Is “America’s Game” on the Decline or the Rebound

At the time of this article’s writing, the Los Angeles Rams had just defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in another Super Bowl seen by hundreds of millions of people across the United States.

Baseball may be the ‘Nation’s Pastime,’ but almost every Sunday between October and February proves football is ‘America’s Game.’

But some have questioned if the love affair between the country and football burns as strong as it once did, and some evidence points to a “no” to that question.

According to statista.com, the number of people over the age of six playing tackle football in the United States has declined from 8.4 million in 2006 to 5.16 million in 2018.

According to data from statista.com, in 2018, 5.16 million people over the age of six participated in tackle football in the U.S. By comparison, there were 8.4 million people playing in that age range in 2006, representing a 48 percent decline in 12 years.

Participation numbers began declining heavily in the late 2000s, falling under six million in 2011.

The numbers mostly increased between 2012 and 2015 before beginning to drop again, declining almost 19 percent in three years alone between 2016 and 2019.

Participation in high school football specifically has also taken a hit, according to 2020 data from The National Federation of High Schools. The organization reports in the 2018-19 season, there were 1.006 million students involved in football. This is a decrease of more than 100,000 over the previous decade.

While these statistics may paint a gloomy picture for the sport, Jon Butler, executive director of Pop Warner, the country’s largest youth football program, says one must look at the bad news while finding the silver linings within.

Butler acknowledges to SportsEvents “at the youth and high school level, participation in football has been declining” for some time.

Pop Warner has banned kickoffs in three of its youngest age divisions. Organization CEO Jon Butler says kickoffs were leading to a “disproportionate” number of injuries.

He says football was outright banned in some locations during the height of COVID-19 restrictions and at this moment, it is difficult to establish a fully informed perspective on the status of youth football.

“It is tough to tell because nobody’s number is back to where they were pre-COVID. With that said, we do fully expect to eventually be back at pre-COVID numbers, if not higher,” Butler said.

As for what caused the decline in youth football participation even before the pandemic, Butler says the “tremendous amount of attention on concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)” was a major contributing factor to parents pulling their children from the sport.

Butler feels the negative impact has begun to wear off, and participation in the sport will begin to improve. This headway will be “gradual,” in his view.

Some encouraging data recently came out of Los Angeles, host of this year’s Super Bowl.

As reported by The New York Times in mid-February, “a survey conducted by the LA84 Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports youth sports programs, found that 17.1 percent of children ages 6 to 17 in 2019 played either tackle or flag football in Los Angeles County. That is a 2 percent increase from 2018, and officials said they have seen a boost during the pandemic in participation in youth leagues.”

While he says a great deal of information regarding concussions and CTE has been “disproven,” Butler explains Pop Warner did take steps to make the game safer for young players.

In the 2018-19 season, there were 1.006 million students playing high school football, the lowest number since 1999, and a decline of more than 100,000 over the previous decade.

Firstly, the organization banned the three-point stance among its youngest players, replacing it with a two-point stance.

“We’ve also done away with kickoffs, as there is a disproportionate number of injuries on those plays,” Butler says.

He is the first to admit these decisions were not made without any pushback, but according to him, it was more from coaches than from parents.

“In one instance, I got a lengthy voicemail overnight from a coach. He ranted and ranted, saying ‘Are you going to make them wear pink tights next,” he said.

From Butler’s perspective, most parents were relieved with the changes made by Pop Warner.

Whereas participation may show a decline in interest on the field, he says the cultural impact of the game is still alive and well.

“When you go to either a high school or college campus, there is no other activity that brings as many people together in this politicized day and age,” he said.

On a personal note, Butler shared a story about the pure spectacle of seeing 3500 people attend a football game of a New Jersey high school with a student body of 800.

Regarding the negative press football received in the early half of the 2010s due to the concussion issue, Butler thinks it opened the floodgates for critics of the game.

“I think for a long time there was a minority of people who didn’t like the game but were not too vocal about it,” he said, adding he believes the sport has weathered through that criticism.

“Everything I’ve read shows the NFL has record attendance and record viewership this season,” Butler said.

Throughout the pandemic, the cost of living has become a bigger issue for more Americans as inflation and the price of necessities such as housing and groceries increase.

Butler doesn’t believe this had too much of an impact on participation in football, as the overhead costs are not high.

“Almost all the local programs buy the equipment and jerseys, so most of the parents are renting them,” he points out.

While Pop Warner “does its best” to make the game more accessible and affordable for youth across the nation, Butler said most of these programs are “locally-driven.”

At least one-third of Pop Warner players are in areas faced with socio-economic challenges, he adds.

One last stat to ponder regarding football’s standing. This year’s Super Bowl drew 112 million viewers in the U.S, up 16 million from 2021, which were the worst ratings in 15 years.