Long Beach Poly has won 19 state titles and sent more than 60 players to the NFL, most of any high school in the country. This year, it dropped its JV team because it didn’t have enough players.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Wildwood Middle High School restored its varsity program, two years after it was sidelined.
“When we started getting the numbers up and some of those younger kids stuck with the program and continued to keep playing – in Florida, football is pretty big, and kids wanted to be a part of it,” said Von Moreland, the athletic director at Wildwood Middle, which serves a small, rural community northwest of Orlando.
“When we dropped it, it was a big disappointment to everybody. To be back and be winning, it’s been a real lift for the community.”
Football remains the most played sport for high school boys – by a large margin. But the sport at the youth and high school levels is undergoing a change, with surveys and anecdotal evidence showing a steady drop in overall participation.
Is this the beginning of the end of football, as many have speculated on in recent years as safety concerns have grown?
Take a closer look and you'll find that while football participation is waning in some parts of the country, elsewhere it is holding steady or even growing.
Two football hotbeds, Florida and California, might give a more accurate view of what football will look like in the future: a regional sport, similar to hockey, lacrosse, field hockey and boy's volleyball but still substantially larger.
“Let’s say these number accelerate. It may change the nature of the game,” said Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado and director of its Sports Governance Center who has studied the issue. “Maybe it’s a southeastern thing.”
Population shifts could explain some of the individual state’s drops; the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania have all seen their numbers decrease. The rise in sport specialization – focusing on one sport instead of playing two or three throughout the year – is a factor, too.
And, of course, there’s the growing fear parents have about head trauma and its long-term effects.
“Everybody is asking that, and so are state executive directors like myself,” said Roger Blake, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation. “There are no studies out there so it’s all anecdotal. But I think it’s accurate that it’s a concern parents have, and rightfully so, of kids being involved in contact sports.”
Decline starts at Pop Warner
It’s impossible to know exactly how many kids are still playing football. Or any sport, for that matter. The annual participation survey released by the National Federation of State High School Associations is based on data submitted by each state and the District of Columbia, which get the numbers from member high schools.
This year, at least two found issues with their numbers from either this year or last, spokesman Bruce Howard said, forcing the NFHS to revise what it had initially reported.
But Pielke said the discrepancies are small enough that they don’t change the overall picture: The number of boys who want to play football is simply not what it used to be.
According to the NFHS survey, the number of high school boys playing 11-man football dropped by more than 2% in the past year. Add in the boys who play on smaller teams – nine-, eight- or six-man – and the decrease is slightly lower but still more than 2%.
That’s in line with a 1.7% drop over the past five years in the number of kids, ages 6 to 17, who regularly play tackle football, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
“I would think that even with the uncertainties, what they’re measuring is an actual downturn,” Pielke said of the NFHS survey. “It could be a little bigger, it could be a little smaller, but it seems to jibe with (the result).”
“In a statistical sample, there’s a giant representation,” Pielke added. “If it’s 1.1 million instead of 1 million, it’s the overall trend that’s important. Not that you’ve counted every last kid out there.”
Some of the decreases are stark. Vermont now has 22 high school programs, down from 28 in the 2014-15 survey. California has seen a drop of more than 6,500 kids playing high school football just in the past two years.
“It’s reflective of, in football specifically, what’s going on,” Blake said.
“We’ve seen for the last five, six and maybe longer, seven years, a decline in Pop Warner statistics. We’re looking at that because those fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are going to be in high school,” Blake said. “So we anticipated that trend and saw it coming.”
Growth in the south
Yet what often gets overlooked in the hand-wringing about football’s future is the increases – sometimes large ones – seen in Southern states. Florida, for example, has 1,252 more boys playing 11-man football this year than it did last year.
More notable is that the state added 65 teams in the past year.
“This is a state that’s dominated by college football. You have three major programs that have won national titles. And then you have other big-time programs,” said Kyle Niblett, spokesman for the Florida High School Athletic Association.
“They grow up in this culture where football is a big thing. And then you have those three NFL teams.”
Louisiana and Mississippi also reported slight increases from last year in the number of boys playing. South Carolina and Tennessee each added a handful of teams.
Chris Nowinski, co-founder of the Concussion Legacy Foundation and Boston University’s CTE Center, said that’s not a surprise given the popularity of the college game. Southeastern Conference football is like a religion throughout much of the region, and high school football is the next-best thing.
“Reaching for the stars, maybe the NFL is less realistic,” Nowinski said. “So it’s easier to say, `I can get to that one level ahead of me rather than two levels ahead of me.’
“It’s a very interesting regional difference.”
What does this – or will this – mean? It’s too early to know.
“Even if you think football at the high school level is dropping off … it’s really not a threat to the sport for a long, long time,” Pielke said.
“Whatever to make of it, it’s speculative and early,” he added. “Maybe in a decade or so, all of this will be really clear what’s happening.”