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Florida pipeline: Nike Kickoff Classic shows off flag football hotbed

The Alonso (Fla.) Ravens and Robinson (Fla.) Knights square off at the Nike Kickoff Classic at Nike World Headquarters on Friday in Beaverton, Ore. (Tom Hauck/Nike)

The Robinson Knights and Alonso Ravens reside just 15 miles apart from each other in the same county in Florida, but last week, the two teams traveled to the Pacific Northwest to compete in front of a national audience, showcasing a sport that continues to grow throughout the country.

With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country, and the reason so many girls are now playing this fast-paced version of America’s most popular sport is simple — a 37-word piece of legislation known as Title IX.

Behind an impressive outing from sophomore quarterback Haidyn Spano, the Knights beat the Ravens 12-6 in the inaugural Nike Kickoff Classic, which took place at Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and was broadcast nationwide on NFL Network YouTube. The sport has been gaining popularity in recent years, particularly since Nike and the NFL partnered in 2021 to donate $5 million in product to grow the sport in high schools across the U.S.

In the late 1990s, schools from Broward and Orange Counties in Florida were looking for girls sports to add to achieve Title IX compliance, according to Jeremy Hernandez, the Director of Flag Football for the Florida High School Athletic Association.

“When the interest started coming to the FHSAA of counties wanting to add girls flag football, it was solely for Title IX compliance, to help out with those numbers,” Hernandez said.

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With 320 schools currently fielding teams statewide, the Sunshine State is the biggest pipeline of girls flag football talent in the country. (Northwest Florida Daily News via USA TODAY NETWORK)

Flag football was an attractive option at these schools for a variety of reasons.

For starters, it’s relatively inexpensive to add in terms of equipment and facilities, especially for schools that already sponsor tackle football. Additionally, flag football’s substantial roster size gives schools a larger drop in the bucket of equitable participation opportunities, and football is huge in Florida.

While the traditional tackle version of the sport has long been deemed a male domain — though the gender barriers are breaking down more each day in that respect — Hernandez posits the popularity of girls flag football in the state is a reflection of a previously stifled desire to play the sport they know so well.

“With Florida being a football state as it is, this is a version for them to be able to go out there and showcase their skills that they can throw and catch and run just as good as the boys,” Hernandez said.

While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. In 2002-03, the very first academic year the sport was sanctioned by the state, 103 schools participated, which was more than twice as many that were required for a first-year offering. The fact that so many schools were able to successfully field teams right away likely speaks to the success of the sport at the club level in the years leading up to its varsity launch.

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While many new sports struggle to get off the ground when seeking varsity status at the state level, flag football had no such issue in Florida. (Clayton Freeman/Florida Times-Union via USA TODAY NETWORK)

A big contributor to the sport’s general popularity in the state, and now all around the world, has been the International Women’s Flag Football Association. Founded in 1995 by Diane Beruldsen, the IWFFA hosts its annual tournament in Key West, with as many as 49 teams from around the world, including a girls and juniors division. Beruldsen, who first began playing flag football in New York in the ‘70s, spent many of the IWFFA’s early years traveling throughout Florida and eventually beyond, starting new teams and launching leagues.

“In the early years with flag football, we had to create our own,” Beruldsen said. “I hit the road across the United States. In those days, I was teaching women how to play flag football. And today I teach women how to officiate, start leagues, develop leagues and how to coach.”

In 2020, the sport experienced another significant step forward. With financial and operational backing from the NFL, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics announced it was adding women’s flag football as a varsity sport at the college level. Of the 15 member schools currently fielding teams, five of them are Florida institutions. The only other state with multiple NAIA teams is Kansas with three.

Even though Nike and the NFL have given the sport an incredible boost in the last couple of years, Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level, which explains why programs like Alonso and Robinson have reached such an elite level.

Alonso has been to the state championship game four times, claiming two titles in Class 2A, while Robinson has won seven out of the last eight state championships in 1A. Between the two teams on the field last Friday, six players were first or second team all-state selections, and with head coaches who have been running their programs for 15-plus seasons, these powerhouse schools show no signs of slowing down.

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Florida is now entering its 21st season of girls flag football at the varsity level. (Pensacola News Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK)

That doesn’t mean, however, their competition won’t be catching up to them.

The Newsome Wolves, for one, have been causing fits for Alonso for the past couple of years, knocking the Ravens out of the state championship tournament in both 2021 and 2022.

But it was clear at Friday’s marquee event that everyone from Alonso and Robinson believes that a rising tide lifts all boats when it comes to pushing their sport forward.

The more competition, the better.

In his postgame response to how he felt about Friday’s game, Robinson coach Josh Saunders expressed this one-for-all mindset.

“I hope it showed everybody everywhere that you can play flag football like this in every state and get the excitement level that these kids have for it,” he said.

A replay of the Nike Kickoff Classic will be broadcast nationwide on NFL Network at 7 a.m. ET on Saturday.

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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