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 grown into a giant based on its attraction of the brightest and the best. Recently, however, the company has focused on promoting the team rather than the player through initiatives such as 11-on and now the Nike Kickoff Classic in partnership with the NFL. Twenty NFL teams took part in this event by playing high school national games, while Nike hosted four teams at its headquarters in Oregon.
Nike league athletes and core brand manager Matt James said the company wanted to create a more team-focused identity and ethos.
“Football really is 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 be the last person off the bench.”
This three-day event at headquarters wasn’t so much NFL-level training, but rather team bonding and exposure to the world of football off the grid.
Former NFL player Bobby Taylor, co-chair of the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, spoke with male football players from DeSoto High School (Texas) and St. Augustine High School (New Orleans, Louisiana ) during 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, Florida). Bo Jackson also made an appearance to speak to the players.
“I emphasized to them how special this opportunity was,” Taylor said. “It’s the first time it’s happened, and I think they’ve all absorbed it.”
In the first high school games at Nike facilities, Robinson beat Alonso 12-6 Friday afternoon before DeSoto beat St. Augustine 35-10.
The game may have been the justification for the trip, but the value came from other activities. On Thursday, the athletes met with members of the Nike Product Insight team at the hotel. After all, who better to hear opinions than the target audience themselves?
When DeSoto’s five-star receiver Johntay Cook II suggested dunk studs, he saw a woman smile. Shortly after, the group revealed a pair that matched their recommendation.
“I was giving good ideas, I’m not going to lie,” Cook said.
Nike league athletes and core brand director Matt James said the girls’ input on product information and social and digital aspects was essential as the company and the league try to continue their efforts to spread the sport.
The girls felt welcome, Robinson head coach Jeff Saunders said. It also provided more opportunities for future involvement in the game beyond playing or training.
“The most important thing is that their voices have been heard. Their opinions mattered,” Saunders said. “…A lot of times, especially with women’s flag football up to this point, maybe they haven’t.”
Broadening the exposure to this branch of the sport was one of the main motivations for the event. Flag football and women’s participation are on the rise; 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 in merchandise and equipment to women’s flag football teams in the United States
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 remained in Oregon to help coach the young girls’ flag teams on Saturday, James said. It’s not yet a major market, but it’s certainly growing.
“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 efforts…states that make girls flag a sanctioned sport in high school, and you also have the opportunity for girls to get scholarships…When you have that type of energy, it’s kinda hard for you to fail.