Is football dying? By the Numbers

Submitted by Blueblood2991 on July 29th, 2015 at 4:23 PM

After seeing XtraMelanin’s post about the decline of football yesterday, my interest was sparked.  I’m recovering from surgery and have way too much time on my hands, so I figured I’d dive into the numbers to see if I could find any trends.  Xtra’s thread provoked a lot of good debates.  Unfortunately, due to each state having their own high school athletic organization, it takes awhile for the NFHS to compile all of the data.  Statistics for last year won’t be available until the end of this year.

Who are the big players in High School Football?

I will focus on the ten largest states by participation; Otherwise there is just too much data.  These numbers are for male football athletes during 2014.


State Participants
Texas 164,554
California 103,474
Illinois 47,068
Ohio 44,431
Florida 40,606
Michigan 39,963
North Carolina 36,273
New York 35,552
Georgia 32,979
Wisconsin 26,680

Argument: Football participation corresponds directly to population

Let's take a look at how population has changed over the last decade.


State Population 2014 Population 2004 Percentage Change
Texas 26,956,958 22,490,022 19.8
California 38,802,500 35,893,799 8.1
Illinois 12,880,580 12,713,634 1.3
Ohio 11,594,163 11,459,011 1.1
Florida 19,893,297 17,397,161 14
Michigan 9,909,877 10,112,620 -2
North Carolina 9,943,964 8,541,221 16.4
New York 19,746,227 19,227,088 2.7
Georgia 10,097,343 8,829,383 14.3
Wisconsin 5,757,564 5,509,026 4.5

And now, football participation over the last decade:


State Participants 2014 Participants 2004  
Texas 164554 158575 3.63
California 103474 95504 7.7
Illinois 47068 49114 -4.1
Ohio 44431 44786 -0.7
Florida 40606 35993 12.8
Michigan 39963 42717 -6.4
North Carolina 36273 25449 42.5
New York 35552 33410 6.4
Georgia 32979 27047 21.9
Wisconsin 26680 30053 -11.2

Findings: While Michigan was the only state whose population has declined over the last decade, four states saw declines in football participation.  It is hard to ignore what population growth has done for North Carolina and Georgia. 

Argument: The birth rate is on the decline.

Unfortunately, I was finding conflicting data for the birth rates during the time when high school athletes for my parameters were being born so I'd rather not go off of that.  However, using the US Census estimates, I was able to get the number of 14-17 year old males in each state and compare to those playing in 2014.

State Males 14-17 years old Percentage playing football
Texas 795,671 21
California 1,060,283 10
Illinois 353,058 13
Ohio 317,032 14
Florida 482,182 8
Michigan 275,155 15
North Carolina 263,117 10
New York 497,089 7
Georgia 286,185 12
Wisconsin 154,191 17

Findings: Not a lot.  I was actually surprised at how high the football interest was in Michigan.

Argument: The economy dictates how many participate in football.

When the recession hit 2008ish, many schools were faced with budget cuts.  Some had to cut programs, or make them pay to play.


Year Schools offering football
2004 13,680
2005 13,671
2006 13,727
2007 13,922
2008 13,987
2009 14,105
2010 14,226
2011 14,279
2012 14,241
2013 14,048
2014 14,262
Year National Football Participants
2004 1,032,682
2005 1,045,494
2006 1,093,234
2007 1,104,548
2008 1,108,286
2009 1,112,303
2010 1,109,278
2011 1,108,441
2012 1,095,993
2013 1,086,627
2014 1,093,234

Findings: The recession did not affect football as a whole.

Argument: Kids these days are lazy.  They would rather play video games than a sport. Now get off my lawn.

Year Total Male Athletes
2004 4,038,253
2005 4,110,319
2006 4,206,549
2007 4,321,103
2008 4,372,115
2009 4,422,662
2010 4,455,740
2011 4,494,406
2012 4,484,987
2013 4,490,854
2014 4,527,994

Findings: The number of high school athletes have trended upward in the last decade.

Argument: Kids are playing other sports instead of football

Findings: Hard to argue with that.  The total number of athletes has increased consistantly, while the football player numbers have had a bit of a ebb and flow.

Argument: Concussion research has hindered athletes from playing football.

