It has become impossible to ignore the American flag at sporting events. This is, in part, because of the increasingly elaborate performance that is the pregame ceremony for the national anthem, in which the flag works as symbolic shorthand to represent whatever you want it to about the country, the troops, and only God knows what else. (Though God is very frequently in that list, too.) But it’s also because the flag itself—physically—is getting bigger. In recent years, NFL teams increasingly have turned to giant flags that take up the entire length of the field, sometimes for every single home game, while MLB teams opt for equally large ones to stretch through the outfield for special occasions like opening day and the postseason.
These flags have kicked up all kinds of conversation about what they represent, who’s paying for them, and if they should be a part of the game at all. There’s a more basic question here, too: where the hell do they come from? Most are from one place—a storage unit in Utah.
Amy Barnett runs 50 Star Productions in Salt Lake City. (Though she does have a bit of storage space on the East Coast to make operations easier on that side of the country.) She has a few competitors in the gargantuan flag business, but none that have stopped her from becoming the biggest name in the market. Her company has grown in each year of the decade-plus it’s been in business, providing a flag for a record 130 sporting events last year and set to top that this year, having done 120 as of last week. The vast majority of those are NFL and MLB games, but there’s a little bit of variety in there: the New York City Marathon, for instance, and World Cup qualifying matches for the U.S. national soccer team.
While the flag is typically in the spotlight for only a few minutes, getting it out there is a production—Barnett describes the whole process as a “show.” Behind the scenes, though, it really seems like more of a science. That starts with the flag itself. Size is the selling point, sure, but size also creates all sorts of operational difficulties. A 150-by-300-foot flag weighs more than 1,100 pounds, meaning that everything from storage to transportation to unfurling to simply holding it is a challenge.
For a flag that big, even the most basic tasks would easily be something of a nightmare. Which is why Barnett’s nine 150-by-300 foot flags aren’t really that size at all: they’re 14 separate pieces, each individual stripe plus the union rectangle, that clip together on game day. That’s important not just for ease of transportation, but also for making it harder for the flag to catch a breeze on the field and suddenly become a massively powerful sail.
“It makes good airflow,” Barnett said. “We have some ventilation through the seams where they hook together.”
When she launched the company, they bought their flags from outside vendors, with the largest ones costing tens of thousands of dollars apiece. The nine 150-by-300 foot ones, for example, were acquired gradually and ran about $40,000 each. But now they’ve started making their smaller flags in-house—with the bulk of that work done by one employee, who sews the pieces, literally, in his house. (“In his basement, usually.”) They have a whole catalogue to offer teams, one that might seem surprisingly varied for a company whose business plan is as straightforward as giant flags. There are flags shaped like a map of the U.S., flags that go from 30-yard line to 30-yard line, flags shaped like giant stars, military versions emblazoned with the emblems of the various branches, end zone banners and giant pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness. Among other things.
“We try to use as light a material as possible when we’re building them—again for shipping, but also for that situation where people are trying to carry them and unfurl them,” Barnett said. “You’re always going to battle gravity, and so the lighter you can be, the better off you are at the end of the day.”
Even the lightest of materials, though, still yield a full-field flag that weighs half a ton. To unfurl and hold a flag that takes up the full length of a football field, teams are asked to find 150 volunteers. Barnett will ship the flag out ahead of time and then send out two or three of her employees to direct the team’s volunteers and show them how to assemble the flag. There’s a quick rehearsal (usually the morning of, but sometimes the day before) and then it’s game time. The 150 volunteers connect the massive pieces of cloth in such a way that it becomes a flag, the national anthem plays, maybe there’s a military flyover, the crowd cheers. The volunteers furl the flag and leave the field, and soon it will be taken apart again. The team cuts Barnett a check—somewhere in the neighborhood of $7,000 for a full-field flag.
Then it’s on to the next show.