Where is high school football declining?

Good morning!

A quick bit of newsletter business. I will be recording a podcast segment for the Slate podcast Hang Up and Listen Monday afternoon, where I’ll be discussing SB 206. I’ll drop in a link when it publishes, but be on the lookout for that if you’re interested in even more talk about California’s legislative challenge to NCAA amateurism rules.

Would you like a newsletter that doesn’t talk about that for this morning? I hope so! Because that’s the one I wrote today. I’m sure we talk more about statehouse politics soon.

Where is high school football participation declining?

High school football is still the most popular sport for boys in the US, but the nationwide participation numbers are not moving in a good direction. Like, at all. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, high school football participation is now at its lowest level since 1999. There’s a decent chance that in 2020, less than a million boys across America will be playing high school football.

Interestingly (to me anyway), football isn’t actually the sport that is declining the fastest. That would be girl’s basketball. Since 2008-2009, girl’s basketball participation has fallen 10.2%, while boy’s football has declined 9.6%, per this story from Forbes.

There are a lot of possible reasons for this. Sure, parents are concerned about the health risks of playing football, and may be opting to encourage their children to play safer sports, like track, soccer or lacrosse. High school football is also expensive and typically requires a lot of infrastructure (dozens of boys, multiple coaches, expensive equipment, a football field, etc). If a school is facing a budget crunch, football might be    on the chopping block. Plus, some schools are experiencing declining enrollment. Your uncle on Facebook probably wants to blame this trend on Fortnite or whatever, but the reality is almost certainly more complicated.

But that decline isn’t happening at a uniform rate across the country. Some states are actually still growing their prep football populations, while others have lost tens of thousands of athletes over the last few years.

I used the NFHS participation database to look up boys football participation rates on a state by state level for 2018-2019 (the most recent data), and 2014-2015.

The states that lost the greatest number of football players over that five year span were:

1) California, -12,435

2) Illinois, -8530

3) New York -7900

4) Michigan, -5470

5) Wisconsin, -3104

6) North Carolina, -2826

7) Ohio, -2801

7) Washington, -2801

9) New Jersey, -2364

10) Maryland, -2147

The states that grew over that time period?

1) Texas, +1643

2) Alabama, +898

3) Colorado, +676

4) D.C, +107

5) Hawaii, +94

6) Nevada, +38

7) Utah, +9

That’s it! And sure, California is the biggest state, but to put that 12,435 decline in perspective, that’s roughly the number of boys playing high school football right now in the entire state of Kansas, or Oregon, or Kentucky. California lost one Kansas worth of high school football players in five years.

I can see why a commentator might look at states like California, New York and Illinois near the top of this list and assume prep football declines are about some sort of Blue America cultural clash or something, but that wouldn’t really explain a decline in North Carolina, or in my home state of Ohio, a culturally conservative state that venerates high school football more than almost anywhere else in the country.

Concussions are certainly part of this, but I suspect this nationwide decline is about plenty of other issues too, from demographic shifts, to school funding, and more. This story from the Mercury News, for example, makes it seem that health concerns may be fueling the drop in California, but the data is less clear in other parts of the country.

This is bad for college football, but maybe not how you’d think

Two of the states on that biggest decline list are California and Washington, critical recruiting territories for the Pac-12, a league that’s struggling mightily in the public eye right now. Are those two things related?

I think there is something to the fact that the Pac-12’s recruiting has fallen behind the elite programs in the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and more, especially along the line of scrimmage. The best defensive line prospects are disproportionately located in the South, and the best Pac-12 schools aren’t getting those kids.

But is a decline in prep football rates part of the problem too? I guess that depends on which kids are opting out of California and Washington high school football.

Jon Wilner at the Mercury News asked a few coaches in the conference about this a few months ago, and this quote from Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham stuck out to me

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes the number of elite players available to recruit each year remains unchanged, and anecdotal evidence suggests he’s right:

The number of California players ranked in the top 250 of the 247sports composite — the 5- and 4-star prospects — is essentially unchanged over the past five years.

“There’s no doubt, we see (a decline), starting at the little league level,’’ Whittingham said. “But the ones that are opting out are the marginal players.’’

According to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, the California high school class of 2020 has 29 blue-chip recruits, and 75 recruits with a ranking of at least .8500, a decent cutoff point for what usually amounts to a Pac-12 caliber recruit. The class of 2015 had 44 blue chip recruits, and 103 that reached at least .8500. 2016 had 45 blue chips, and 79 with a .8500 ranking. 2019 had 47 blue chippers, and 112 with a .8500 ranking.

It’s possible that 2020 is just a bad year for elite California talent. That happens sometimes! But a shift of a dozen or so elite recruits, and another dozen of solid, rotational players, is something that some schools would really notice.

But even if the decline in prep football participation really is displayed mostly in marginal players deciding to do something else, it might have a negative impact on college football, or the football ecosystem at large.

Fewer high school football players means fewer high school football coaches, and potentially fewer people developing a deeper love for football in general. High schools, especially high schools with marginal talent, are some of the greatest laboratories for schematic innovation in this sport, innovations that float up to the college and professional ranks. Could we miss out on the next great read option or zone blitz scheme because that coach had to shift to soccer, or real estate, or something else entirely?

I don’t have hard data for this or anything, but this decline also makes me worry about some stuff that has nothing to do with college football. I got my first writing gig writing gamers for high school football games in rural Ohio…places that wouldn’t churn out an FBS prospect in a decade. High school football, even when those teams were bad, was a community centerpiece. It wouldn’t be uncommon at all for a town of 3,000 people to have about that many at a football game. As other community institutions, from public schools, to churches, to service and fraternal organizations decline…what are we replacing them with? Will a community support, not just athletically, but socially, soccer or track the same way they might support football now?

Obviously, football isn’t for everybody. It’s stupid to pretend the sport doesn’t have real, significant health risks. For a cash-strapped school district, investing in supporting a football team may not be the best use of money. And if kids decide they’d rather play soccer, or join the band, or learn computer programming, or something else, well, that could be completely fine too.

But just like I worry that administrators are taking the wrong lessons from declining college football attendance, I’m not sure the gatekeepers of this sport have a great way to encourage folks to continue to participate in it. Trying to make this some cultural war touchdown, screaming FAKE NEWS about health risks isn’t the way to do it.

Will this decline mean Arizona State or UCLA is going to suffer on the football field? Maybe, maybe not. But it could certainly make the college football ecosystem worse off.

If there are good ideas out there on how to slow this down, I’d love to hear about them.

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