The GAME feature: Aaron Velasquez, American Football in the Philippines

Inside Manila’s American Football Scene with Coach Aaron Velasquez

Coach Aaron Velasquez takes us through the exponential growth of flag football in Manila and their goals as they aim for the 2028 Olympics.

The popularity of American football has undoubtedly been on the rise around the world (and not just because of a certain pop star who’s been spotted attending games recently). Not only have more people been following the sport over the last few years, but more people have been playing it too, even in countries halfway across the world, the Philippines included.

This may come as a surprise to many the same way it did for Aaron Velasquez, who grew up playing American football in the United States. When he moved to the Philippines in 2014 for college, he admitted, “I thought I was never going to play football again.

“I was like, all right, football’s done, so I went to school and studied. And then one day, I saw people throwing a football around in the middle of campus.”

As someone who grew up loving the sport, Aaron asked to join in, and, impressed by his throws, the players later invited him to train in Rizal Memorial Park with their tackle football team. This was how he discovered that the Philippines actually had its own American football scene.

Flag Football: Aaron Velasquez playing in UST, Manila
Aaron Velasquez found his way back to the sport he grew up with while studying in UST.
American football in the Philippines

American football has had a foothold in the Philippines for longer than one might realize, though its journey has not exactly been smooth sailing.

One of the first major signs of its rising popularity in the Philippines was the establishment of ArenaBall Philippines (ABP) in 2009, which was later renamed the Philippine Tackle Football League (PTFL). Initially starting with a 7-on-7 format, the league steadily started to grow with more players and better quality until they reached a standard 11-on-11 format in their third season.

“Around 2014 to 2016, everything started improving. The quality of the equipment, the quality of the material, and the quality of play improved as time went on,” Aaron explained based on his experiences as a player and a coach.

However, despite the league’s improvements, five teams withdrew from the PTFL after its sixth season, and a year later, in 2016, it was replaced by a new organization: the Philippine American Football League (PAFL).

The PAFL gave the sport a huge boost. With more teams starting to form and compete, and thanks to the league’s open pick-up games that did a great job welcoming newbies to the sport, its popularity began to boom. However, the pandemic unfortunately put that progress on hold for some time. Halting its operations due to the lockdowns in 2020, the PAFL has yet to announce plans to start up again.

Datu Tackle Football competing in the Philippine American Football League in 2017
The PAFL was a major contributor to the boost in tackle football’s popularity in the Philippines. (Photo credit: Datu Tackle Football on Facebook)

But even despite this setback, the Filipinos passionate about the sport have not let this stop them from playing. In fact, with just a little recalibration, the sport has become even bigger than before.

“At this moment, we have to change the way we look at football,” Aaron shared from his extensive experience as an active member of ABP, the PTFL, and the PAFL. “Because football is growing, but internationally, it’s flag football and not tackle football.”

The rise of flag football

In 2023, flag football was taken to a whole new level in Manila. Aaron, like a lot of other American Football players in the country, entered the flag football scene just last year and already, he can say with confidence, “The sport has had an exponential growth. There was massive growth in Manila for a lot of reasons.”

One reason is easy to find: the emergence of multiple opportunities to play.

Currently, there are three flag football leagues in Metro Manila: the Manila Flag Football League (MFL), Flag Football Philippines (FFP), which is recognized by the Philippine Olympic Committee, and the UP Flag Football Club (UPFFC) run by the University of the Philippines.

As a lifelong football player, it’s no surprise that Aaron has played in all three leagues and has worked with multiple teams. In the MFL, for instance, he competed for the Konsulta MD squad, and in the PFFL, he plays for the Panthers. But he emphasizes that currently, he is focusing on the coaching side of the game.

“Right now, I don’t really mind which teams I go to, as long as I develop players,” he shares, emphasizing the need for nurturing talent in the Philippines.

Ever since the meteoric rise of flag football in Manila, Aaron has noticed that there has been an influx in interest among Filipino players. Although every team has a starting lineup for competitions, anyone is free to join the teams, and many people do, from veteran tackle football players to beginners with no experience in the sport.

Based on his experience, he’s found that players can actually pick up the game quite easily. When new players come to join, it often just takes one day to learn the offensive side of the game. “It’s not super complicated — you run straight, you catch the ball, you’re done. That’s your job.”

Aaron Velasquez playing flag football in Manila
As a player-coach, Aaron Velasquez is always showing the ropes to beginners who want to learn flag football.
Aaron Velasquez playing flag football in Manila
Though it is highly physical, Aaron shares that flag football is beginner-friendly.

This is likely why many Filipinos have been drawn to this sport. It’s physically and mentally demanding, but contrary to popular belief, getting started is as simple as Aaron makes it sound. However, what has been more challenging is bridging the gap between different experience levels.

