Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Meet The Disruptors: Jeff Lewis of American Flag Football League (AFFL) On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

Education needs to be more accessible for all people around the world. Given the advances in technology, we have to find a way to deliver education so that anybody who wants it can get it. In a world where we can deliver information so rapidly and in such detail, we have to deliver the tools that change lives for those who desire them the most.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeffrey Lewis.

Jeffrey Lewis is the founder and CEO of American Flag Football League (AFFL), the preeminent professional flag football league in the United States. The first league of its kind, the AFFL taps into the energy of one of the fastest-growing sports in America. Having spent the first three decades building businesses in the financial services sector, Mr. Lewis founded AFFL in 2016 with a vision to build a worldwide community of fans and players who will be united by their shared values through flag — and bring the excitement, accessibility and joy of flag football to a national audience. Today, Mr. Lewis leads the league’s overall growth and strategy, and brings together elite athletes from all over the world including former NFL champions, Division 1 stars and Olympians along with “average Joes” who are anything but average. Mr. Lewis lives in Scarsdale, New York with his family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I always knew I wanted to make a positive difference in the world. I grew up in Scarsdale, NY and earned my BA and MBA degrees from Cornell University. The first three decades of my career were spent building businesses in the financial services sector. After watching my own kids play flag football — games that were not only fast-paced and incredible to watch at the youth level, but also accessible and safe — paired with the global movement toward flag football, I realized there was an opportunity to be a part of this movement.

We launched the American Flag Football League in 2016 after seeing the power of a simple and joyful form of Football — a place for current NFL and Division 1 athletes to compete, alongside “average Joes” who are anything but average. Watching the magic happen on the field as these different walks of life converged in the game has been nothing short of amazing as well as surprising. Flag football is a sport that is truly disruptive — it is accessible, fun to watch, and faster than other games, and importantly, you don’t need to be a certain size, weight or body type to play. It invites all to enjoy it.

Today, American Flag Football League (AFFL) is the preeminent flag football organization in the United States. The AFFL is the first league of its kind with a mission to build a worldwide community of fans and players who will be united by their shared values through flag football.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re talking about a sport that is huge and growing at an incredible rate, but no one is playing it on the professional level. Flag football’s growth is off the charts across the U.S. and internationally, amongst both adults and kids. This is disruptive. One of the things that is interesting about this moment is you’re trying to create a new activity for fans to enjoy at a time when the existing sports are wondering how to reinvent their business models. We are not trying to graft a new thing onto a healthy body. We are a new body entirely.

We are seeing an evolution in how fans and communities consume sports. There is a linear-to-digital shift, and a longer-views to shorter-views shift. Today, the emphasis is on athletes. It’s quite a thing to build a new sport — and that’s exactly what we are trying to do.

Since our first season in 2018, the AFFL Men’s Division has featured ex-NFL and Division 1 football stars along with Olympic athletes, NBA stars, and amateur players from around the nation, with many of these games generating millions of views online. Past players have included Jahvid Best, Josh Wilson, Jacoby Jones, Lavelle Hawkins, Seneca Wallace, Jason Avant, Alan Ball, Justin Forsett, James Ihedigbo, Charles James, Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, Brandon Boykin, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Dennis Dixon, Fred Jackson, Elbert Mack, Jeremy Ross, Jerod Johnson, Duke Ihenacho, Dion Bailey, and Marvin Bracy.

We are also disrupting the gender pay disparity too often seen in professional sports. The AFFL recently announced its new Women’s Division and glass-ceiling shattering $200,000 grand prize for both the Men’s and Women’s Champions, leading the movement to level the playing field for gender pay equality in sports. Adrienne Smith, among the best-performing wide receivers in women’s football history, is overseeing football operations and corporate partnership development for the new Women’s Division, while Michelle Roque, viral YouTube flag football star, is heading up social media and marketing efforts.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake happened during our first season in 2017. We knew there were flag football teams around the country who would be interested in competing. The AFFL announced its million-dollar grand prize — offering the opportunity to win money, play on NFL Network, and more.

We thought we would cap it at a thousand teams, but were not wildly oversubscribed at 128 teams. We tried to figure out why we didn’t get more sign-ups, and the reason became immediately clear — no one believed us! A million dollars for a flag football competition? It sounds crazy, but people hadn’t ever heard of anything like that, didn’t believe it, and so they didn’t sign up.

What we learned is that you have to establish credibility. People are skeptical; when something is new, when a product makes claims that are things they haven’t heard before, you need to go the distance to show them. You have to win people’s confidence. This process takes time.

The next year, we had 300 teams signed up in the first couple days. This year, we anticipate significant interest as well.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Having worked in financial services for so many years, I didn’t have a sports background and have consistently needed a lot of help to figure this out. Rippy Phillips, a longtime friend of mine and a football coach in my hometown for 30 years, lives and breathes football. When I had the idea, I called him up. He explained so much about what was going on with traditional football, the development of 7-on-7, about the challenges towns were having making football teams. We got him to help us test out our flag football concept with high school students. It was great to watch them play and see the idea in action. We knew we needed to go forward almost as soon as they started playing and we saw their unbridled enthusiasm.

I am also gratified to hear from so many former pro players on our flag teams who have shared their journey — first as NFL athletes, now as AFFL players. This has helped us understand the game of football, how it affects them and the teams involved, and what the areas of opportunity are. Starting a league take a village, and every person who has been interested in seeing this come to life has been an essential part of our growth.

