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 attracting the brightest and the best. Recently, however, the company has emphasized promoting the team over the player through initiatives like the 11-on and now the Nike Kickoff Classic in partnership with the NFL. Twenty NFL teams participated in this event, participating in national high school games, while Nike hosted four teams at its headquarters in Oregon.
Nike’s league athletes and grassroots brand manager Matt James said the company wanted to create a more team-focused identity and philosophy.
“Football really is the last true team game where Friday night matters, your community, your teams, your coaches,” he said. “We wanted to get back on the team and not only be a five-star player, but be the last guy off the bench.”
This three-day event at headquarters wasn’t so much about training at the NFL level, but instead about bringing the team together and exposing them to the world of football outside the gridiron.
Former NFL player Bobby Taylor, who co-chairs the NFL Legends Youth Advisory Committee, spoke to boys football players from DeSoto (Texas) High School and St. Augustine (New Orleans, Louisiana) at breakfast. And Katie Sowers, one of the first female coaches at the NFL level, did the same with the girls soccer teams at Alonso and Robinson High Schools (Tampa, Florida). Bo Jackson also showed up to talk to the players.
“I stressed to them how special this opportunity is,” Taylor said. “It’s the first time it’s ever happened and I think everyone has absorbed it.”
In the first high school games at the Nike facility, Robinson defeated Alonso 12-6 on Friday afternoon before DeSoto defeated 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 gathered at the hotel with members of Nike’s product analysis team. After all, who better to hear opinions from than the target audience themselves?
When DeSoto five-star wide receiver Johntay Cook II offered dunk tackles, he saw a woman smile. It wasn’t long before the group discovered a pair that matched his recommendation.
“I’ve been coming up with great ideas, I’m not going to lie,” Cook said.
Nike’s league athletes and grassroots brand manager Matt James said the girls’ input on product insights and social and digital aspects are vital as the company and the league try to continue their efforts to spread the sport.
It made the girls feel welcome, Robinson head coach Jeff Saunders said. It also provided more potential avenues for future involvement in the game outside of 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 soccer to this point, maybe they’re not.”
Expanding exposure to this branch of the sport was a major motivation for the event. Flag football and women’s participation 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 host tournament, and in February 2021, Nike and the NFL donated $5 million in products and equipment to US girls soccer teams
While male athletes have NFL legends to look up to, there are fewer female role models in the football world. Flag football teams stayed in Oregon to help coach youth football teams Saturday, James said. It’s still not a big market, but it’s certainly growing.
“I think the challenge is that there just hasn’t been enough support,” Taylor said. “But when you have entities like the NFL, Nike supporting the whole effort … the states that are introducing flag for girls as a sanctioned high school sport, and you also have the opportunity for girls to get scholarships … When you have that type of energy, it’s hard for you to fail.”