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Schools struggle to keep football programs running

Some schools are addressing the decline in football participation by switching from 11-player teams to eight-player teams. (Gettyimages.com: yinyang).
Some schools are addressing the decline in football participation by switching from 11-player teams to eight-player teams. (Gettyimages.com: yinyang).

A drop in football enrollment is forcing some districts to make tough program cuts, and is inspiring others to seek creative ways to keep the sport afloat.

Participation in 11-man football teams dropped 4 percent nationwide over the last decade, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Football is still the most popular sport among high school athletes, but it’s followed closely by track and field, basketball and soccer, all of which are played by both boys and girls.

Increased concern over concussion risk and students’ growing interest in other sports are likely contributing to the participation drop, says Bob Colgate, the federation’s director of sports and sports medicine.

In addition, changes in demographics—such as the growing number of first-generation immigrant families—may shift students’ interests to sports that have more international appeal, such as soccer, says David Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey.

West Windsor-Plainsboro cut the varsity team at one of its two high schools this year. Two other high schools in the same county also cut their varsity football teams because of enrollment challenges, Aderhold says. When districts have to curtail or eliminate football programs, the impact can extend to other activities, Aderhold adds.

“What does this mean for the marching band? Cheerleaders? Senior fundraisers?”

8 vs. 11

Some schools are addressing the decline in football participation by switching from 11-player teams to eight-player teams.

The state of Michigan, for example, has lost 57 of its 11-player football teams in the last five years. However, it added 44 eight-player teams, says Geoff Kimmerly, media and content coordinator for the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Because of the increased number of smaller teams, the state created a second division for eight-player teams to allow more schools the chance to compete for a championship.

“It has become a really popular option for our small schools,” says Kimmerly. “First, with participation to keep football teams going and now, to keep leagues together and to keep rivalries going.”

Districts are also forming athletic co-ops, where neighboring schools come together to form one team. In Michigan, one school is designated as the primary program and sets up the team, and then players from other schools can join. Each state athletic association sets the rules for co-ops.

With football declining in popularity, Aderhold says it may be time for his district to consider adding newer, and perhaps even unconventional, sports—including cricket, flag football and ultimate frisbee—that are attracting a growing number of students.


Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer in Hawaii.