BUTTE — Women’s flag football was recently announced as the NAIA’s newest sport, which prompted a positive response from all across the country and for good reason.
Besides being the NAIA’s 17th sport to include women student-athletes, the announcement comes through a partnership of the NAIA and the NFL, which is a major sign of recognition for women’s sports at the collegiate level.
However, the timing of the announcement comes during an incredibly hectic time as NAIA schools such as the Treasure State’s Montana Tech and Montana Western don’t know when students will be able to come back on campus due to the spread of COVID-19.
For Western director of athletics Bill Wilson, the presence of students on campus is the first hurdle to returning to normal sports seasons as well as adding new athletic programs like flag football.
“All of it is going to be difficult,” Wilson said. “It’s going to be very difficult to return unless all students are back on campus across the country and social distancing guidelines are relaxed by that time… We’re starting to make plans in regards to all the different scenarios that could happen with collegiate athletics in the fall.”
Wilson and Montana Tech athletic director Matt Stepan share a positive attitude towards flag football as a future sport, but the current impact of the virus makes it a tough time to seriously consider any new sport, not just flag football.
Stepan says that there wasn’t a heads-up from the NAIA before the addition of flag football the organization’s lineup, which has made discussing the possibility a back-burner topic compared to figuring out how Tech follows up on a cancelled spring sports season.
“It really isn’t being discussed at the moment,” Stepan said. “The first I heard about it was the announcement the NAIA put out… There are just challenges in the immediate future that we have to handle, but any time we have the chance to add female-focused sports, we are definitely going to look at it.”
In the current moment, the idea of adding a new sport isn’t sensible for schools like Western or Tech, but it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.
The financial effects of cancellations have barely been felt yet, and both Stepan and Wilson mentioned that their will likely be budget cuts and adjustments after the schools evaluate exactly how the cancelled seasons affect their finances going forward.
“We’re not even sure what our budgets are going to look like,” Stepan said. “Based on state funding and all the unknowns that come with this. The best we can do is stay in communication with other campuses, local health agencies, but in a lot of ways, we’re at the mercy of larger organizations.”
Finances aside, making up for delayed and cancelled seasons adds a different challenge, as collegiate programs around the country scramble to figure out what comes next.
Those delays and cancellations carry over into other seasons and programs, which would only delay the soonest point that a school like Western or Tech could add flag football or another sport.
Wilson also says that the already-present difficulty in doing that kind of makeup work is compounded by the need to keep an efficient and small athletic staff in Dillon.
“Most of our institutions being smaller,” Wilson said. “We just don’t have the staff to handle that kind of overlap. We have struggled with two week overlaps with sports, our department is a three-person operation. We get a lot of help from campus members with gameday management stuff, already. Honestly, as we get going in the fall too, we’re going to have to ask coaches that are even in-season to help out. If they don’t have a competition to coach, we’ll ask for help.”
The final hump addressed by both schools is the fact that women’s flag football is not popular in the Treasure State yet, unlike elsewhere in the United States.
For example, the Florida High School Athletic Association has flag football as a full-fledged sport, complete with district, regional and state tournaments, which creates an entire hotbed of potential student-athletes who know the sport coming out of high school.
Without that kind of setup in Montana, Stepan says that it becomes more difficult to consider flag football anytime soon.
“It’s all about cost analysis,” Stepan said. “It’s got to bring enrollment and revenue to the university and add to the student experience here. I don’t know enough about the market for women’s flag football to have an opinion on if it fits in the [Frontier Conference] or specifically Montana Tech, but not having it as a high school sport here makes it difficult to determine.”
Going forward, NAIA schools, especially ones in states like Montana, have a much more difficult road than the one they were on a few months ago. The shock waves of COVID-19 on the sporting world will be felt for a very long time, especially when it comes to the ways these schools make money.
The news that flag football is in the organization’s plans is a good thing, but, as Wilson points out, schools like Western and Tech are more focused on survival than growth.
“I think the idea of flag football overall is a good idea,” Wilson said. “Whenever I think there is an opportunity at our institution to enhance our university, we should consider it, but the timing of it is awful. For us to add any sports, we’re not unlike the majority of the institutions in saying it is tough. We’re in survival mode, we’re figuring out how we’re going to keep supporting our current programs.”