If the late Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn “Pop” Warner, two of the trailblazers who led the movement to take rugby union football and evolve it into the game of American gridiron football, were alive to today they would be more than impressed with the state of the game they helped shape. It’s also fair to say the two visionaries might be shocked to see how helmets have improved from leather to high-performing plastic, how playing surfaces have evolved from natural grass to artificial turf, how high-tech uniforms and cleats have become colorful and comfortable and how the sport of flag football is now being played and enjoyed by both boys AND GIRLS and people of all ages.
In that spirit of the sport, let’s explore the state of the game in a format everyone can understand.
Pre-Game ‘Chalk Talk’
Trending in the right direction. That’s one way to paraphrase the football business at the youth level now in the U.S. Football on-the-field is as entertaining and attractive as it has ever been, but the business of selling football is still somewhat of an option play, for the lack of a better term — the process of selling football is alive, well and thriving for many team dealers, while it’s a struggle at times for others, according to feedback from the team dealer community in the U.S.
In Terre Haute, IN, the football business is rock-solid for Pacesetter Sports, which delivers football product to teams ranging from local youth football programs to a team in the National Football League.
“Our biggest football customers are youth football programs and high school football programs in the area,” reports owner Brent Compton, who says his football customers also include NCAA Division III programs and the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.
“We sell everything that football teams need, starting with helmets and shoulder pads. We also sell cleats, mouthguards, gloves for linemen and receivers, sublimated jerseys, footballs and field equipment such as blocking sleds and tackling dummies,” adds Compton. Pacesetter also has a retail store to capture the individual customer.
To help cater to the needs of its football clients, Pacesetter Sports hosts a one-day football exhibit in early December that is attended by roughly 50 football coaches from youth programs to high school.
“This December 7, we will host the 23rd Annual Pacesetter Football Show,” Compton says. Exhibitors will include Fisher, Champro, Light Helmets, Augusta/Holloway, Pennant, Under Armour, Shock Doctor and Founder Sport Group.
As for any supply chain issues, Compton and his crew at Pacesetter Sports are not as concerned about supply chain issues as they used to be. “I hope that supply chain issues are a thing of the past.”
In Kentucky where basketball is always king, the football business has picked up and has rebounded so quickly that it appears to be as brisk for H & W/Duke’s Sports as the basketball business has always been.
“It’s been a good year selling football,” reports owner Shawn Hord, who sells to high schools and middle schools and does some business with a few college football programs, including Campbellsville University.
“We sell all the hard goods, such as helmets, shoulder pads and blocking sleds as well as uniforms, cleats, footballs and customized wind screens.”
According to Hord, the football business has returned so strongly that there’s no lingering hangover at all from the COVID pandemic. Even better, supply chain issues are no longer a regular concern.
Meanwhile, in western Massachusetts, the football business is a reflection of early-season play of the New England Patriots: poor and lackluster. According to Betsy Frey, the owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods in Holyoke, MA, her football business is average at best and it has not returned to where it was pre-COVID.
“It is not what it used to be,” says Frey. “Right now, not as many kids are playing football as they used to. Football has never been a big category for us, but the numbers are even lower now than pre-COVID.”
With her football business limited to selling to nine local high schools as well as the local youth league, the fact that the local youth football league has been struggling to attract registrations has negatively impacted football-related sales. In fact, sign-ups for the league were so poor last year that the local youth league was canceled in 2022.
There is one outside factor which positively impacts sales and interest in football in western Massachusetts. “When the New England Patriots do well, local interest and participation in football gets stronger.”
Out in Missouri, tackle football gear, equipment and soft goods are being ordered, paid for and delivered, but the dynamics around the sport have changed in the Show-Me State.
“High school football is a reflection of the local economy,” explains Mike Weir, owner of Red Weir Athletic Supplies in Columbia, MO. “Industry has moved out and we are now more of a farming community, which means we have fewer people in the area. As a result, many schools have less than 30 players on the football team, so they are playing eight-man football rather than 11-man football.”
From a sales perspective, uniform sales for Red Weir Athletic Supplies have been average this past fall and it’s been a struggle selling helmets and shoulder pads.
“The reconditioning issue has been slowed by not having enough parts,” he says. “It is getting better, though.”
One bright spot on the local football scene has been the emergence of a local summer flag football league for young boys. Last summer more than 300 boys, age sixth grade and younger, played in the league.
Another outside factor impacting interest and participation in Missouri is how well the University of Missouri Tigers football team plays each fall. So far, so good this season.
Out west in Las Vegas, Turf Sporting Goods owner Jerry Ocuda “beat the odds” of supply chain issues affecting his ability to deliver football products to teams and players by ordering everything six months in advance. So, when football season rolled around this year, he was ready to deliver upon request to local youth football leagues and some area high schools.