I will refer again to this chart:

Year National Football Participants
2004 1,032,682
2005 1,045,494
2006 1,093,234
2007 1,104,548
2008 1,108,286
2009 1,112,303
2010 1,109,278
2011 1,108,441
2012 1,095,993
2013 1,086,627
2014 1,093,234

Findings: There was a fairly dramatic decrease in football participation between 2011 and 2012.  As you all remember, Junior Seau shot himself in May of 2012 and sparked the debate about long term concussion effects.  This correlation cannot be ignored.

I couldn't find hard data about younger football players.  The Wall Street Journal has reported that Pop Warner Football participation is down 6% since 2008.  My guess is that more parents are discouraging their children from playing during crucial brain development years, but then letting them make their own decision once they get to high school.

Argument: Undereducated parents are more likely to risk their children's health playing football on the off chance it may be their ticket out of poverty.

Findings: False.  According to a study done by The Child Trends Databank, parents with graduate degrees are the most likely to allow their children to play football.

I will be interested to see if high school football participation will continue to trend up once the new numbers are released.

Sources: , ,



July 29th, 2015 at 4:51 PM ^

The argument about 'undereducated parents' being more likely to risk their children's health is a red herring. What you are seeing in that graph is the relationship between income and the probability that one's school district has a football program, and that one's teenage kid doesn't have to work and has the time to play football, and one has been able to pay for keeping thier kid involved in a sport through the years. And of course the fact that the lesser educated parents are more likely to be immigrants whose kids don't play football. Parental education is a proxy for household income here. 

Also, I don't know who is arguing about the birth rate being on the decline: prior to an uptick last year, it was in steady decline after the recession. The population continued to grow due to net immigration. 

I think the impact of the concussion debate is interesting and your numbers seem to show something happening there. Also the general trend in kids playing other sports is interesting and no doubt related to the higher proportion of children born to Hispanic families, who are generally more likely to be interested in soccer. 

Ron Utah

July 29th, 2015 at 5:08 PM ^

Thanks for the data.  Polls don't determine what's going on in the world, and neither do anecdotes.  It's good to have some raw numbers to look at and consider.


July 29th, 2015 at 7:26 PM ^

Fathers often *made* their sons play football. Inter alia to toughen us up given we might be drafted into the military. Today that might constitute "child abuse" given our feminizing society. I was raised by the eventual vice president of the football boosters in my football crazy town to kill my fucking opponent if I could, and I almost did that by "ringing their bells." When I wasn't tasked with that I was training to kill my fucking opponents in the boxing ring and on the wrestling mats. The pool of nurtured battlebots is shrinking for many reasons and in part it's is due to cultural shifts that portend future changes good or bad as you perceive them. 0.02


July 30th, 2015 at 9:18 AM ^

Your description of your point is a little bit "colorful", but it is quite accurate.  

I grew up in a town just as you described.  We played football in the fall, wrestled in the winter, and played baseball in the spring.  It was a meat-and-potatoes menu.  There was nothing else available except basketball and track.  No "sissy" sports as they would describe them, like soccer or volleyball.

The emphasis was on toughness.  Always toughness.

For better or worse, times have indeed changed.  My old high school can barely field a football team and they are uncompetitive.  Meanwhile they win state championships in soccer, which was not even offered when I was there.  

 The culture changes over time.  We can look back now and tsk tsk the way it was, but it was very real just as you described.



July 30th, 2015 at 9:05 AM ^

The media frenzy about concussions (and resulting lawsuits) has intensified over the last year.  It will be intwresting to see what these numbers look like two years from now when the impact of that affects youth that are coming up through the system.  

I suspecct that you will see these numbers trending down significantly.

Another useful statistic if available, would be the number of schools dropping football or failing to field a team.  This is clearly a trend on the upswing due to lack of participation and fear of lawsuits. 


July 30th, 2015 at 11:03 AM ^

I am from India and I love football. However my son, like sons of many other friends who are from India and like football, does not have the frame or physic to play football. I don't think this part of the population is statistically significant yet to contribute to this study, but something to think about as the population make up changes in certain parts of the US.


July 30th, 2015 at 6:38 PM ^

thank you for taking the time to do so.  my take away is that football is down a few percentage points in the 14-17 range.   however, it may be significantly down in the 8-13 yr range, and that is the pipeline that is going to matter in just a couple of years.   


August 1st, 2015 at 10:40 AM ^

is over 65 and I have to believe a good majority of those moved there after raising children.

Someone correct if I'm wrong, but I don't think Florida has that many high schools that even play football, certainly compared to its overall population.