When Joe Gluska helped bring the B.C. flag football championships to Kelowna for the first time in 2008, 24 teams took to the field.
Six years later, the president of the B.C. Community Football Association couldn’t be more encouraged by the rapid rise in popularity the sport has experienced, both in Kelowna and across the province.
This past weekend, a record 126 teams—up from 90 teams last year—and more than 1,200 athletes from the U10 to U19 age divisions converged on the Mission sports fields for the provincials playdowns.
Gluska said with the facilities, the atmosphere and the Okanagan weather, Kelowna is an ideal setting for the annual tournament.
“It’s been fantastic because in the seven times we’ve been here, we’ve only had one half day of rain, so that’s really been working in our favour,” laughed Gluska, who lives in West Kelowna.
“Because this is on a fixed date, parents know that they can come up here and this is how they start their summer off. The teams all get a minimum of 10 games, so the kids are happy, too. In not just the event, it’s the whole experience. You go from field to field and see all the parents watching…on Saturday, we had 6,000 people on and around the fields playing and cheering. There’s just a lot of excitement.”
In an era when many minor sports in the province are struggling to maintain their numbers, flag football is flourishing. The game grew 30 per cent in 2013 and another 40 per cent this year. In B.C., 175 teams and 1,500 athletes were registered this spring.
In Kelowna, there were more than 300 flag players registered this season, with 27 of the 32 local teams playing at provincials.
Kelowna Minor Football president Jeff Koltun said the growth is tied to several factors, including the inclusive, affordable and accessible nature of the sport.
“The teams are small, all kids get playing time and there’s very little cost involved, we supply all the equipment,” said Koltun. “With only five players on the field at one time, it’s easy to rotate kids in and out, so they all get a chance to play and develop their skills. It’s a very simple sport for parents to get their kids involved in.”
Gluska said flag football can be used as a stepping stone into tackle football, or simply as a fun participation sport of its own.
“It’s a trend in North America where people wanting to get involved in football, flag is an entry point, a great opportunity for them,” Gluska added. “It’s non-contact, kids are out there playing football, it’s integrated where we have girls playing…and it’s also developing skills.
“A lot of organizations are looking at running fall programs now because of the high interest in flag football. For some kids, this is all the football they’ll play.”
Gluska said eight more fields—including converting ball diamonds at the Mission sports fields—will be added next year to accommodate as many as 160 teams.
If filled to capacity, Gluska said there would be 32 teams per age group and nearly 2,000 athletes.
As for the economic impacts for the City of Kelowna—primarily from money spent at hotels and restaurants—Gluska said it’s estimated the 2014 provincials generated more than $2 million in spinoffs.