This weekend, Boston is hosting 850 players on 47 teams from around the country for Gay Bowl XVII, an annual championship tournament organized by the National Gay Flag Football League. The competition will be as fierce as ever, and for the first time in its history, the Gay Bowl is officially sponsored by major professional sports teams.
The Patriots have taken the unprecedented step of financially backing the event, thanks in no small part to Josh Kraft. The owner’s son is the president of the team’s charitable foundation, as well as the Nicholas President of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.
In April, Greater Boston PFLAG honored Kraft with the Cornerstone of Equality Award for his commitment to social justice, especially his promotion of equality and acceptance of LGBTQ youth. Kraft stayed in touch after the event, which his father, Robert, also attended, and the two decided that sponsoring Gay Bowl XVII was a no-brainer.
It’s not the first time the Patriots have supported the LGBTQ community. Robert Kraft made the Patriots one of the only pro sports teams to advocate for same-sex marriage in 2015, and the team sent Hall of Fame linebacker Andre Tippett to the Gay Bowl in 2003, the last time it was in Boston.
The Kraft’s $25,000 donation was the first sponsorship of its kind by any major professional sports team. Following the Patriots’ announcement in May, the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Revolution have all declared their support for this year’s Gay Bowl.
“There were no discussions beyond sponsoring this one-time tournament, but I’m sure after they see the success of it, we’ll follow up,” said Boston Friends of Lesbians and Gays (FLAG) flag football league commissioner and Boston Hancocks middle linebacker Dan Tyrrell.
For the teams participating, the sponsorship is so much more than financial.
“It’s the most incredible feeling. We feel so supported, and it’s just phenomenal,” said Tyrrell.
The NGFFL is hoping to continue its relationship with the Patriots, as well as building a new one with the Broncos when the competition is held in Denver next fall.
“We’re trying to get the Denver Broncos to step up,” said Tyrrell. “They’ve not committed yet, but the Krafts have told us they’d give their friends in Denver a call and recommend that they do the same.”
NGFFL commissioner Thurman Williams believes the Broncos’ support is on its way. Once the NFL season ends, talks about partnerships will begin.
The tournament is split into A, B, and women’s divisions, and set up in a bracket style. After “pool play” preliminaries conclude on Saturday morning, the single elimination games begin.
Boston’s A division team, the Hancocks, are representing the host city with their strongest bid yet. They’re hoping to take home the hardware this year, but it will be difficult to unseat the five-time defending champion San Diego Bolts.
Tyrrell says the Hancocks are looking to reconcile last year’s heartbreaker against the Los Angeles Express, during which LA scored with 10 seconds left.
The Gay Bowl festivities are a bit different than your average flag football tournament. Participants are encouraged to enjoy the city’s vibrant nightlife all weekend at planned events, such as the bracket reveal party at ICON Nightclub. The team’s hype videos are well-choreographed, and often set to Britney Spears.
The athletes often rev up their uniforms for the tournament, some adding glitter to their eye black. But Tyrrell says make no mistake, this is not a party.
“The pace is just as fast as a professional game,” he said. “The intensity is comparable to college athletics.”
For players, the competition is an opportunity to return to the game they love and left too soon.
“It’s very intimidating to be an out gay man and an athlete and try to marry the two,” said Tyrrell. “What these leagues do is give the opportunity to be athletic and out and proud.”
The supporting attitude of the tournament is what the Gay Bowl stands for.
“Our motto is compete, connect, and unite,” said Williams.
Other sponsors for Gay Bowl XVII include longtime partner Planet Fitness, and Sam Adams, which donated refreshments for the players at the end of each day, so that the league has more funding for next year’s event.
And as host, Boston’s added a new twist to the contest. At the closing ceremonies, five teams — San Diego, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Toronto — are putting on a drag show to raise even more funds for Gay Bowl XVIII.
The Gay Bowl weekend is enjoyable and competitive, but far from the most important thing Tyrrell’s organization does. Members will spend around 2,000 hours volunteering in the Boston community this year, spreading a message of tolerance and acceptance.
“We’re a nonprofit first and foremost for defeating stereotypes for Boston LGBT,” said Tyrrell. “We also give away a yearly scholarship for a graduating senior who has made sports safer or more inclusive for LGBT in their high school or community.”
One of the main goals of the Gay Bowl is to foster athletic competition in the gay community and break down stigmas. Organizers hope to show athletes in all sports at all levels that it’s OK to be confidently out of the closet and competitive on the field.
“We pick each other up and shake hands after the game,” said Tyrrell. “But mostly, we look flawless.”Katherine Fominykh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katfominykh.