“With our local leagues, everything is purchased by the parents,” says Ocuda. “We offer a package deal that includes a helmet, shoulder pads and practice pants and if they need any additional items, such as cleats or a practice jersey, I give a team discount on those purchases.”
Ocuda is already making plans for the 2024 football season: “I’ve already placed my football orders for next year.”
In the Southeast, one of the service attributes of Baker’s Sporting Goods in Jacksonville, FL, is its ability to recondition the football helmets in-house. For its high school teams, Baker’s collects the helmets as soon as the season comes to an end, with the goal of having them reconditioned and returned in time for spring football practice.
According to Joel Dunn, one of Baker’s salesmen in south Florida, he’s very busy with high school clients in November and December getting uniform and equipment orders placed for the next fall.
“Our goal is to get all orders placed by February of every year so we get everything back in time for the beginning of the season in August,” Dunn explains.
Baker’s has established itself as one of the leading team dealers in the Southeast, especially in football circles.
“We sell to five colleges, at least 200 high schools and roughly 80 youth football programs in Florida, Georgia and Alabama,” says owner Josh Baker, adding that the dealer also reconditions between 35,000 and 38,000 football helmets a year.
In addition to Baker’s Sporting Goods, Baker also owns a separate company that manufactures shoulder pads under the Pro Sport label, a popular item with the football teams that buy from Baker’s.
And out West in Colorado Springs, CO, the football business for Blick Sporting Goods “wasn’t that good” in 2021 and 2022, according to owner Chuck Melbuer, but it has been better this year although the uniform business has not been as profitable as it has been in past years.
“I think many schools decided to get another year out of their uniforms,” says Melbuer, who does business with junior high schools and high school throughout the entire state. “Next year should be a better year for football uniform sales.”
Participation & Sales Trends
Flag Football Data. Flag football’s popularity is soaring in the U.S. and internationally. The annual participation study from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reveals that in 2022, in terms of overall participation, there were 7.1 million flag football players in the U.S., of which 5.8 million are male and 1.3 million are female. Of those 7.1 million, 2.4 million are classified as core participants who play 13 days or more a year; 40 percent of all flag football players are age 6-17 year olds; and 55 percent are between the ages of 6 and 24.
More Flag Facts: More than 59 percent of players are Caucasian; 51 percent are from households that make at least $75,000 a year; 42 percent have not earned a high school diploma; and 25 percent live in the South Atlantic region.
Besides playing flag football, the five most popular athletic and recreational activities for flag football players are basketball, bowling, baseball, camping and working out on the treadmill.
Tackle Football Data. According to SFIA, overall participation in tackle football – for ages six and above – is trending in the right direction, but has not made a complete recovery from concerns ranging from concussions and overall safety to the COVID pandemic.
On the plus side, in 2022, there were 5.4 million tackle football players, up from 5.1 million in 2019. However, there were only 2.3 million core participants — those who play 26 days or more a year. By contrast, in 2019 there were 2.7 million core players and in 2017 there were 3.1 million.
Not surprisingly, 91 percent of all football players in the U.S. are male and 60 percent are between the ages of six and 17.
High School Tackle Football Findings. Eleven-player tackle football remains the most popular high school sport, with more than one million participants, according to the NFHS. In fact, the 2022-23 school year saw an increase of 54,969 players, up 5.6 percent from the previous year.
Not only did 11-player football top the one-million mark, the increase was the first one for the sport since 2013 and only the second increase since the all-time high of 1.1 million in the 2008-09 school year.
There also was a slight gain – from 34,935 to 35,301 – in the number of boys playing 6-player, 8-player and 9-player football.
Girls Got Game, Too. The number of girls playing football – particularly flag football – continues to climb as well. A total of 20,875 girls players in 2022-23, an increase of 32 percent from 2021-22. According to the NFHS, seven states now sponsor a state championship in girls’ flag football and more are in the planning stages. Since 2021-22, the number of girls playing 11-player football increased by 18 percent with 3654 participants.
Put together, boys and girls participation in all versions of high school football increased from 1,028,976 to 1,089,880 – a jump of six percent – from 2021-22 to 2022-23.
High School Flag Football Figures. According to the NFHS, the top five states with the most female high school flag football players are Florida (7809 participants), Georgia (3866), Nevada (1508), New York (1020 and Alabama (665). Other states with girls playing high school flag football include California and Alaska.
Flag vs. Tackle. Based on figures from the SFIA, there are more flag football players (1.8 million) in the U.S. between the ages of six and 12 than there are tackle football players (1.4 million).
