A look at four challenges and opportunities for football in America in 2023.
There’s a natural ebb and flow to the game of football that is familiar to everyone. After all of the pre-game pageantry, pep talks and refreshments, there are four quarters of action punctuated by some timeouts, two-minute warnings and injuries.
So to take a look at the State of Football in America in 2023 we analyze the sport and present it in a way the complements that schedule — in the form of four quarters. The only things missing are a halftime show and officials’ reviews.
1st Quarter Challenge
Supply Chain Issues Impacting Delivery of Product
There are pockets of the country where supply chain delays remain a daily concern for some team dealers and there are others where dealers have been able to somehow avoid the delays caused by the inconsistent delivery of product.
Bottom line: While there are still product challenges, it’s fair to say selling football is more possible and profitable in 2021 than it was in 2021.
For Larry Brooks, the co-owner of Final Touch Riverside Sports in Cumberland, MD, it’s been a daily struggle getting deliveries of protective gear in football.
“Here in late October, I’m just getting deliveries of product that I ordered last November,” says Brooks. “Anything with hard plastic in it – specifically helmets and shoulder pads – is not arriving on time. Fortunately, coaches and schools understand the delays and are accepting the product.”
The issues of the supply chain also impacted the reconditioning of helmets.
“Reconditioning was a nightmare,” Brooks says. “Many helmets could not be reconditioned so they were sent back to the schools without being reconditioned.”
Because of the delayed arrival of product, some of which is still on back order, Brooks estimates that he lost between $75,000 and $100,000 in football sales in 2022.
Amazingly, another supply chain issue was getting deliveries in a timely manner of simple T-shirts.
“Many T-shirts that were delivered here were all the same size and color,” says Brooks. “Coaches took them anyway.”
Supply chain issues also reared their ugly heads for Baker’s Sporting Goods in Jacksonville, FL.
“We had major problems in hard goods, specifically getting deliveries of helmets, shoulder pads and footballs,” reports salesman Joel Dunn. “Getting foam, which is specially treated, was also an issue, specifically foam used around goal posts and on fencing.”
Dunn and his associates at Baker’s Sporting Goods had fewer problems with getting uniforms produced and shipped on time this year.
“In apparel, the supply chain delays were less of an issue this year than they were last year, but we still have a long way to get back to where we were prior to COVID,” he says. “Many people are saying this is the new normal. I hope not.”
In Iowa, high school and middle school football are back to where they were prior to the recent COVID pandemic — which brings its own set of successes and challenges.
“Here in Iowa, COVID is a forgotten thought,” says Jake Koch, president of Iowa Sports Supply in Cedar Falls, IA. “Players are excited about playing football and fans are enjoying the games. It’s a big sport in Iowa.”
While supply chain issues were an issue this fall in Iowa, especially with helmets and shoulder pads, Koch was able to deliver most products for his middle and high school football teams.
“We did our best to get football teams what they ordered,” says Koch, who points out they also sell football items such as tape, water bottles, goal post pads, blocking sleds, tackle dummies and sideline accessories. But no cleated footwear.
“Football cleats are hard to stock and very tough to predict,” Koch explains.
One particular bright spot for Iowa Sports Supply is the growing number of teams playing in 7-on-7 tournaments, a new niche revenue source within football.
“For schools that have 7-on-7 squads, teams are buying mesh jerseys and soft shell helmets,” Koch adds.
Meanwhile, in Terre Haute, IN, football sales – as a whole – were up 30 percent for Coaches Corner.
According to Doc Claussen, a manager with Coaches Corner, it was an exceptional year for sales of custom football uniforms and an average year for sales of football cleats.
Participation numbers, however, remain a bit of a concern. While middle school football is strong in Indiana, the majority of high schools nowonly have two football teams — varsity and junior varsity squads.
“Only a few high schools actually have a freshman football team anymore, so those freshmen teams play other junior varsity teams,” says Claussen.
In addition to strong sales with football teams, Claussen was delighted to report that fanwear sales for football have also been strong this year.
In Solon, OH, supply chain issues have not really been a problem for Rube Adler Sporting Goods, mostly because they don’t sell football helmets, shoulder pads and cleats. “We have not had any issues with the supply chain,” says owner Ken Adler. “In football, we deliver uniforms and spirit wear. There’s plenty of product out there and getting inventory has not been a problem.”
However, supply chain issues were a major concern for Southwest Sporting Goods Company in Arkadelphia, AR.
“We normally sell everything in football from helmets down to the cleats, but we had issues getting helmets because of delays in the supply chain,” says office manager Rhonda Fowle. “This year, we sold lots of footballs, cleats, jerseys, socks, tape, wrap and a number of padded bleacher seats for parents.”
And of course, in Texas, high school is as strong as it has ever been.
