Fourth & Long?
Already dealing with participation issues, football looks to rebound from pandemic challenges in 2021.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the sport of football in America is, in many respects, at a crossroads. It’s an incredibly popular sport, yet it’s played by a relatively small segment of the overall population – 99 percent of its participants are male and the overwhelming majority are under the age of 18 – and it has been beset by safety concerns at all levels for years now.
Yet, despite these demographics and headwinds, it continues to capture the attention of all age groups and remains, arguably, America’s New Pastime (Historical note: For a sport that is so strongly associated with the U.S., the roots of its existence actually trace back to the sport of rugby, to the 1830s at Rugby School in England when William Webb Ellis picked up a soccer ball with his hands and started running with it. It’s fair to say that if young William had not broken one of soccer’s golden rules, then American football fans probably would have never heard of Tom Brady.)
Fast forward to today. Football’s unique appeal and attraction have made it the cornerstone of team sports in the U.S. Look no further than how important is was this past fall for football to return to play at many levels under COVID-19 restrictions: When football is played safely in the U.S., it sends a strong signal that other sports can be played safely, too.
Despite all odds, football managed to bring people and communities together in the face of the pandemic. Yet significant issues remain and team dealers are bearing the brunt of the challenges headed into 2021.
Follow the Numbers
The allure, appeal and attraction of football remain undisputed. As does its importance to the team sports business, even though participation numbers were down along with all other youth sports in pandemic-era 2020.
Pop Warner Little Scholars executive director Jon Butler doesn’t have much positive news to share about the state of his national youth football program. Under normal circumstances, roughly 225,000 youngsters would play football and participate as cheerleaders under his watch each fall. This year, the numbers were down significantly.
“Only 10-15 percent of our teams played due to governmental and health department restrictions,” Butler reports. “Our programs [were] impacted by decisions made by local cities and counties,” with many programs making plans to play football this spring instead.
“While we support this idea, local programs will be competing for field space to play and practice because lacrosse and soccer programs are normally playing on those fields in the spring.”
In addition to the competition for field space, these Pop Warner programs may be competing for athletes, too.
“Many of our participants are multi-sport athletes,” adds Butler. “If youth football is being offered in the spring, it will force athletes to make a choice between football and another sport, which they have never had to do in the past.”
And even though its annual Super Bowl championship games, normally held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Lake in December, were cancelled, hope springs eternal for a return of Pop Warner Football in Fall 2021. Butler knows that his Pop Warner parents, coaches and players are ready to play football and bring a degree of normalcy to their lives.
“Right now, there’s lots of pent-up demand for kids playing sports,” says Butler. “Kids need to get out and play.”
Same Story at High School
At the important high school level, football was played since August, though there certainly were a number of postponements, delays and last-minute schedule changes along the way. It was a full-time job for dealers and organizers to keep up with a season unlike any other.
“No state completely canceled football — every state is either playing, postponing until spring or has adopted another form, such as 7-on-7 or one-hand touch, for the fall,” says Cody Porter, manager of media relations for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “In many instances, even if a state allowed tackle football this fall, it offered an alternative season for any school or district not interested in participation amidst the pandemic.”
NFHS executive director Dr. Karissa Niehoff remained focused on helping to devise strategies and ideas that have helped football be played safely for student-athletes and their coaches. These back-to-play strategies even impacted members of marching band and fans.
The NFHS’s advice and guidance on high school football for Fall 2020 started back in mid-May when the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee released a document that addressed the possible progression for returning to play for all school and athletic activities. To bring back sports, such as tackle football, strict hygiene practices were implemented, transportation to and from events was modified, social distancing was enforced and a tiered approach was designed to determine who should be allowed to attend events.
When it came to specific ideas on how to safely practice and play football, Niehoff says teams have used no-huddle offenses, cleaned their practice dummies more frequently, had very little full contact in practice, eliminated scrimmaging, practiced in small pods of players, did not use the same hydration stations during practice and decided to make locker room facilities off-limits to players.
Team Dealers Huddle Up
With all of this happening, America’s team dealers were caught in the middle of shipping product over the summer to prepare for the upcoming season, helping schools adhere to the strict safety guidelines put in place and reacting to near-constant changes in schedules. Dealers had front-row seats and for many the return of tackle football this past fall – and the sales that accompanied it – was a savior in an already difficult year.
Few would even think about considering what would have happened to their businesses if their number-one sport didn’t return in at least some form.