People want to see us succeed because they love the game. They are rooting for us because the game is a good thing for the world. It’s amazing when your mission has so much positivity that everyone wants to help. Friends, investors, players — there has been hundreds of people who have extended themselves for us. We look forward to continuing our mission in bringing the sport to youth and adults around the world, and eventually, the Olympics.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Think about a company like Uber. On the one hand, there was a clear service gap. There was something that people would like to have, and Uber came in and gave it to them — while controlling the cost and quality of their transportation in an on-demand manner. Usually on the opposite side of a disruptor is someone who loses. When you think about the taxi drivers who spent their life savings on a medallion, there is profound pain knowing that that their business has been permanently disrupted, and their investment in that medallion was for nothing.

Yet when Netflix beat Blockbuster no one cared about the losers. The management team at Blockbuster should have seen change coming. It’s on them that they got disrupted. Are those guys driving the cabs that got disrupted to blame? Not really — they were innocent victims of change brought on by the tech revolution.

The beauty of our disruption is that nobody loses. We see ourselves as complimentary to the NFL. We have fans that have another option in terms of a sport that is entertaining, that they love attending and watching. We have players who have the chance to have a career playing football beyond a few years, and that leaves them in one piece. They have the opportunity to continue their brand and make a connection. There is less gear and more emphasis on the beauty and entertainment value of the game.

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The first person with whom I shared my investment deck scoffed at my suggestion that we would hit it big in five years. He said it will take you 7 years and you will get knocked down three times. After 4 years and 2 knockdowns, I am pretty sure he was right! Talking is easy but doing is hard — you make mistakes, and you learn from them. Especially doing things that haven’t been done before. You can benefit by standing up and continuing. You have to have staying power, and be able to do it for a long time before you can expect any kind of success.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

We are trying to shake things up not just in flag football, but in professional sports as well. We are proud to have launched our Women’s Division, with an equal grand prize for the Men’s and Women’s Division. Our head of marketing, and flag football phenom Michelle Roque, has a powerful story. Having grown up wanting to play football, she was made to feel like it wasn’t a girls’ sport. We know that if she had been male, she would have been encouraged to play. To me, this is totally insane. We need to recognize the world’s great inspirational figures like the Williams sisters, Lindsay Vaughn, Mikaela Shiffrin — who are telling every girl — You see it, now go Be It.

We have also recently partnered with USA Football, the national governing body of football, to identify talent for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams. We are excited to partner with this industry leader on this initiative.

Most importantly, we want to be accessible for all people. The AFFL has already amassed a significant social media following and online presence, as well as exclusive deals with major networks including CBS and CBS Sports Network to air the AFFL’s season, featuring over 150 teams. We look forward to airing these games, and sharing the enjoyment and excitement of flag with the world.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I read the news and try to stay apprised of important world events and topics. I enjoy listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast.

It’s always interesting to listen to the origin stories of successful companies as well. One story that has had a deep impact on my thinking is the story of Airbnb. First of all, the creation of their business was an accident. The founders were entrepreneurs in San Francisco, and in order to stay there, they had to start renting out their living room to make ends meet: necessity was the mother of invention. They started to execute remarkably well, showing the concept works and that there is a tremendous amount of demand from both sides of the equation. Yet VC after VC turned them down. Finally they showed their moxie by selling custom cereal boxes themed around the US Presidential election and shared a box with a potential investor. He said that if you guys can sell 1 dollars worth of cereal for 20 bucks, I will back you in anything.

If you feel like you don’t know when someone is going to hear you, or how long before you get a yes, who is a better example than Airbnb? They went through outrageous amounts of adversity. But to the extent they could be ingenious and creative, eventually they proved themselves. It’s inspiring to think about them and shows that businesses may come out of unexpected circumstances — and in a way you didn’t expect.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Former Giants coach Tom Coughlin has a very simple yet profound quote: “Finish.” It’s easy to talk about doing something, and make excuses. But the truth is, the only thing that matters is getting it done. Don’t leave it half done, or make it someone’s else’s problem. There is no partial credit in life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Education needs to be more accessible for all people around the world. Given the advances in technology, we have to find a way to deliver education so that anybody who wants it can get it. In a world where we can deliver information so rapidly and in such detail, we have to deliver the tools that change lives for those who desire them the most.

Greater sports participation would be a very positive movement as well. I think football is unique in sports, requiring cooperation amongst players from all walks of life.

We all know that LeBron James and four grocery clerks could win a basketball game. But if you look at Pat Mahomes in the Super Bowl, without help from his teammates, he couldn’t do anything.

Since tackle football is on the wane due to the physical issues, flag needs to take up the mantle of delivering that team sports experience to kids around the US and the world. Working toward a common goal and overcoming adversity -these are the key things needed to be successful in life.

Flag can be the biggest sport in the world. In a world full of solitary activity, we want to see people work together. Flag brings everyone together — players, fans, elite athletes and communities — in healthy and positive way. We look forward to a world united by the shared values flag football embodies.

--

--

--

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Recommended from Medium

Lean on Me

Meet the 2018 Chiefs Interns

FROM England will not tour Pakistan in new year but may visit later in 2021

Why Olympic Weightlifters Are Some of the Best Athletes in the World

olympic weightlifting snatch

My Apple Watch Faces

The Solution To CTE In Sports May Be Coming Sooner Than You Think

Thrilling moments of Indian Premier League (IPL) 2018 which makes it different

Game Notes for 4/8/17; Offense goes silent, Burritos for Brito, & Home Opener history

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jason Hartman

Jason Hartman

Author | Speaker | Financial Guru | Podcast Rockstar

More from Medium

Back in lockdown — what have we learned?

Burnout In Leadership: What It Does and How To Avoid It with Audrey Cavenecia

If the Worst-Case Scenario Plays Out, This Is What Home Affordability Will Look Like

A delightful guide to how we do things at Mamo: Culture (Khalil Gibran)