For Carey’s Sporting Goods in Fort Worth, TX, owner Dan Carey made sure that all local high school football teams received what they needed for the recently completed fall season.
“Football is a strong category for us. We’re a full-line team dealer in football,” says Carey, selling head-to-toe along with all field equipment.
Carey believes his football business is strong now because of the teamwork of high school athletic directors back in 2020, who were able construct some type of schedule for high school football to be played despite the COVID pandemic.
“The high school football schedule was skewed and changed, based on outbreaks of COVID,” Carey recalls. “But fortunately, we were able to play high school this season.”
Out west in San Rafael, CA, the business of selling tackle football to local high schools, middle schools and youth leagues was strong and steady for T & B Sports.
According to sales associate Tom Brusati, the team side of the business sold a healthy number of uniforms, footballs and football equipment to teams, while individual players and their parents would visit the retail side of the business to buy practice jerseys, pants, cleats, socks and padding. The one part of the football business that T & B Sports does not sell is helmets and shoulder pads. “It was tough getting deliveries,” says Brusati.
2nd Quarter Opportunity
The future of football just very well be flag. That’s because flag football is growing various ways, thanks in large part to support from the National Football League (NFL), the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).
Back in July, the NFL partnered with the International Federation of American Football to bring flag football to The World Games in Alabama, where Mexico won the gold medal in the women’s division — the U.S. placed second and Panama was third. In the men’s division, the U.S. men won the gold, Italy won the silver and Mexico the bronze medal.
According to the NFL’s Roman Oben, the big-picture goal with flag football is to have the sport included as one of the sports at the Summer Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles.
The NFL has also taken an active interest in promoting flag football at the local level by creating National Flag Football, which is the largest NFL youth flag football organization in the country for boys and girls pre-K (four years of age) through eighth grade. Launched in 2006, the National Flag Football program is designed to educate young athletes about football in a safe and fun environment while emphasizing participation and sportsmanship.
According to Oben, this program provides young players with an opportunity to engage in football in non-contact, continuous action while learning lessons in teamwork. Already there are more than 50,000 players in the league throughout the U.S.
Meanwhile, at the high school level flag football is an officially sanctioned sport in five states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Montana and Nevada, with Florida the heartbeat of girls’ high school flag football — there are 311 high schools that sponsor varsity flag football for girls. In all, more than 7800 girls in Florida are playing high school flag football.
The good news is that in Florida and other states adopting the flag version for girls, the teams tend to buy more equipment such as higher end cleats, socks, shorts, jerseys, belts for flags, mouthguards and, of course, footballs (when they can get them).
“To win state championships, you must equip your players with good, quality gear, footwear, uniforms and equipment,” explains Scott O’Hara, the head coach of the girls’ varsity flag football program at Seminole Ridge High School in Loxahatchee, FL, one of the annual powerhouse schools in flag football for the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). “It’s also great to see my players have the chance to continue to play flag football at the college level.”
The news for flag football gets even better. Next spring, at the collegiate level, the NAIA will be conducting its third year of varsity women’s flag football, which remains classified as an emerging sport for the NAIA. Currently, 18 NAIA colleges and universities have women’s flag football teams.
The decision to add varsity girls’ flag football to the list of sports offered at one of those schools – Florida Memorial University – was an easy one for the leadership of the athletic department.
“Adding women’s flag football to the list of sports that we offer here at Florida Memorial University means that the amount of lives that we get to impact as an institution of higher education grows,” explains athletic director Ernest Jones. “More young women will have the opportunity to pursue their academic and athletic goals and potentially change their lives and their families’ lives. We look forward to building a (women’s) flag football program that follows in the footsteps of all our other sports programs — one that chases academic excellence and championships.”
This momentum all began back to 2020, when 15 NAIA schools declared their intent to create a varsity women’s collegiate flag football team. Each school was then granted a $15,000 stipend from the NFL to aid in the on-boarding process of the sport.
Adding to the momentum was the decision by the NFL to make some transformational changes to its Pro Bowl, beginning next year (2023) in Las Vegas. Chief among them was instead of the traditional tackle game, the Pro Bowl week will now serve as a week-long celebration of player skills featuring a new format that spotlights flag football.
The multi-day AFC versus NFC competition will culminate in a flag football game featuring Pro Bowl players at Allegiant Stadium,.
Seeing this investment by none other than the NFL, Carey’s Sporting Goods was quick to jump on the flag football bandwagon. “Flag football with youth is picking up here in Texas,” says owner Dan Carey, who is a firm believer in introducing youngsters to football with flag football even if the sales are a bit less than for tackle. The reason: Flag football keeps more young players involved instead of dropping out of tackle football because of safety concerns..
