Football still attracts the most young athletes, though participation has slipped in Nebraska and Iowa

Football still attracts the most young athletes, though participation has slipped in Nebraska and Iowa
Photo Courtesy: World-Herald News Service

Youth and high school football may have taken some hits in recent years because of concern about concussions, but the sport continues to be a strong contender in the sphere of youth activities.

Football remained the most popular high school sport in 2015-16, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual High School Athletic Participation Survey. Combined, more than 1.11 million young people, including some girls, participated in 6-, 8-, 9- and 11-player football.

That number topped the total number of boys and girls who participated in outdoor track and field — shy of 1.08 million — and basketball, nearly 976,000.

Among boys only, participation in 11-player football — 1,083,308 — was nearly double the next-highest sport by participation: outdoor track and field, with 591,133 participants.

Still, the combined total for football was down about 17,000 or 1.5 percent from a decade before.

Nate Neuhaus, assistant director for the Nebraska School Activities Association, said the decrease nationally adds up to a few players per school. Some of the shift may have to do with concerns about injury and the growing interest in soccer and other sports, he said.

Nationally, participation has been up and down over the past decade since appearing to peak at 1.14 million in 2008-09. Neuhaus and others said they have not seen a big move of athletes from football to soccer.

In Nebraska, some 12,804 youth players took to the football field in 2015-16, down about 1,800, or 12.5 percent, from 14,631 a decade ago. Boys and girls soccer were up around 20 percent, but other major sports were down slightly over the same period. The exceptions were baseball and softball.

But it’s difficult to determine what’s caused the state’s slippage in football. Football participation in the Omaha Public Schools has remained steady since 2008, said Steve Eubanks, the district’s athletic director, and actually has increased at the majority of the district’s seven high schools.

Iowa’s 19,600 football players in 2015-16 fell 9.9 percent shy of the number a decade ago. But as in Nebraska, the sport still leads the way in participation.

Todd Tharp, assistant director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association and its football administrator, said he couldn’t necessarily link the decrease in football participation to concerns about concussion. Iowa, with continued school consolidation, has fewer schools playing football. Boys soccer participation in Iowa has increased nearly 34 percent over the past decade. The high school version is played in spring and football in the fall.

Nationally, more than 6.2 million people age 6 or older participated in tackle football in 2015, up 4.1 percent from 2014, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Of those, 3.38 million participated more than 26 times a year. However, average annual growth over five years was a negative 1.8 percent.

Participation nationally in Pop Warner, which factors a player’s size into team assignments and requires Heads Up Football training for coaches, was down nationally from 2010 to 2012 and has been flat thereafter. League officials are expecting a slight increase this year.

Locally, participation in youth football is difficult to track. Local youth leagues have undergone some remodeling over the past several years for a variety of reasons, including the cyclical nature of youth league leadership.