The decline of football is real and it is accelerating

In 2014, former Kansas City chief Michael Oriard asked, “is football dying?At the time, that might sound like a ridiculous question. After all, the previous fall, National Football League games occupied the top 34 of the 35 most watched TV programs. Attendance at college football matches had just reached an all-time high, reaching more than 44 million participants, and more than 2.2 million boys 6 year olds in high school were playing the game.

But we didn’t know at the time, Oriard had accurately identified advanced football. Despite the continued popularity of the National Football League (NFL) in the United States, grid football more generally is in an era of rapid decline, and evidence suggests that the decline is accelerating. Here, I’ll show you the data that makes these conclusions compelling.

The figure below shows the decline in football across four metrics, youth and high school attendance, college football game attendance, and absolute Super Bowl viewership (for the various sources of this data, see this preprint).

According to data from the Aspen Institute and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), from 2008-19 to 2018-19, the total number of young people aged 6-18 playing football fell by more than 620,000 from around 2.5 million to less than 1.9 million . It seems almost certain that 2020 or 2021 will see overall high school participation in tackle football drop to less than a million players, a level not seen since 1998. In the same decade, participation in college games high level (Football Bowl Subdivision) decreased by almost 10% (by school).

Even the National Football League appears to have suffered the effects of the decline in football. The The Super Bowl lost over 12.5 million viewers from 2011 to 2019, falling to its lowest number of viewers since 1976, measured in a proportion of the American population. While 29.7% of the U.S. population is a large number of viewers in 2019 – 98.2 million people to be exact – it’s considerably smaller than the 114.4 million who watched New England defeat Seattle. in 2015 (and 35.7% of the population). And that’s not far from the 92.6 million who, 34 years ago, saw the Chicago Bears beat New England in the 1986 Super Bowl, representing 38.5% of the population.

Of course, while the trends for Super Bowl viewers are intriguing, as a business the NFL is very well insulated from any broader cultural shifts in attitudes towards football. Consider that in 2019 during the regular season, NFL TV ratings increased by 4.7 million viewers per game from a year ago. In 2019, among the 50 most watched TV shows, the NFL claimed 47 of them. There are about a million kids playing football in high school and nearly 30,000 players in Division 1 college programs. With 53 players on the active roster of each NFL team that means there are less than 1,600 players in total in the league. The pipeline of players that feed the NFL is strong, and will be even as it continues to shrink.

Despite the strength of the NFL, the broader decline of football in American culture is a matter of great concern in the sport and a subject of study among academics, but no consensus has been reached on what drives these trends. global.

However, some reasons behind the trends are more certain than others. In particular, there is little doubt that Junior Seau suicide in 2012, Will Smith in Concussion in 2015 and the emerging science of repetitive brain impacts and long-term neurological damage have cast a dark shadow on the sport.

As a result, it is clear from the data that parents increasingly prevent their young children from playing football and that high school students are choose to practice other sports. Studies show growing concerns of parents about the risk of concussion and an increased desire to see age-based restrictions on physical contact in sport. Such tensions around football violence are not new, as Kathleen Bachynski notes in her excellent book No games for boys to play, “football has attacked American consciousness for more than a century”.

Evidence also suggests that football is emerging as a more regional sport, with participation and interest more concentrated in the Southeast, roughly characterized by the 11 states with universities in the Southeastern Conference (SECOND).

This regionalization is clearly visible in the figure below, which shows US states characterized by increases (green undertones) or decreases (orange undertones) in high school football participation rates from the 2008-09 to 2018-19 school years. (NFHS data and updated from my analysis in this preprint).

Of the 7 states that saw increases and the 8 with the smallest declines (15 in total) in high school football participation from 2008-19 to 2018-19, eight SEC host universities and one border them (Oklahoma ). Only two states with SEC schools, Missouri and Arkansas, disagree with this relationship, having experienced significantly larger declines in attendance.

Outside of the Southeast, only Utah and Nevada have seen increasing participation over the past decade. The largest declines in high school participation have all occurred in the northern part of the states. Interestingly, every state that has seen a 20% or more drop in high school attendance in the past decade is north of Illinois.

The figure below shows the most recent changes in high school participation, from the 2017-2018 school year to 2018-2019. You have to be careful considering only the one-year change, but it looks like football’s decline continues from coast to coast and may even start to break through in the Southeastern United States.

Regionalization of football at youth and college level can be a growing process. Consider that of the top ten states that experienced increases (or smallest declines) in high school attendance from 2008-09 to 2018-19, seven are SEC states plus Oklahoma. These seven states alone have produced almost half of the best high school rookies (four- and five-star athletes as counted from 2013 to 2017) to all FBS universities. In contrast, the 25 states that experienced the largest decline in high school football participation in the same decade produced less than 20% of the top high school rookies in FBS schools.

If the data is not convincing enough, just look at the college football qualifiers, which has been dominated by universities from the southeast, a party crushed about a quarter of the time by universities from outside the region. The regionalization of football and its consequences will be the subject of a future column here, but to the extent that this assumption reflects developing trends, college football will likely be increasingly prompted to reorganize into national conferences, such as the NFL.

The decline of football has accelerated in recent years. The figure below shows that youth and secondary school participation declined much faster over the period 2014 to 2018 than it did from 2010 to 2014 (for the different sources of this data, see this preprint). Likewise, college attendance hardly changed from 2010 to 2014, but a 4% drop from 2014 to 2018. Total Super Bowl viewers increased from 2010 to 2014, but then fell by 8%. from 2014 to 2018.

The implications of the decline of football, and what it might mean for youth sport, American culture and its role as “king of sportWill be topics that I will continue to explore in future columns.

While football may not yet be on its deathbed, as Michael Oriard suggests, it is in a period of decline and rapid change. This week, enjoy the Super Bowl and know that the golden years of American football are unlikely to resemble the evolution of the sport in the 21st century.

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