The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

High school football participation continues to drop as concerns over cost, injuries persist

The West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School junior varsity team practices in Aug. 2017. The New Jersey school dropped its varsity football program last year because of a lack of interest. This year, it combined its team with a neighboring high school’s to restart the varsity team. (Mark Makela for The Washington Post)

The problems facing high school football don’t appear to be going away, and according to new data released by the National Federation of State High School Associations, neither is the downward trend in participation.

Fewer than 1.04 million high school students played football in 2017. That’s 20,000 fewer athletes than in 2016, a 2 percent drop. In the past decade, football enrollment has declined 6.6 percent, according to NFHS data.

Experts say the same issues — cost, single-sport specialization, demographic shifts and injury concerns — continue to plague the sport, which remains the top boys participatory sport by a “large margin,” NFHS reported. Twenty schools nationwide dropped football completely, including junior varsity and freshman programs.

Football is not on a good path right now and I think you have to be creative to find opportunities for kids to play,” said Jeff Reilly, coach of the West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) school district varsity team.

To build a winner, this D.C. coach searched the hallways: ‘Hey, you want to play football?’

The district’s two high schools, WW-P North and South, each struggled to field teams last season. North, Reilly’s team, dropped down to play junior varsity. South played a varsity schedule with fewer than 30 athletes on the roster. The schools combined teams in the offseason, and now 79 athletes make up the freshman, JV and varsity teams.

Those numbers are sustainable, Reilly said, for the long-term future of the combined team, but Scott Tainsky, who studies sports economics at Wayne State University, says football’s rough stretch isn’t over.

Between television ratings and youth participation, the sport is in the midst of a “market correction,” he said. As the NFL raked in profits from media rights deals and became the nation’s preeminent professional sports league, football attracted TV viewers and young athletes away from other major sports.

With football continuing to struggle with issues such as player safety and free political expression, consumers, including young athletes, are choosing to watch and play other sports.

“We’re not a one-sport county, so if [football] took market share from some of the other sports, it’s going to give some back at some point,” Tainsky said. “There’s nowhere to go but down until the other major sports go away, and that’s not going to happen.”

It’s not a welcome thought for coaches such as Reilly, who already has seen his program pushed to the point of extinction once before.

Reviving football in West Windsor-Plainsboro, a New York City bedroom community, took pleas from the school system superintendent to the state legislature and governor to allow a cooperative team. The youth football league in town invested more resources in recruiting athletes.

“If you’re looking down in your youth program and you have low numbers and you know in the next five or six years you might have trouble fielding a team,” Reilly said, “you have to raise your hand and tell someone and then work on creative ways to get kids opportunities to play.”

“The infrastructure does matter so much, but it’s important to look at these national trends and not give in to the thought that football is going to die,” Tainsky said. “All sports go through trends positive and negative.”

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