Since the launch of the Air Jordan brand, Nike has made the “single star” cool. From brand building to youth camps, the sports designer and manufacturer has become a giant based on his attraction to the best and the brightest. Recently, however, the company has emphasized team-over-player promotion through initiatives like 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 really the last real team game where Friday nights matter, your community, your teams, your coaches,” he said. “We wanted to come back to the team and not only be the five-star player, but also the last person at the end of the bench.”
This three-day event at the venue wasn’t so much about NFL-level training as it was about team bonding and exposure to the world of football off the field.
Former NFL player Bobby Taylor, co-chairman of the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, spoke with men’s football players from DeSoto High School (Texas) and St. Augustine High School (New Orleans, Louisiana) over breakfast. And Katie Sowers, one of the first women to coach at the NFL level, did the same with the women’s flag football teams, Alonso and Robinson High Schools (Tampa, Fla.). Bo Jackson also made an appearance to speak with the players.
“I stressed to them how special this opportunity was,” Taylor said. “This is the first time it’s happened, and I think everyone absorbed it.”
In the first high school games at the Nike facility, Robinson defeated 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, the athletes met with members of Nike’s product analysis team at the hotel. After all, who better to listen to opinions than the target audience itself?
When DeSoto’s five-star wide receiver Johntay Cook II suggested cleaving, he saw a woman smile. Not long after, the group revealed a pair that matched his recommendation.
“He was giving great ideas, I’m not going to lie,” Cook said.
Nike league athletes and grassroots brand manager Matt James said the girls’ input on product knowledge and the social and digital aspects was vital as the company and the league try to ramp up efforts to spread the sport
He made the girls feel welcome, Robinson’s head coach Jeff Saunders said. He also provided more potential avenues for future participation in the game beyond just playing or coaching.
“The most important thing was that their voices were heard. His opinions mattered,” Saunders said. “…A lot of times, especially with women’s flag football up to this point, maybe they haven’t.”
Expanding exposure to this branch of the sport was a primary motivation for the event. Flag football and women’s participation are growing; six states, including Florida, now sanction flag football as a high school sport. Additionally, 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 worth of merchandise and equipment to women’s flag football teams in the US.
While male 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 train the junior girls’ flag teams on Saturday, James said. It’s not a big market yet, but it’s certainly making progress.
“I think the challenge is that there just wasn’t enough support,” Taylor said. “But when you have entities like the NFL, Nike, supporting all the efforts … states that bring girls to the flag as a sanctioned sport in high school, and you also have the opportunity for girls to get scholarships … When you have this kind of energy, it’s kind of hard for you to fail.”