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Fourth and Long for Football in America

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Going back an extra season for accurate numbers, the big-picture participation numbers for tackle football in the U.S. remain solid, if not spectacular. (COVID-19’s impact was so severe that the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) didn’t conduct a high school sports participation study for 2020.) But they are enough to keep the sport on top of the team participation pile for dealers.

According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) most recent Topline Participation Report, there were 5.1 million tackle football players (age six and older) in the U.S. in 2019. That’s a 17.9 percent decline from the 6.2 million football players in 2015; going back to 2011, tackle football participation in the U.S. reached a high of 6.4 million participants.

The most revealing participation statistical trend for tackle football remains the steady drop in the number of “core” football players. Back in 2012, there were 3.7 million of them; that number has declined every year since then and, in 2019, the number of core tackle football players was down to 2.7 million – 85 percent of whom are age 6-17.

Because of the lack of a national, club-like structure in the U.S. which keeps people playing team sports well into their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond, tackle football remains a true pyramid structure-like sport where only the best and most driven players continue into their late teenage years and beyond.

The High School Numbers

Despite that negative trend, at the high school level during the 2018-19 school year there was only one boys’ high school sport with more than one million participants —11-player tackle football, according to the NFHS.

During the 2018-19 school year, a total of 1,006,013 student-athletes played high school football, which nevertheless is a 9.7 percent drop from the 1,114,253 football participants during the 2016-17 school year.

The most revealing participation statistical trend for tackle football remains the steady drop in the number of “core” football players.

Football ranks fifth in the number of high schools that sponsor a program at 14,247 schools, which is a slight increase from the 14,047 in 2016-17. (As an aside, basketball ranks number one with 18,617 schools.)

The top 10 states for high school tackle football participation are Texas (165,641 participants), California (91,305), Florida (40,361), Ohio (39,794), Illinois (38,366), Michigan (33,868), Alabama (32,366), Georgia (31,904), New York (27,652) and North Carolina (26,969).

While 11-player tackle football is what attracts the overwhelming majority of participants, there are other versions of high school tackle football that require fewer players. For instance, six-player football is played in eight states, eight-player football is played in 22 states and nine-player football is played in four states.

And while tackle football is dominated by young males, it is not the exclusive domain of teenage boys. In the 2018-19 school year, girls played 11-player high school tackle football in 38 states, led by California (593 girls), Texas (210) and New Jersey (208).

It’s also worth noting that girls are playing six-player football in six states, eight-player football in 16 states and nine-player football in two states.

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May 27, 2021

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