NFL Backs Flag Football. NFL Flag, the official flag football organization of the NFL, offers youth athletes a fun, inclusive, non-contact sport. NFL Flag serves more than half a million children and operates more than 1600 local leagues.
Pigskin Profits. From a spending perspective, football keeps the cash registers ringing for team dealers and sporting goods retailers. According to the SFIA’s Manufacturers Sales by Category Report, wholesale sales of football gear (footballs, protective gear, blocking sleds, goal posts and accessories) reached $662.5 million in 2022, up 6.5 percent from $621.9 million in 2021.
Flag Football @ 2028 LA Olympics
Olympic Dreams Come True. The BIG news for the sport of football is that flag football will debut as an Olympic sport at the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2028. In mid-October the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the addition of flag football, paving the way for USA Football’s U.S. National Teams to make their Olympic debut. The IOC’s decision came after the LA28 Organizing Committee recommended flag football and four other sports (cricket, baseball/softball, lacrosse and squash) for inclusion.
Flag football in the Olympics will be a 5-on-5 game played on a 50-yard field. There are no offensive and defensive linemen.
According to LA Olympics chairman Casey Wasserman, the new sports are “relevant, innovative and community-based, played in backyards, schoolyards, community centers, stadiums and parks across the U.S. and the globe.”
Who Plays for the U.S.? USA Football, the sport’s governing body, is the organization responsible for selecting and leading the U.S. National Teams.
“We are incredibly thankful to the IOC and LA28 Organizing Committee for recognizing flag football as a sport worthy of inclusion in the Olympic Games and we share our excitement and celebrate this historic occasion with the millions of flag football players across our country,” says Scott Hallenbeck, CEO of USA Football. “The decision to add flag football to the 2028 Summer Olympic program in Los Angeles is an acknowledgment of the sport’s tremendous international growth and appeal as a fast, exciting and competitive sport.”
According to Hallenbeck, this decision by the IOC confirms that USA Football’s year-round efforts to promote football and flag football did not fall on deaf ears.
“USA Football works tirelessly to support the sport’s exponential growth at all levels by encouraging the creation of more pathways to play and inclusion in the Olympic Games will have a transformative impact on our sport — from the grassroots level to our elite U.S. National Teams,” Hallenbeck adds. “As the governing body of American football in the United States, we are committed to continuing to work closely with IFAF, the USOPC and the NFL as we pursue our collective efforts to grow the game for current and future generations.”
The Gronk Speaks: Now that flag football is going to be in the Olympics, none other than recently retired NFL star Rob Gronkowski has weighed in with an offer to join the national squad. “Hopefully there’s no tryouts and they just accept me,” Gronkowski said. “But I’m in. USA going all the way!”
Youth Football With Pop Warner
After a well-documented COVID-fueled dip in enrollment along with most other team sports, youth football is experiencing a bounce back. One of the reasons is certainly because of steps taken to make sure it has never been safer, according to Pop Warner Little Scholars executive director Jon Butler, who has been leading the Pop Warner Football program for the last 32 years.
“Since 1929, Pop Warner has been the prominent youth football organization in America,” Butler tells Team Insight from his Langhorne, PA, office. “For decades, we’ve provided kids in communities all across the country an opportunity to play football. As the game has evolved, we’ve evolved with it and, at many times, spearheaded the way.”
According to Butler, participation in Pop Warner’s youth football program is higher now than during pre-COVID pandemic levels. And from a safety perspective Pop Warner has led the charge to make the game safer and better for young players – for ages 5 to 15 – by instituting a number of measures and protocols over the past decade.
“Pop Warner was the first football organization to reduce the amount of physical contact in practices,” notes Butler. “We removed the three-point stance and kickoffs for our younger ages and mandated coaching education around how to teach blocking and tackling — all guided by a medical advisory board made up of physicians, researchers, neurosurgeons, sports medicine and concussion specialists.
“And, while not specific to safety, we are implementing a program that will improve behavior of players, coaches, fans and parents. We want the experience of playing youth football to be something positive that influences the lives of these kids for years to come.”
The Pop Warner Little Scholars program, which has been in existence since 1929, is present in 35 states.
“We have hundreds of community associations that run local youth football programs,” Butler explains. “Our largest level of participation is for eight-to-11-year olds and the number of players on a team averages around 26.”
In addition to tackle football, Pop Warner has a widely respected cheer and dance program and a flag football initiative, which is inclusive of all young athletes who want to participate in a sport, compete and be part of a team.
When children are registered to play tackle football under the Pop Warner banner, their registration fee covers paying for helmets, shoulder pads, uniforms, officiating fees, insurance, field usage and lighting. It’s the responsibility of the players to buy cleats, practice pants, practice jerseys, socks and gloves.