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HMS Victory, flagship of the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy

A flagship is a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, characteristically a flag officer entitled by custom to fly a distinguishing flag. Used more loosely, it is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels, typically the first, largest, fastest, most heavily armed, or best known.

Over the years, the term "flagship" has become a metaphor used in industries such as broadcasting, automobiles, education, technology, airlines, and retail to refer to their highest profile or most expensive products and locations.[1]

Naval use[edit]

In common naval use, the term flagship is fundamentally a temporary designation; the flagship is wherever the admiral's flag is being flown. However, admirals have always needed additional facilities, including a meeting room large enough to hold all the captains of the fleet and a place for the admiral's staff to make plans and draw up orders. Historically, only larger ships could accommodate such requirements.

The term was also used by commercial fleets, when the distinction between a nation's navy and merchant fleet was not clear. An example was Sea Venture, flagship of the fleet of the Virginia Company, which was captained by Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Christopher Newport yet bore the Merchant Navy admiral of the company's fleet, Sir George Somers, during the ill-fated Third Supply of 1609.

In the age of sailing ships, the flagship was typically a first rate; the aft of one of the three decks would become the admiral's quarters and staff offices. This can be seen on HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, still serving the Royal Navy as the ceremonial flagship of the First Sea Lord from Portsmouth, England. Non-first rates could serve as flagships, however: USS Constitution, a frigate (a fourth rate), served as flagship for parts of the United States Navy during the early 19th century.

In the 20th century, ships became large enough that the larger types, cruisers and up, could accommodate a commander and staff. Some larger ships may have a separate flag bridge for use by the admiral and his staff while the captain commands from the main navigation bridge. Because its primary function is to coordinate a fleet, a flagship is not necessarily more heavily armed or armored than other ships. During World War II, admirals often preferred a faster ship over the largest one.

Modern flagships are designed primarily for command and control rather than for fighting, and are also known as command ships.

Flagship as metaphor[edit]

As with many other naval terms, flagship has crossed over into general usage, where it means the most important or leading member of a group, as in the flagship station of a broadcast network. The word can be used as a noun or an adjective describing the most prominent or highly touted product, brand, location, or service offered by a company. Derivations include the "flagship brand" or "flagship product" of a manufacturing company, "flagship store" of a retail chain, or "flagship service" of a hospitality or transportation concern.

The term "flagship" may have specific applications:

  • Auto companies may have a flagship in the form of their leading or highest-priced car.
  • Electronics companies may have a series of products considered to be their flagship, usually consisting of one or two products that are updated periodically. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S series consists of several flagship smartphones that are released on a yearly basis.
  • In rail transport, a "flagship service" is either the fastest or most luxurious. Often it is also a named train or service.[citation needed]

Colleges and universities in the United States[edit]

Most states in the United States provide public university education through one or more university systems, with each system having multiple campuses located throughout the state. The phrase flagship institution or flagship university may be applied to an individual school or campus within each state system. The College Board, for example, defines flagship universities as the first to be established as well as the most research-intensive public universities.[2][3][4] These schools are often land-grant research universities.[5] According to Robert M. Berdahl, then-chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, the phrase "flagship" came into existence in the 1950s when the Morrill Act schools were joined by newer institutions built in a wave of post-war expansion of state university systems.[6]

Berdahl notes further that because flagships are generally the oldest schools within a system, they are often the largest and best financed and are perceived as elite relative to non-flagship state schools.[6] He comments that "Those of us in 'systems' of higher education are frequently actively discouraged from using the term 'flagship' to refer to our campuses because it is seen as hurtful to the self-esteem of colleagues at other institutions in our systems. The use of the term is seen by some as elitist and boastful. It is viewed by many, in the context of the politics of higher education, as 'politically incorrect.' ... Only in the safe company of alumni is one permitted to use the term."[6]

Nevertheless, the term "flagship university" is still used in official contexts by various state university system boards of governors, state legislatures, and scholars.[7][8][9][10][11] Additionally, state universities often self-designate themselves as flagships.[12][13] Higher education agencies, research journals, and other organizations also use the term, though their lists of flagship universities can differ greatly. One list of 50 flagship universities (one per state) is employed by the Higher Education Coordinating Board,[14] the College Board,[3][4] the Princeton Review[15] and many other state and federal educational and governmental authorities[16] for a variety of purposes including tuition and rate comparisons,[2][17][18] research studies[19][20][16][21] and public policy analyses.[22][23][24][25]

