Solis, the NFL’s senior vice president of global brand and consumer marketing, says of Flores. “She’s a world champion, she has a gold medal, she’s incredible.”

And now has a two-minute worldwide window to show her talents.

'People are going to remember this spot'

It’s been a whirlwind month for Flores, who spent parts of Super Bowl week in Phoenix on the league’s behalf and several days last month shooting “Run With It” in Los Angeles. That took her from the depths of SoFi Stadium, where she dekes Gardner and Ramsey, to a half-open Sherman Oaks Galleria, where she beats Adams down an escalator, all while carrying the rock.

“Parkour moves with a football,” says director Bryan Buckley, the veteran of more than five dozen Super Bowl commercials.

Along the way, Flores struck up a fast friendship with Adams, exchanged autographs with women’s sports icon King – who delayed her trip to the Australian Open to participate – and outfoxes Andrews, who, in the name of verisimilitude, wore her Super Bowl game fit to shoot the commercial.

In the end, Flores is joined by Krouch, her opposite number in the World Games final, and Rasmussen, who became the first girl to score two touchdowns in a varsity football game, for Laguna Beach (California) High School. The production team is confident the spot will be at the least iconic, and at best an inflection point in the game’s history.

“I know people are going to remember this spot,” insists Buckley. “When and where was I – and how did it change the trajectory of the NFL?”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL's flag football Super Bowl commercial could mark a turning point