“There’s a gap right now,” Aaron explains. “There are a lot of veterans from before and now, we have a lot of new teams and players coming up, and the gap between them is quite large. Yes, there are a lot of people joining, but since the tournaments are very competitive, not all players really get the chance to play.”

This is where Aaron comes in. As a coach, he helps lead the training sessions that usually take place three times a week. “In Manila, you have three days to participate in football. On Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, they hold training and scrimmages, and that’s where you can play. Other than that, players train on their own.”

With three local leagues, tournaments usually take place once every two months, creating a very competitive landscape — hence the commitment these players show, training multiple times a week. But the competition doesn’t end on the flag football fields of Metro Manila. The Philippines’ community now has goals on the international level.

Representing the flag

As Aaron mentioned, flag football hasn’t just been growing in the Philippines, it’s also been growing around the world. And just last year, Agila Pilipinas Flag Football, the country’s delegation to international competitions, got their first taste of what the global scene is like.

In 2023, Agila Pilipinas competed in the IFAF Asia Oceania Flag Football Championships for the first time. “It was an amazing experience,” Aaron revealed, who got to represent the Philippines as both a player and a coach.

“But if anything, it was more of an eye-opening experience,” he admitted. “We saw how the other teams played, how they train, and that’s when things here started heating up. We thought we were already at a certain level, but we were humbled really quick.”

Agila Pilipinas concluded their first IFAF Asia Oceania Flag Football Championships campaign with one win each for both men and women. Though this is not the result the teams aimed for, it was still an invaluable learning experience, as they got to see just how big the sport has become in recent years.

Agila Pilipinas is the Philippines' national flag football team
Agila Pilipinas Flag Football competed internationally for the first time in 2023, and now they are working towards their big goal: the 2028 Olympics.

“I would have expected the Philippines to be spearheading [the competition] because of our connection with America, but the other countries have full backing from the government. They have training facilities coaches for American football, it’s amazing.”

Seeing the sport’s progress on an international level sparked a new wave of motivation for these players, especially as this was just the first of many more to come. This year, Agila Pilipinas is working towards the IFAF World Games — a big stage, but also just another step in their bigger goal: the 2028 Olympics.

Dreaming big

In 2028, flag football will be making a huge leap as it is set to make its Olympic debut, further cementing its place among other popular team sports. With this, the Philippines’ team is already setting its sights on the Olympic games.

On their plans, Aaron shares, “Moving forward, Agila Pilipinas is developing a way to screen players. Next is funding. And third is the training quality.”

It may sound simple, but there is sure to be a lot of work behind the scenes in the years of preparation to come. However, players are already excited at the prospect of representing the Philippine flag at the biggest international sporting competitions.

“The Olympics is no joke, and that’s a great opportunity. Right now, since the sport is just starting, everyone on the field with me has the opportunity to make it if they work on it, right? So even if they weren’t thinking of the Olympics before, it’s in their heads now.”

After having their first taste of international competition and with the Olympics in sight, Aaron explains that he is already seeing a bigger hunger for improvement among the flag football players in Manila. Players are going up to him and asking how they can be better, not just in terms of their on-field skills, like throwing or catching, but in other aspects as well, such as athleticism, speed, agility, and strength. It’s an all-out endeavor, and Aaron, along with the other sport’s veterans, are maximizing every opportunity to help the country’s players improve.

One huge opportunity that players were able to take advantage of was Filipino-American NFL player Camryn Bynum’s football camps in the Philippines.

In February this year, the Minnesota Vikings’ rising star came to the Philippines to host an American Football Camp in Cebu — a second iteration of the same camp he brought to Rizal Memorial in 2023. Sign-ups for both editions filled up almost immediately, signaling the huge spark in interest among Filipinos, which is a dream come true for passionate athletes like Aaron.

NFL player Camryn Bynum conducts a flag football camp in Manila
NFL player Camryn Bynum conducts a football camp for Filipino players. (Photo credit: NFL and Camryn Bynum on Instagram)
NFL player Camryn Bynum conducts a flag football camp in Manila
Sign-ups for the camp filled up with beginners and experienced members of the flag football community. (Photo credit: NFL and Camryn Bynum on Instagram)

Aaron, who supported the training camps as an assistant coach, shares that this has been a huge asset to the flag football community in the country. “It’s really cool,” he shares, “When it’s time to work, he locks in. He shows us how we should be if we want to compete at a high level of competition.”

To learn from someone with professional experience at the top league in the world is no small thing. But it is just another chapter in their journey.

As someone who has seen so many sides of American football — growing up with the sport, rediscovering it in the Philippines, witnessing the rise and fall of leagues, and the rise of flag football — Aaron Velasquez is excited to see where this next chapter will take the sport and its athletes, and as a player-coach, he has a vision of what he hopes to contribute.

“My number one goal is making the players competitive. As a coach, it’s just my job to develop the players who really want to become competitive, so I’m not looking for sponsorships. I just want to win. And I think we can do that.”

Images courtesy of Aaron Velasquez.

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