Despite its ubiquity, this list[citation needed] of 50 flagships is not the only state-by-state examination of flagships. In a 2010 article, Standard & Poor's created its own list of flagship universities, noting that each state had typically one or two institutions with flagship characteristics.[26] The Education Sector, an education policy organization, used a different list of 51 flagship universities in an August 2011 study of college debt. Several states had multiple universities categorized as flagships due to "less of a clear distinction between a single flagship and other public universities" in those states.[27] Additionally, several states were not included in the study due to insufficient comparative data.[27] There are many instances in which more than one school in a state has claimed to be, or has been described as, a "flagship".[28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36]

In February 2012, Idaho's State Board of Education made a controversial decision to strike the word "flagship" from the University of Idaho's mission statement.[37] The Board's President Richard Westerberg explained that this revision was made as part of the board's many changes made to multiple Idaho universities' mission statements in an effort to ensure all statements were consistent and collegial in nature rather than comparative or competitive.[38]


Tiffany & Co.'s 10-story flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City

Flagship stores are core stores for brand name retailers, larger than their standard outlets and stocking greater inventory, often found in prominent shopping districts such as Fifth Avenue in New York, Oxford Street in London, İstiklal Avenue in İstanbul or Tokyo's Ginza.[39]


A flagship station is the principal station of a radio or television broadcast network. It can be the station that produces the largest amount of material for the network, or the station in the parent company's home city, or both. The term dates back to the mid twentieth century years of broadcasting when headquarters stations produced programs for their networks.

For example, the flagship stations of the ABC, NBC and CBS television and radio networks are their owned and operated outlets in New York City. Likewise, public television's WNET served as primary member station for National Educational Television (NET), a forerunner to the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

In sports broadcasting, the "flagship" is a team's primary station in their home market, which produces game broadcasts and feeds them to affiliates. For example, WGN was the flagship station of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which has an extensive Cubs radio network spanning several states.


The term flagship is also used to describe an automaker's top (i.e. largest/most expensive/most prestigious) vehicle. Modern examples include the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Toyota Century, Hongqi L5, and Land Rover's Range Rover.


American Airlines obtained copyright to the term "Flagship" on May 3, 1937, per the Catalog of Copyright Entries.[40] As of December 20, 2019 as stated in a legal document, this includes "the marks "Flagship," "Flagship Lounge" and "Flagship Suite" (the "Flagship Marks")—to describe premium air travel services for first and business class passengers since the 1930s and 1940s."[41][42] Delta Airlines also uses/used the word "Flagship" to describe its top lines, as pointed out by AA and being argued legally in December 2019 and into 2020.[43]