“Many youngsters have no business playing tackle football. They are too small,” says Carey, who truly believes youth tackle football should fade away. “With flag football, that may well be the direction that we should be headed because there are less injuries, it’s a sport where the big kids don’t have a physical advantage and they get to focus on having fun. I watch them playing flag football and they are having a blast.”
3rd Quarter Challenge
There are pockets of the U.S. where participation in football remains as strong as ever and then there are places where it’s experiencing a decline in participation. Many outside factors combine in this mixed bag.
For the first time in many years, youngsters in Holyoke, MA, are not playing tackle football in a local league and instead are playing flag football. This recent development was not what was expected as recently as a few months ago.
According to Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods, the last-minute change from tackle football to flag football was because Holyoke could not field enough youth tackle football teams for all the age groups in the locally organized Suburban Amateur Football League (SAFL) of Western Massachusetts. The verdict of no tackle football for children in Holyoke was a shock to the local football faithful.
“This is the first time in years that our children are not playing tackle football in the fall,” says Frey. Unfortunately, the decision to cancel tackle football did hurt Frey’s bottom line.
“Every year, I sell each football player a purple jersey, black pants with padding, cleats, a mouthpiece and an athletic supporter with a cup,” says Frey, but that happened a lot less this season. “Football is definitely on the decline in western Massachusetts.”
Starting in mid-October local kids were playing in a new fall flag football program and fall baseball also has record attendance, Frey reports. “I have sold a number of flag football belts for the eight teams in the fall league.”
Ironically, while the flag football and baseball players still purchase cleats from Frey, the demand has exceeded supply. “I’ve had a tough time getting cleats,” she says. “They might have to play in sneakers this fall.”
In another section of the country, participation in football at all levels is increasing in parts of Illinois, based on feedback from Pat Shanahan, sales rep at Eich’s Sports in Lemont, IL.
“Our football business was strong this fall and everybody is reporting bigger numbers,” says Shanahan, who sells lots of uniforms, footballs, equipment, tape and wrap. Supply chain delays were not an issue with apparel orders, he reports.
In the football hotbed of Florida, for 30 years children ages five to 15 have been playing tackle football in the villages like Wellington, FL, mostly under the banner of the Western Communities Football League (WCFL).
The playing fields at the local Village Park are some of the finest in the state and the quality of coaches has been strong, too, yet in recent years the participation numbers for the WCFL have been up and down. Looking back, the timing on the start of the WCFL was ideal.
“The WCFL was founded in 1992 and started as a tackle-only league,” explains WCFL president Marc Basis. “At the time, the demand for youth tackle football was high and there were limited other tackle options, as well as limited options for other sports.”
For many local team sports leagues around the U.S., 2020 was a year to forget. That was definitely the case for the WCFL.
“Unfortunately, we did not have a season in (Fall) 2020. COVID hit our league pretty hard,” says Basis. “We felt it was prudent to be cautious and the board decided to not have a season that year.”
According to Basis, the tackle football numbers are starting to rebound from 2020, as there are roughly 400 children playing in the WCFL this fall.
Out in In Terre Haute, IN, Doc Claussen reports that many recreational youth football programs are eliminating tackle football in favor of flag football.
In northern Ohio, participation in tackle football is on the upswing at the youth and middle school levels, according to Adler, of Rube Adler Sporting Goods.
“I’ve noticed an uptick in the numbers in our area for younger players,” says Adler, noting that some youth teams are also playing 7-on-7 football.
4th Quarter Opportunity
Women in Football
While a significant number of football fans are female, the same can’t be said for the number of female football players, but that’s a scenario which is getting ready to change.
For those females that want to play tackle football, USA Football has provided a national and international platform — the U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team. This summer the U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team’s focus was winning the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Championship in Finland.
To be a part of that team, the trials for the U.S. national team were held in Bradenton, FL, in February. The team was selected in April. The hard work paid off: the U.S. Women’s Tackle National Team defeated Great Britain in the final, 42-14, to claim the gold medal.
All of the previous efforts at women’s football leagues was prelude to a move in mid-October, when USA Football formed its Girls’ Football Advisory Council, which will provide leadership and guidance to the organization in its efforts to advance girls’ involvement in the football pathway. The council will seek to expand and promote fair and equitable access to opportunities and resources for girls and women in football.
USA Football, the sport’s national governing body and a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, advocates for and provides girls and women athletes, coaches and football leaders opportunities to realize their full potential in pursuit of athletic excellence.
“This is an era of unprecedented growth for girls and women in football as more communities, schools and universities expand offerings across flag and tackle in roles for athletes and coaches,” points out USA Football CEO and executive director Scott Hallenbeck. “The 12 members of our Girls’ Football Advisory Council are exceptional leaders and mentors in their fields. Their leadership and experience will benefit the girls and women we serve nationwide.”