Since the launch of the Air Jordan brand, Nike has made the “individual star” cool. From branding to youth camps, the sports designer and manufacturer has become a giant based on its attraction of the brightest and the best. Recently, though, the company has emphasized promoting the team over the player through initiatives such as 11-on and now the Nike Kickoff Classic in partnership with the NFL. Twenty NFL teams participated in this event by participating in national high school games, while Nike hosted four teams at its Oregon headquarters.
Nike league athletes and grassroots brand manager Matt James said the company wanted to create a more team-focused identity and philosophy.
“Football is truly the last true team game out there where Friday nights matter, your community, your teams, your coaches,” he said. “We wanted to get back to team and not only be about the five-star player but also be about the last person at the end of the bench.”
This three-day event at the headquarters wasn’t so much about NFL-level training but instead team bonding and exposure to the world of football outside the gridiron.
Former NFL player Bobby Taylor, who is the co-chair of the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, spoke to the boys football players from DeSoto High School (Texas) and St. Augustine High School (New Orleans, La.) at a breakfast. And Katie Sowers, one of the first women to coach at the NFL level, did the same with the girls flag football teams, Alonso and Robinson high schools (Tampa, Fla.). Bo Jackson also made an appearance to speak to the players.
“I stressed to them how special this opportunity was,” Taylor said. “This is the first time it’s ever happened, and I think they all soaked it in.”
In the first high school games at the Nike facility, Robinson took down Alonso 12-6 on Friday afternoon before DeSoto beat St. Augustine 35-10.
The game was perhaps the justification for the trip, but the value came from other activities. On Thursday, athletes gathered with members of the Nike product insight team in the hotel. Who better to hear opinions from, after all, than the target audience themselves?
When DeSoto five-star receiver Johntay Cook II suggested dunk cleats, he saw a woman smile. Not long after, the group revealed a pair matching his recommendation.
“I was giving great ideas, I’m not gonna lie,” Cook said.
Nike league athletes and grassroots brand manager Matt James said the girls’ input on the product insights and social and digital sides were vital as the company and league try to further efforts to spread the sport.
It made the girls feel welcome, said Robinson head coach Jeff Saunders. It also provided more potential avenues for future involvement in the game beyond playing or coaching.
“The most important part of it was that their voices were heard. Their opinions mattered,” Saunders said. “… A lot of times, especially with girls flag football until this moment, they maybe haven’t.”
Broadening the exposure to this branch of the sport was a primary motivation for the event. Flag football and women’s involvement are both growing; six states, including Florida, now sanction flag football as a high school sport. In addition, several NAIA schools offer scholarships. Last August, the NFL and USA Football hosted a tournament, and in February 2021, Nike and the NFL donated $5 million in products and equipment to girls flag football teams around the U.S.
While boys athletes have NFL legends to look up to, there are fewer female role models in the world of football. The flag football teams stayed in Oregon to help coach youth girls flag teams on Saturday, James said. It’s not yet a major market, but it certainly is progressing.
“I think the challenge is there just hadn’t been enough support,” Taylor said. “But when you have entities like the NFL, Nike, supporting all of the efforts … the states that bring on girls flag as a sanctioned high school sport, and you also have the opportunity for girls to get scholarships … When you have this type of energy, it’s kind of hard for you to fail.”