Within conservation biology, the term flagship species refers to a species or taxon that is a symbol or rallying point to catalyze conservation actions.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Definition of FLAGSHIP". Merriam-Webster. 30 October 2023. Archived from the original on 4 June 2023. Retrieved 8 November 2023.
  2. ^ a b "Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations: Trends and Challenges for Public Research Universities" (PDF). www.nsf.gov. 2012. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 February 2013. Retrieved 6 April 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Tuition and Fees at Flagship Universities over Time – Trends in Higher Education". trends.collegeboard.org. Archived from the original on 20 October 2015. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b "2014–15 Tuition and Fees at Flagship Universities and Five-Year Percentage Change". trends.collegeboard.org. Archived from the original on 17 October 2015.
  5. ^ "Flagship universities must pursue excellence and access". University of Virginia. Archived from the original on 1 October 2012. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  6. ^ a b c Berdahl, Robert (8 October 1998). "The Future of Flagship Universities". University of California, Berkeley. Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2006.
  7. ^ "U.S. Department of Education". ed.gov. Archived from the original on 8 May 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2013.
  8. ^ "College Completion Tool Kit" (PDF). United States Department of Education. March 2011. Archived (PDF) from the original on 17 October 2012. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  9. ^ "2012–13 College Board Tuition and Fees By State" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 May 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  10. ^ "Journal" (PDF). www.ilga.gov. Archived (PDF) from the original on 5 May 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  11. ^ "2004 Baseline Report for LR 174 Higher Education Task Force" (PDF). 7 March 2005. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 May 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  12. ^ David K. Scott (2001). "Strategic Action FY'97 – FY'01 III. A Vision of the Future: Reinventing the Dream". University of Massachusetts Amherst, Office of the Chancellor. Archived from the original on 11 October 2007. Retrieved 22 September 2006.
  13. ^ C. D. Mote Jr (2006). "Testimony to the Maryland General Assembly". Archived from the original on 1 September 2006. Retrieved 22 September 2006.
  14. ^ "Final report" (PDF). www.wsac.wa.gov. 2009. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2 July 2020. Retrieved 14 March 2013.
  15. ^ Eric Owens, Esq; Review, Princeton (1 March 2004). America's Best Value Colleges. The Princeton Review. ISBN 9780375763731.
  16. ^ a b Gerald, Danette; Haycock, Kati. "Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation's Premier Public Universities" (PDF). The Education Trust. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 April 2015. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  17. ^ "Average Tuition and Required Fees: A Comparison of Public Colleges and Universities in the Midwest and Beyond" (PDF). March 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 November 2007.
  18. ^ "Chapter V: How Washington Compares with Other States" (PDF). www.wsac.wa.gov. Archived (PDF) from the original on 20 June 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  19. ^ Pallais, Amanda; Turner, Sarah (June 2006). "Opportunities for Low–Income Students at Top Colleges and Universities: Policy Initiatives and the Distribution of Students" (PDF). National Tax Journal. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 May 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  20. ^ "Which state university grads earn the most?". CBS News. 12 March 2013. Archived from the original on 18 April 2013. Retrieved 21 September 2014.
  21. ^ "SCUP OpenID Server" (PDF). Retrieved 21 September 2014.[permanent dead link]
  22. ^ Shaun R. Harper. "Black Male Students at Public Flagship Universities in the U.S. Status, Trends, and Implications for Policy and Practice" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  23. ^ Slater, Robert (1996). "The First Black Graduates of the Nation's 50 Flagship State Universities". The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (13): 72–85. doi:10.2307/2963173. JSTOR 2963173.
  24. ^ Gerald, Danette S (2007). Examining the Status of Equity in Undergraduate Enrollments for Black, Latino and Low-income Students at Public Four-year Universities and Flagship Campuses. ISBN 9780549453512.
  25. ^ "State Flagship Universities and Opportunity for Higher Education 1986 to 2010" (PDF). July 2012. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  26. ^ "University data" (PDF). img.en25.com. Archived (PDF) from the original on 16 March 2022. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  27. ^ a b Carey, Kevin; Dillon, Erin. "Debt to Degree: A New Way of Measuring College Success" (PDF). Education Sector. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 June 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  28. ^ "Florida". Archived from the original on 23 May 2006. Retrieved 24 March 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  29. ^ "Today in Tallahassee: Flagship universities will make reform pitches". Archived from the original on 18 June 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  30. ^ "Logical to make UH our next flagship university". www2.egr.uh.edu. Archived from the original on 27 September 2015. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  31. ^ "Texas A&M University Facts – College Station". Texas A&M University. Archived from the original on 18 September 2011.
  32. ^ "Race in admissions: A tale of two flagship universities". Archived from the original on 4 April 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  33. ^ "Michigan". Archived from the original on 9 September 2006. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  34. ^ "New York". Archived from the original on 31 July 2013.
  35. ^ "USATODAY.com – USA TODAY's 2006 College Tuition & Fees Survey". usatoday30.usatoday.com. Archived from the original on 20 January 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  36. ^ "Standing Out From the Crowd". 15 March 2012. Archived from the original on 24 August 2012. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  37. ^ "University of Idaho no longer state's 'flagship'". Archived from the original on 4 May 2013. Retrieved 24 March 2013.
  38. ^ Idaho Archived 2013-04-11 at archive.today
  39. ^ "Flagship Store". about.com. Archived from the original on 29 March 2013. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  40. ^ Catalog of Copyright Entries. Part 1. [B] Group 2. Pamphlets, Etc. New Series. 1938.
  41. ^ "American Airlines Inc v. Delta Air Lines Inc". www.bloomberglaw.com. Archived from the original on 1 January 2020. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  42. ^ "American Airlines". www.americanairlinesnavigator.com. Retrieved 1 January 2020.[permanent dead link]
  43. ^ "Airlines battle over the trademark FLAGSHIP. AMERICAN v. DELTA – uspatentlaw.cn". 27 December 2019. Archived from the original on 9 June 2023. Retrieved 1 January 2020.
  44. ^ Maan Barua (2011). "Mobilizing Metaphors: the popular use of keystone, flagship and umbrella species concepts". Biodiversity and Conservation. 20 (7): 1427–1440. Bibcode:2011BiCon..20.1427B. doi:10.1007/s10531-011-0035-y. S2CID 11030284.

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Flagships at Wikimedia Commons