Former No. 1 overall pick Michael Vick threw his last NFL pass with the Steelers in 2015, and running back Justin Forsett carried the ball for the final time last season with Denver. But thanks to the brainchild of New York-based entrepreneur Jeff Lewis, their lives as professional football players aren’t over just yet.
Vick and Forsett are two of several former NFL players who are part of a new flag football initiative that Lewis believes can spark nationwide interest, not only among many other NFL-caliber athletes but among weekend warrior flag football players.
Say hello to the American Flag Football League.
Former Jets quarterback Vick, who also played for the Falcons, Eagles and Steelers, will join Forsett and other former players for a flag football game June 27 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose. You won’t find it on live television, but a video production soon will be available on social media to give viewers a chance to see if this is something that can grow into a sport that eventually will attract hundreds of high-level players and become a unique football experience that can succeed where other leagues have failed.
“It has most of the elements that people love about football, and then it adds in that personal connection you get to an NBA player or a soccer player, because you can see them [without helmets],” Lewis said. “The game next month is a launch, a pilot, a chance to have a look at it and see what we think, to see if it’s as cool as I think it would be.”
Lewis thinks he can take advantage of the increased popularity of flag football by offering a product that will be a much faster-paced game than the NFL. The plan for next month’s event is to play a 60-minute game in less than two hours; NFL games routinely take more than three hours. It’s a seven-on-seven format on a 100-yard field, with each player wearing flags on both hips. A player is “tackled” when an opponent removes a flag. There are no kicks — teams punt and kick off by throwing the ball to the other team on fourth down or after touchdowns and extra-point attempts.
If next month’s game, which fans can attend, works out well, the plan for 2018 is to have an open tournament nationwide that eventually would be whittled down to eight teams. The AFFL would organize eight teams featuring many former NFL players to compete against the remaining eight teams from the national competition. The 16 teams then would play a three-day tournament at a single venue to determine a winner.
“No one has ever tried to professionalize a sport that didn’t exist,” said Lewis, who spent 30 years as a hedge fund manager and bond trader on Wall Street before making the transition last year to the flag football venture.
He came up with the idea while watching his son play the game. “It’s a very vibrant game recreationally,’’ Lewis said, “but it doesn’t exist as a competitive game.”
Lewis has enlisted the advisory help of former NFL players Donovin Darius (Jaguars and Dolphins safety), Rob Konrad (Dolphins fullback) and Isaiah Kacyvenski, a Harvard-educated linebacker who played for the Seahawks and Rams. Former Major League Baseball executive Tim Brosnan, the runner-up to Rob Manfred as the sport’s commissioner, also is a part of the group.
Lewis said other former players have expressed an interest in investing in and / or playing in the league. He expects to announce additional participants in next month’s game, many of them widely recognizable names in the NFL.
“The basic idea is that we think sports works when it has three things — urgency, affinity and quality,” said Lewis, whose website — americanflag.football — offers further details about his program. “That’s Tim Brosnan’s idea. When those things are present, people get engaged.”
Combine the participation of flag football teams from around the country with a chance to face some of pro football’s most recognizable players, and this could be a sustainable idea. Especially with flag football participation rates increasing in recent years.
According to USA Football, 1.67 million children ages 6-14 played flag football in 2015, up 8.7 percent from 2014. In the same period, 2.2 million children the same ages played tackle football in 2015, up 1.9 percent from 2014. In the 15-18-year-old group, 1.2 million played tackle football, up 2.5 percent from 2014, and 548,000 played flag football, a 10.5-percent increase from 2014.
“I don’t think this in any way replaces the NFL, but it’s a big opportunity to show fans the most exciting parts of football,” said Brian Levine, an investor in the venture. “Essentially, it’s the football [that] fans know, minus the linemen and kickers. We think we can deliver an exciting, fast-paced game.”
Levine believes plans for increased social media engagement among fans will help the idea flourish.
“Let’s say Michael Vick throws an interception, and he’s on the sideline while his defense is on the field and he were to live-tweet what happened, whether he and the receiver had a miscommunication, or the receiver had a certain read and he broke in versus out, or he just slipped,” said Levine, who grew up in Plainview and now lives in Manhattan. “Post his tweet in a corner of the screen. It would give the fans a connection with the players that they just don’t currently have. We want to embrace social media, even in real time, which allows the players to express themselves and create a unique relationship with fans.”
Lewis is convinced he has a winning idea.
“The football that everybody plays in their backyard is what we’re doing,” he said. “If you have a game that’s simple, accessible and fun, it can get pretty big. When you look at what people share on social media, they share spectacular plays. If we have all those things, I don’t know why it can’t be something really significant.”