Here’s how the giant flag tradition came to be

The national anthem has served as a ceremonial beginning for sporting events for over a century. But in America, bigger is always better, and particularly since 9/11, stadiums have turned to a more vibrant and visible form of patriotism: flags large enough to cover a football field.

Once used only at marquee events like the Super Bowl, gargantuan American flags now cover fields all over the country, from high schools to NFL stadiums. They’re works of logistical genius, weighing upward of a ton and requiring dozens of volunteers to assemble and hundreds to carry. In the post-9/11 era, they’re as common as flyovers and military family reunions, patriotism large enough to be visible for miles around.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is approaching, and shipping crates filled with Stars and Stripes are already en route to stadiums across the country. Here’s how the giant flag tradition came to be, and why it persists all these years later.

(Courtesy Kivett Productions)
(Courtesy Kivett Productions)

O say can you see

For centuries, the only barriers to giant flags were practical: how much space would be needed to display the flag, and how much support it would need to avoid collapsing. Giant American flags flew from the masts of battleships, on poles outside auto dealers and along the sides of skyscrapers

The origins of massive flags on football fields are hazy. Doug Green of DKG Productions, who has been in the giant-flag game for 33 years, says they first started showing up at the Holiday Bowl in military-heavy San Diego. Initially played in the days leading up to Christmas, the Holiday Bowl commanded a captive nationwide audience, and a company appropriately named “Superflag” took advantage of that by rolling out enormous versions of the Stars and Stripes.

The flag’s first major appearance at an NFL game came at Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. (The then-Los Angeles Raiders beat Washington, 38-9.) There, Superflag unfurled a 95-by-160-foot flag that covered about half the field. From then on, flags grew in size and scope, blanketing fields, courts and rinks all over the nation. 

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 spurred an outbreak of patriotism across the country, and when the NFL and other leagues began playing again, flags were everywhere. With time to contemplate and plan, sports leagues across the nation began envisioning ways to display patriotism in unmistakable, visible-from-orbit terms, and the field-covering flags became a centerpiece of any major event.

(Courtesy DKG Productions)
(Courtesy DKG Productions)

“9/11 saw an uptick in flags in general,” says Paul Swenson of Colonial Flag. “There was an instant surge right after, then a bit of a decline. [Demand] comes and goes with what’s going on politically and militarily. Now, it’s heavy because of Afghanistan and the [9/11] anniversary.”

Today, several companies offer field-sized flags, crisscrossing the country with pallets loaded down with pieces of the full tapestry. Kivett Productions, for instance, had flags at two events last weekend, including UCLA-LSU at the Rose Bowl, and will employ seven for this weekend’s anniversary events. DKG Productions, whose principals have supplied flags to hundreds of NFL and MLB games, has five on Saturday alone.

Colonial Flag supplied 14 flags for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, with players from each of the 28 teams playing that day holding the flag. (Like this year, 9/11 fell on a Saturday in 2010.) This year, Colonial’s Paul Swenson says he has shipped out many more of the smaller flags — 75-by-150 feet and 60-by-120 feet — for the simple reason that unlike the larger, field-covering monsters, the smaller sizes arrive in one piece.

How a giant flag is made. (Courtesy Colonial Flag)
How a giant flag is made. (Courtesy Colonial Flag)

Broad stripes and bright stars

Technically speaking, giant flags are ceremonial flags — that is, they don’t meet the precise government standards for flag size and appearance, much like, say, flag T-shirts or tattoos. Most flags are traditionally created at a height-to-width ratio of 4×6 or 3×5, but football field flags are constructed in a 1×2 ratio — necessary to keep the lowest few stripes from reaching 10 or so yards into the crowd.

The largest flags run about $40,000 to $50,000 to purchase, and rent for $4,000 to $8,000 per event, depending on the level of turnkey service and the number of attendants required to roll it out. Flags can weigh up to a ton, meaning dozens or even hundreds of volunteers are necessary to get it off the ground. (More on that aspect in a moment.)

Kivett’s 150-by-300-foot flag, for instance, weighs about 2,000 pounds and arrives at a stadium in 15 sections, with three managers traveling with it to ensure smooth assembly and unfurling. Assembling the flag requires about 40 people and takes roughly 45 minutes. Kivett’s team then divides the 200 necessary volunteers into four teams — blue (top of the flag), red (bottom), left and right (self-explanatory). Other flags divide into four or six sections, depending on the specific flag’s material and clasp construction.