In Florida, there’s an old saying that there are two major sports played in the Sunshine State — football and spring football. Well, with spring football cancelled and the sport limping along in the fall, dealers in the state admittedly spent some sleepless nights wondering just how much business there would be in 2020.
(In Florida, the majority of private high school schools had a slight delay to the season, public schools in most parts of Florida modified their schedules, and the public schools in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties didn’t start their reduced seven-game reduced schedules until late October. The staggered start to the Florida football season, which was magnified by the cancellation of spring football, certainly added to the confusion.)
“Not having spring football was a kicker, as it always helps our annual football sales,” says Kevin Licata, manager of Medallion’s Sporting Goods in Jupiter, FL. “Our overall football sales have been down 50-60 percent.”
Clearly, the Fall 2020 selling season for Medallion’s wasn’t conducted under normal circumstances. One of its regular local football clients is the youth football program affiliated with the Jupiter-Tequesta Athletic Association (JTAA), whose season could best be described as start-stop-start-stop.
“The JTAA started its season, then stopped, then started again and then cut its schedule, which gave every team just a few games,” says Licata.
In the greater Vero Beach, FL, area, high school football started late because the return to class was delayed.
According to Becky Whipp, co-owner of Dave’s Sporting Goods in Vero Beach, once games were played there was still the challenge of catering to fans, usually a lucrative add-on business. As was the case around the U.S., each game only had a limited number of people allowed in the stands.
And while high school football moved forward, youth football leagues in that area of east-central Florida cancelled their seasons this past fall.
“Sadly, our youth football sales totally went away,” says Whipp. “Those leagues hope to return next fall.”
On a slightly more positive note, a number of high schools in the Vero Beach area that conduct powder puff football games for high school girls actually staged their games this fall. “The powder puff games feature junior girls against senior girls within each school,” explains Whipp. “And the boy football players coach the games. Those games are held in conjunction with homecoming and they played those games.”
No Normal in the Midwest
Florida certainly wasn’t the only region of the country negatively impacted by the pandemic. The high school football business this fall in the Midwest has been anything but business as usual.
Brent Compton, owner of Pacesetter Sports in Terre Haute, IN, reports that his football business this fall was closer to famine than feast. Because he’s located less than 10 miles from the Illinois-Indiana state line, he normally sells as much high school football in Illinois as he does in his home state.
High school football in Illinois was postponed, on orders from the Illinois governor, to Spring 2021. But thankfully high school football in Indiana was played, although under different circumstances.
“High school football has been played very successfully in Indiana,” says Compton. “But it’s been played with limitations — no fans and no concessions. My numbers are way down on fan merchandise.”
Compton admits that one of the difficulties of having competitive football this coming spring in Illinois is that there may be difficulties getting helmets reconditioned and returned to the high schools in time for the Fall 2021 football season — assuming there is a football season next fall.
“The limited time on getting helmets reconditioned will be very taxing and troublesome for reconditioning companies,” says Compton.
The problem was not relegated to the high school level, either. Local youth football leagues in the greater Terre Haute region saw participation down 35 to 40 percent.
In Michigan, it was an up and down year of selling football to local middle schools, youth leagues and high schools for Jack Pearl’s Sports Center in Battle Creek. The bad news started back in March when the coronavirus shut down schools.
“Schools didn’t want to buy helmets because they didn’t have approved budgets for spending,” says owner Keith Manning, who says he ended up making more money selling spirit wear than football product.
“High school teams in Michigan were allowed to practice for a week with no pads in early August,” recalls Manning. “Then football practices were shut down for three weeks. Then, in early September, the state athletic association changed its mind and announced that high school football teams were allowed to resume practicing and games would start in late September with a six-game regular season.”
Because of the start-stop-start nature of high school football in Michigan, it left Manning with lots of unsold inventory.
“I sold a fraction of what I normally sell this year,” he says.
One reason: Under normal circumstances, Manning sells youth 100 helmets and 100 shoulder pads to local leagues. He didn’t sell a single helmet or pad this year.
“Those 100 helmets and shoulder pads are paid for and none of them were sold,” adds Manning. “I’ll put them away and we’ll move them next year, but I’ll probably have to discount them a little because they will be a year old.”
A New England Downer
In Massachusetts, tackle football was non-existent this fall at the youth and high school level. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as hope springs eternal.
“Our local youth football and high school football seasons were cancelled,” says Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods, Holyoke, MA, who adds that there is talk of bringing back high school football this February, although nothing has been officially announced.
