By Kerri O’Brien


(WRIC) — As many families get ready to kick off a new school year, it also marks the return of football across America — whether it’s pro, college, high school, or youth — and 8News is learning the future of football may have flags.

Flag football is now the fastest-growing team sport in the country. More kids ages 6 to 12 are playing flag football than tackle football. A study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association found over the past three years flag football numbers have increased by 38% with more than 1.5 million kids nationwide in leagues across the country.

Many see it as safer than the tackle version.

In Central Virginia, 8News found 5 and 6-year-olds have already started practicing for a new season. The Glen Allen Ravens have had a flag football team for decades but concussion concerns are driving new interest.

“We usually keep about 30 players. We usually have a waitlist of about 10 to 15,” says Chris Woody, Commissioner of Metropolitan Youth Football League and President of the Glenn Allen Ravens.

Yet, as with any contact sport, there’s always the potential for head injuries or collisions. That prompted Central Virginia’s Metropolitan Youth Football League to require players to wear helmets.

“The Metropolitan Youth Football League and the Glen Allen Ravens were the first association and league to adopt the Gamebreaker helmets,” Woody said. “Certainly, with all the concussion news that is out there, we wanted our 5-and-6-years old’s to be safe.”

While many leagues are just started to require the soft shell helmets, The Metropolitan Youth Football League, made part of the uniform 5 years ago.

“We wanted to give the parents a piece of mind,” says Woody.

However, there’s been no safety requirements for these padded caps or data to show what scores well on the field, until now. Virginia Tech, a leader in helmet research, is setting the standard by putting the headgear to the test.

“Our initial sample was about 12 headgear,” says Director of Outreach and Business Development at VA Tech’s Helmet Research Lab Barry Miller. Of the 12 tested only two, the VICIS and Gamebreaker-Pro, earned the 5-star rating- which is the best.

“Each of these helmets reduces that head acceleration by at least 70% to obtain that 5-star rating,” Miller explained.

Overall, the headgear that performed best had stiffer and thicker padding. Still researchers agree any head protection is better than no protection.

“The players are jumping for balls trying to dive and catch balls and you know players are going to collide at some point,” says Miller.

The Glen Allen Ravens happen to wear the 5-star rated Gamebreaker helmets. 8News was told the team’s headgear requirement has been a win with parents.

“It’s helped the numbers in our league particularly grow,” Woody told 8News.

Flag football helmets tend to be a lot cheaper than tackle football helmets, prices range from about $20 to $80.