At virtually every event, volunteers — often local military, teachers or honored guests like season-ticket holders — must take off hats and sunglasses, and put their phones in their pockets. They’ll go through a 45-minute rehearsal where they learn how to get in position on the sidelines, and how to gracefully wave the flag on the “does that star-spangled banner yet wave” part of the anthem.

The takedown of the flag is its own challenge; getting a huge one-ton mass of fabric off the field in a hurry is quite a task. As volunteers scurry to gather the flag and clear the field, the same question always arises: What if the flag touches the ground?

Volunteers hold up a giant flag at a Lions-49ers game in Santa Clara, Calif.  (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Volunteers hold up a giant flag at a Lions-49ers game in Santa Clara, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Gallantly streaming

It’s one of the most pervasive beliefs about the flag — if even a corner touches the ground, the whole thing has to be burned! — and it’s also incorrect.

“People get so worried,” says Lynn Rolf, director of programs at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and an expert on flag etiquette. “They think if the flag even gets a little dirty, they need to retire it immediately. But the incidental stuff is no big deal, as long as it’s treated with respect.”

Rolf was at Darlington last weekend for NASCAR’s first playoff race, and a heavy wind ripped a corner of a large flag out of the hands of a young scout. “When it dropped, you could hear some of the crowd groan,” he says, “but I ran right over and told him, ‘Pick it up, you’re good.’”

“It’s impossible to keep off the ground,” Kivett says, “but we tell people, please do not let it touch the ground. We’ll drape it over chairs to try to keep it off the ground when we are putting it back in the crates.”

“We’re very careful, especially when we’re working with veterans,” says Green of DKG Productions. “The giant flag does have to be put together on the ground. We put some plastic underneath. But once we get it all put together, it never touches the ground again.”

Given that this is America, where too much is never enough, there’s always the temptation to raise the bar on spectacle. In addition to the giant flags, ceremonies now include flags in the shape of the United States, flags surrounded by banners of military branches, flags held by season-ticket holders or accompanied by fireworks, card stunts and flyovers. 

Is there ever a point where all the extravagances get to be too much about the performance and not enough about the patriotism? Not in the eyes of the VFW.

“We highly encourage them,” Rolf says. “We have to, especially now, have pride in our country, and the flag helps bring people together. It’s a great rallying point.”

(Courtesy Kivett Productions)
(Courtesy Kivett Productions)

The perilous fight

Mishaps can occur, both of the human and natural variety. Green recalls an infamous moment at the 2014 World Series in San Francisco when a volunteer slipped, fell underneath the unfurling flag, and made the crucial mistake of trying to hold onto it. The flag separated along its clips, and, well …

Mother Nature also has a say. Green recalls the wind at a Jaguars preseason game lifting the flag like a giant sail and wrapping it around a light post.

“Wind is our enemy,” Green says. “The power behind it is unreal.”

Also an issue: rain. A gargantuan flag doesn’t fit into a washer or a dryer, so when precipitation rolls in, things can go sideways quickly. Swenson has watched huge NFL linemen struggle to contain a flag caught by the wind in Pittsburgh. Green recalls a Pro Bowl that descended into chaos when a rainstorm drenched the flag in the middle of LeAnn Rimes’ anthem. The cheerleaders holding the flag were drenched and muddy, and the flag was sopping wet.

“We folded up the flag and put it in a truck that started sagging with all the weight,” Green recalls with a laugh. “We left it there and went in to watch the game. When we came back out, the entire cab was flooded from all the water that had run off the flag.”

Home of the brave

The sheer breadth of the flags, the largest possible items that could be carried by human hands, never ceases to impress audiences, as well as the people who see them every day.

“You never get used to seeing this huge flag come out on the field,” Kivett says. “I love to hear the crowd go crazy when they see these flags … It’s a feel-good moment all the way around. It never gets old.”

“The flag has 50 stars that represent the states, and on those big flags, I like to think that there are 350 million stitches, and each one of those is one of us,” Swenson says. “We might have a big tear in one part of the flag right now, but all us little stitches are holding the rest of the flag together.”

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]