For Frey, the cancellation of the football season meant more than losing helmet and uniform sales. It also meant concessions and fan merchandise were not sold, which meant the revenue needed to buy gear and accessories next season was not raised.
And, since there was no football, there was no cheerleading. Then there is the trickle-down effect of not playing youth and high school football.
One bright spot for what football product she did sell: Face mask sales are way up.
For another bright spot, turn to Louisiana, where the youth football league business was “far better than expected,” according to Todd Girtman, owner of Cenla Sports in Alexandria, LA, who admits he was pleasantly surprised by sales to local youth football leagues.
“They were better than anticipated,” says Girtman. “It’s been a true blessing. We sell everything in football from head to toe.”
Girtman did benefit from the the national championship won by the LSU football team last year, but he certainly was not the only one that jumped on the LSU Tiger bandwagon.
“I did stock and sell some LSU items, but everybody in the whole state was selling LSU merchandise,” says Girtman.
“The sense of pride and camaraderie that the LSU football team created was amazing,” says Girtman, who refrained from concluding the interview by saying “Geaux Tigers.”
Deep in the heart of Texas, high school football was played on Friday nights this past fall, but it took some intense summer preparation and planning in order for the games to be played.
According to Dan Carey, owner of Carey Sporting Goods in Fort Worth, the season was slightly delayed, but it could have been cancelled had it not been for the leadership of local organizers.
“Our high school athletic directors and football coaches have been exceptional,” says Carey. “They worked long hours in meetings to help make something happen.”
From a dollars-and-cents perspective, Carey is thankful that local high school student-athletes in the greater Dallas/Ft. Worth area played football this fall.
“We’ve been very fortunate. Our football business is off a little, but it’s been bearable,” says Carey. “There were changes to the high school football schedules because of COVID-19, fans purchased tickets in advance and school staff were enforcing social distancing in the bleachers. These are truly interesting times.”
Meanwhile, Iowa was one of the few states that conducted sanctioned high school sports this past summer since high school baseball is always played in the summer in the Hawkeye State. According to Tyler Lutes, a sales rep at Iowa Sports Supply, Cedar Falls, IA, because the state had such a good experience with conducting its baseball season over the summer it provided the confidence that high school football could be played this fall. And, it was.
“The success of the baseball season set the tone for the football season,” says Lutes.
Iowa Sports Supply made most of its football revenue before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the nation, as uniform orders and helmet reconditioning orders were placed late last year or in January.
“Businesswise it really hasn’t been too bad this year for football,” says Lutes.
In Las Vegas, NV, the only football teams that played home games this fall were the NFL’s new Las Vegas Raiders and the Runnin’ Rebels from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
According to Jerry Okuda, owner of Turf Sporting Goods in Las Vegas, high school football teams never got on the field and youth football teams practiced in the area and then left the state to play games.
“Local youth football teams practiced here in Las Vegas and then traveled on weekends to Utah and Arizona to play games,” says Okuda.
The Hawaiian Solution
Way out in the Pacific, Stanley Costales, Jr., owner of Sports Line, Hilo, HI, reports that all fall high school sports were postponed in the Aloha State. But there’s talk of playing high school and youth football in Hawaii in early 2021, but even that plan brings potential downsides.
“If football is played in the spring, there may be issues with field space, having enough athletes and access to game officials,” Costales says. “Many football players are multi-sport athletes who normally play spring sports and football officials may be in short supply because many football officials are traditionally committed to officiating spring sports.”
Costales says football programs in Hawaii would be well served to have a short season that starts in January and is completed by the end of February.
“It’s a tough situation,” he admits. “We are no different than hotels and restaurants, which have been closed. We are open, but we are not doing very well. We are just trying to hang on.”
A Football Top 5 List
1. Downward Trend. According to the SFIA, overall participation in tackle football has dropped from 3.4 million participants in 2014 down to 2.7 million participants in 2019.
2. Children at Play. The SFIA’s participation study also reveals that just more than 60 percent of all football participants were age 6-17 in 2019, while more than 85 percent of all core football participants were aged 6-17 in 2019.
3. A Guy’s Game. Nearly 96 percent of all core participants in football are male.
4. Geography Lesson. The South Atlantic region of the U.S. has the largest number (nearly 22 percent) of core football players.
5. College Football. At the NCAA Division I, II and III levels, there were 73,712 football players on 672 NCAA teams in the 2018-19 school year, up from 58,710 football players on 624 NCAA teams in the 2000-01 school year.