The milestone 10th Pride Bowl flag football tournament will be held next June, coinciding with Chicago Pride weekend, and organizers are shooting for 42 teams from across North America, which is up six teams from this year.
The event started in 2008 with 12 teams, and has grown into a rainbow-encompassing, award-winning weekend tournament.
The Pride Bowl was named National Tournament of the Year at the annual Compete Sports Diversity Awards, held in mid-November in Denver to recognize athletes, teams, leagues and organizations for their commitment to sports diversity and inclusion.
"When I was told in August that we had been nominated, I was very proud of our entire team here in Chicago," said Matthew Herek, the tournament director. "We do not produce Pride Bowl every year on the hopes of receiving awards or recognition. But, it is tremendous to know that our work is recognized for creating a space for inclusive competition.
"We won [the award] primarily for our commitment to adding a women's division. Women's' flag football has been part of our DNA in CMSA almost as long as men's flag football. It was time that we display the same support of our women as we had for years with the men's leagues at Pride Bowl. To accept the award and see in the crowd many of the women who had participated this year was humbling. As I mentioned in my acceptance … until the nation gets it right on a place for women, they always have a home at Pride Bowl."
Herek, 39, who has lived in Chicago for 15 years and is the corporate sponsorships manager for BMO Harris Bank, has been associated with the Pride Bowl for six yearsa referee for six years, the associate tournament director for three years and the tournament director for three years.
Pride Bowl began under the direction of Chipp Collins, who was among several locals who saw the need for additional tournaments beyond the annual NGFFL Gay Bowl. Brian Kupersmit then took over the event, pushing a strong foundation with sponsors and the park district to ensure the tournament would have room to continue and grow. "In the past three years, I believe we have cemented our place on the calendar and become an event that football players across the country expect to attend," Herek said.
The award certainly validates the vision of longtime Chicagoan Marcia Hill, a key figure locally in women's flag football and other sports.
"[The award also] recognizes women like Beth Carson who refereed in both the women's and men's leagues until her retirement at the end of this fall season," said Herek, who attended the event in Colorado.
"When I saw who else won awards that night I was overwhelmed a bit. [The list of honorees included] Dave Pallone, the PGA, the Colorado Avalanche [and] Gus Kensworthy. All of these people and groups have done so much for inclusivity in sport. In a million years I don't think I ever thought Pride Bowl would be on the same stage."
Herek said the Pride Bowl won "because of our year after year commitment to not just stage a tournament, but to address the signs of the times and adjust to provide new and inclusive opportunities." The award, he added, "means that the work of CMSA, the tournament committee, and the support of our sponsors is appreciated and recognized. It means that in what is now a politically uncertain time for many LBGT athletes that the need for events such as Pride Bowl is not going away and is perhaps magnified."
The 2016 Pride Bowl hosted a tournament-high 36 teams, in 3 divisions: Open "A", Open "B", and a new women's division. There were a combined 565 players, referees and volunteers who took part in the tournament.
The "A" division was won by the New York Warriors Black, captained by former NFL player and current You Can Play Project Executive Director, Wade Davis.
The "B" division was won by the DC Delta Force, a team that was Washington, D.C.,'s fourth entry into the tournament.
The inaugural women's division was won by the Denver Mile High Club Blue in an all-Denver final. "The Denver women's teams are really the heart and soul of women's flag football right now. It was tremendous for us that they came to Chicago," Herek said. The 2016 Pride Bowl featured two women's teams from Denver, two from South Florida, one team from St. Louis and three teams from Chicago.
Herek said a third open division is being planned for 2017, and the first Pride Bowl All-Decade Team will be announced.
"Recognition for being inclusive should remind CMSA of its mission to be a place where everyone can compete," Herek said. "Sometimes we wonder if there still needs to be a CMSA in a world more and more accepting of LBGT persons. While it's true in Chicago that the outright discrimination against LBGT persons is less than in other places, there is still a 22-year-old moving here who has not experienced that level of openness. We need CMSA to continue providing opportunities for those athletes."
The inaugural CMSA men's flag football fall draft season finished in mid-November, won by Hydrate Pink, captained by Sam Wheeler. Grant Anderson was the team's quarterback. Elixir Periwinkle was the runner-up, captained by Eric Hughes with Scott Fulton at quarterback.
In the traditional Legacy League ( non-draft format ), Michael Rice captained the Bulldozers to the championship, beating Overeasy with captain Rodney Weir for the title.