A region-wide flag football league based on creating unique and memorable experiences for kids is preparing for its inaugural season in Gilbert beginning in January.
Next Level Sports was created by Patrick Walsh and Lance Smith in 2011 after a disappointing experience with a California league with Walsh’s son, who was in kindergarten at the time.
“It was an idea born out of pain,” Walsh said. “I had a kindergartener I put in a local flag league I didn’t like how it was being run. So I thought, what if I just do this myself? I took some flags from the PE locker and just ran around the field at Serra High School with some of his friends.”
Walsh, who is the head football coach at Serra in San Mateo, Calif., invited Smith, his son and more of their friends out to play one weekend. Within a matter of weeks, hundreds of kids showed up to play.
“Everyone came for free,” Walsh said. “The first weekend we had 20 kids there, the next there was 40. Then all of a sudden there were 100 kids.”
Walsh quickly realized he needed help supervising all of the kids who showed up to play. But instead of adult volunteers for each team, he recruited some of his players from Serra to coach.
Soon after, the concept of Next Level was born.
“I had the Serra kids come out and help run the drills and have some fun,” Walsh said. “That’s where the magic came together, and the idea was born to have students be the head coach of these flag football teams. The mentorship piece and giving back to the community is so rich that kids are lining up to do it.
“They love it. They teach them about competing, the game of football and just having fun, it’s awesome.”
Now, Walsh and Smith are bringing Next Level to Arizona. Games will be played at Higley High School in Gilbert, where a new turf field was installed last year.
For Walsh, having a nice venue is one of the most important aspects of Next Level. He wants to create a memorable experience for all kids in his league. One way to do that, he believes, is to play in venues that expand well-beyond a park in a neighborhood.
That idea stemmed from his own youth days playing at Los Cerros Little League’s baseball field, which to this day remains with him.
“I see the mountains and I see the dugout and it all means so much,” Walsh said. “So, we had that same vision of wanting kids to remember playing in great venues. Why can’t we do that?”
There will be four divisions based on grade level this season at Higley High School – Kindergarten and first, second to third, fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh – with four teams in each division. Each team will be limited to 10 players, both boys and girls. The season will run from Jan. 18 to March 7, which includes a playoff tournament. Games will be five-on-five on a 40-yard field.
Each team will be coached by local high school players, who receive compensation for their time. There will also be adult volunteers that mentor each coach. Registration for the league is set at $185, which Walsh admits is on the steeper end. However, all money goes toward renting the facility, paying the coaches as well as a unique uniform customized for every player. A week after registering, players will receive custom socks, shorts and Nike jersey with their name on it.
Teams will practice on Saturdays, an hour before games begin. While not traditional, Walsh says this method allows players who may not have adequate transportation during the week to still participate.
“It’s kind of like organizing at the sandlot and getting people from the community together to enjoy youth sports again,” Walsh said. “Parents only have to allocate two hours of their time on the weekend, which many have said is more convenient than practicing during the week.”
Higley is the latest on a long list of top-notch venues Next Level has secured for its flag football league.
Shortly after it was created at Serra, Walsh and Smith expanded to De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif. Next Level now hosts games at 26 different high schools all over the state of California. It’s even expanded to high schools in Oregon, Nevada and Colorado before Arizona.
But even with the expansion, the two still aimed to create even more unique experiences for the youth in his league. He managed to partner with the University of California-Berkeley, as one of the sites for his league. Teams are coached by college students and games are played inside California Memorial Stadium, the home of the Cal football team.
Walsh and Smith didn’t stop there.
They also managed to secure Cal Poly’s football stadium for the league. In Colorado, the University of Colorado’s stadium in Boulder is now also being used. Additionally, Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, Texas, the home of Southern Methodist University’s football team, is preparing for its first season hosting Next Level.
“We want kids to have a unique game day experience,” Walsh said. “Part of that has to do with the venue. Think about being a kid playing in a college stadium playing flag football. That’s something they’ll always remember.”
Walsh said plans are in the works to expand the league to more sites in Arizona, though nothing is set in stone. For now, they aim to have a successful first season at Higley and create lasting memories for all kids involved in the inaugural season.
“Whether it’s one kid or now, approaching 11,000, the purpose of this league is to make a child happy and give them a unique experience playing youth sports,” Walsh said. “That’ll never die as long as we are around here.
“It’s that type of thing that makes this whole thing rewarding and something I never saw when I opened up the field for my son and his friends to run around back in 2011.”
For more information on Next Level Flag Football, visit nextlevelsports.com.