Flags flying wildly for US football
American football is flagging in Scotland but its supporters could not be happier. This month will see the first games in the new Scottish Flag Football Association League, involving teams from Moray to the Scottish Borders.
Flag football is the non-contact version of arguably the world's most physically demanding team sport. While the aim is to groom children for playing in the full kitted version from the age of 14, it can be enjoyed in its own right. In fact, the SFFA is finding that there are many players who cannot or do not want to take a hit and are quite happy to continue playing flag football right up to adult age.
There will be 20 teams playing in the inaugural league. They can be entered in four age categories: cadet (six to 11), junior (12-14), youth (15-17) and senior (18 plus).
There is emphasis on schools' involvement. Teams such as the Bannerman High Wildcats, the Graeme High Titans and Inverness Blitz Academy are involved, but many teams are an amalgam of players from different schools.
The SFFA was founded two-and-a-half years ago but after a turmoil of internal politics last year, stronger foundations have now been laid to ensure it continues to thrive. The chairman, Stuart McKay, has seen flag football grow from nothing and is confident that measures implemented recently will ensure that the game has a long-term future here.
"One of the most important things that we have done is introduce an insurance policy for members," explains Mr McKay.
"Last year some people said that, because it was a non-contact sport, we did not need insurance but that was piffle. If children are hurt playing, then the coach is left open. I know from having children myself that it is important to have insurance against injury.
"It may have put the cost of registering with the SFFA up (from pound;1) to pound;8.25 a player but it is not an expensive sport to play, as children do not need specialised kit."
Numbers have not dropped much since last season, indicating that the move has met with widespread approval.
The SFFA has also developed its own website, from which coaches and officials can access the association's handbook. This offers advice on coaching, rules, refereeing and health and safety among other aspects of the game.
Development squads have been set up by Charlie Ewing, the head coach of the Grangemouth Broncos. Sixty children from 15 clubs attended a development day at Stirling's Forthbank Stadium in February and another coaching day will be held there on April 26.
The SFFA receives support from the Scottish Claymores, Scotland's only professional American football team, which opens its ninth season against Berlin Thunder at Hampden Park on Sunday. The Claymores provide help with administration and costs for meetings, they donate free flags and footballs to the association and put coaches through a Leaders' Award scheme.
Also, the Claymores sponsor a flag football tournament. In addition to the new SFFA League, clubs can compete for the Claymore Bowl. The opening round of matches will take place on May 17.
Mr McKay coaches the Alexandra Raptors, a team set up 18 months ago and based at Alexandra Primary in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire. Its 37 players are spread across the four flag football age groups and come from the primary school and Rosehall High and St Patrick's High in Coatbridge.
The age bands mean players are generally competing like with like and there are not huge size discrepancies. However, it is up to individual coaches whether they put children as young as six on the same field as 11-year-olds.
"Flag football caters for children of all shapes and sizes," he says. "In soccer, children have to run around for up to 90 minutes, but here it is more start, stop and they get more chance of a breather.
"The fact there is no contact means that boys and girls can play together quite happily right up to senior age.
"It is a game that develops certain skills, not just throwing and catching but also hand-eye co-ordination.
"It is easy to sell to primary schools, as you do not need a lot of equipment and it can be played on any piece of ground."
Before the arrival of the Claymores, it seemed unlikely that American football could be found in schools throughout Scotland. Now it seems flag football could be around for a considerable time.