The good news: Football is still the most popular sport in America for high school boys. A total of 14,247 high schools sponsored 11-man football in 2018, with 1,006,013 boys dotting those rosters, putting football well ahead of track and field (605,354), basketball (540,769) and baseball (482,740), according to a survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations released last month.
The bad news: That 1.006 million figure is the sport’s lowest in nearly 20 years. The last time the nation’s high school football participation figure stood this low was 1999, when 1,002,734 players participated in the sport.
The United States population was 279.3 million in 1999; it stands at an estimated 327.2 million today. This means that one in every 278.5 US citizens played high school football in 1999; today, that ratio stands at one in every 325.2.
Total participation peaked in 2008, when 1,112,303 boys (one in every 273.5 US citizens) and has been in decline in the decade since. While participation fell in small, steady increments in the first part of the previous decade — only one year between 2009 and ’15 saw a 1 percent decrease, and 2013 actually saw a slight uptick — the last three years have seen participation rates in free fall.
|Year||Participation||Year Over Year Change||Change From Peak|
If 2019 sees another decrease, 11-man football participation among high school boys could drop below 1 million for the first time since 1998, when the United States had 51 million fewer citizens.
As SB Nation’s Matt Brown pointed out in his Extra Points newsletter, Texas, Alabama, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Nevada and Utah have actually seen their respective participation rates increase, but at a minuscule rate (Utah gained a total of nine players) compared to the states losing players. California, for instance, lost 12,435 players from 2014 to ’18, which is the equivalent of the entire state of Kansas dropping high school football.
Additionally, Illinois lost more than 8,500 players, New York lost 7,900, Michigan lost 5,470 and Wisconsin lost 3,100. Football-mad Ohio lost 2,800 players over a 4-year period.
Other notes, according to Forbes:
— As referenced when compared to the overall United States population, though today’s raw numbers are similar to 1998-99, the per capita numbers are actually well below that. In 1998-00, 26 percent of high school boys involved in sports played football. Today, that number is 22 percent.
— Most of the states seeing increases in participation saw that increase because the number of schools sponsoring football went up, not because more boys went out for the sport at existing football-sponsoring school. For instance, football-sponsoring schools had an average of 79 total players in their program in 2008-09; today, that number is 70.6 total players in the program. In Texas, the average program had 153.3 total players in 2016 and just 125.6 in 2018.
Football is not the only sport losing players, however. It’s not even the sport losing the most players the fastest; that would be girls’ basketball, which fell 3.2 percent year over year and has fallen 10.2 percent since its 2008-09 peak, according to Forbes.
Overall, 7.937 million high school students participated in school-sponsored athletics in 2018-19, a slight drop from the 2017-18 peak of 7.980 million but a strong increase from the 7.536 million of 2008-09.