Participation in 11-man high school football drops to lowest level in 20 years, according to the NFHS

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The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is reporting that 11-player football participation hit its lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. The NFHS Participation Study for the 2018-19 school year found that 1,006,013 boys participated in 11-man football, which was almost 30,829 fewer than the 2017-18 sports year.

The study found participation in boys 11-player football dropped in 44 of the 51 states counted, which includes the District of Columbia. However, the news isn’t all bad. 14,247 are offering 11-player football — an increase of 168 from the year before.

And, boys six-, eight- and nine-player football teams expanded. There were 156 more schools that offered these forms of the sport, and about 1,600 more participants overall.

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “Certainly, we are concerned about the reduction in the number of boys involved in the 11-player game but are thrilled that states are finding other options by starting 6-player or 8-player football in situations where the numbers have declined.

“While we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury, we continue to work with our member state associations, the nation’s high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible. Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it has ever been.

“We also are working with groups such as USA Football to reduce contact and teach proper tackling skills at the youth levels to increase the interest level as kids reach junior high school and high school.”

While anti-football critics may be cheering the news, it should be pointed out that overall, participation in high school sports declined in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years.

The 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants is a decline of 43,395 from the 2017-18 school year when the number of participants in high school sports reached an all-time record high of 7,980,886. This year’s total – the third-highest ever – consisted of 4,534,758 boys and 3,402,733 girls, according to the figures obtained from the 51-member state high school associations, which includes the District of Columbia. The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school year.

“We know from recent surveys that the number of kids involved in youth sports has been declining, and a decline in the number of public school students has been predicted for a number of years, so we knew our ‘streak’ might end someday,” said Niehoff. “The data from this year’s survey serves as a reminder that we have to work even harder in the coming years to involve more students in these vital programs – not only athletics but performing arts programs as well.”

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Jeff Fisher
Jeff is an award-winning journalist and expert in the field of high school sports, underscored with his appearance on CNBC in 2010 to talk about the big business of high school football in America. Jeff turned to his passion for high school football into an entrepreneurial venture called High School Football America, a digital media company focused on producing original high school sports content for radio, television and the internet. Jeff is co-founder and editor-in-chief of High School Football America, which is a media partner with USA TODAY High School Sports.