Each summer, the Michigan High School Athletic Association issues several news releases that, together, help to inform us about the health of high school sports in Michigan. These include reports regarding participation and attendance.
The first of these releases will occur later this month when we report on participation and make comparisons to previous years. Later, there will be a report of how participation in Michigan compares to other states.
Without going into detail now, I’ll preempt the first release to provide its biggest news – football participation was down about five percent in grades 9-12 in 2016 compared to 2015.
The decline in number of schools sponsoring 11-player football is matched by the increase in schools sponsoring the 8-player game. So overall, the number of football schools is stable; but squad size is smaller.
Among other things, this predicts continuing growth in 8-player football, which expects approximately 60 schools this fall when the MHSAA 8-player tournament expands from one to two 16-team divisions.
The latest participation data also requires that those of us who love the game of football have much work to do; and that work has little to do with how either the 8- or 11-player tournament is conducted.
The focus needs to be on practice – including how early in August it begins and how much contact is allowed; the focus must be on personnel – including the importance of hiring on-staff teachers as coaches; and the focus must be on perceptions – including our narrative that our game has never been healthier for junior high/middle school and high school students and never more important for the unity and identity of schools and communities.
Like other sports, football is challenged by declining high school age enrollment, expansion in the number of sports offered by schools and increased single-sport specialization, as well as a largely misplaced concern for injuries.
On June 28, the leadership of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association is convening a focus group to help identify the themes that resonate best with parents and who the most trusted people are to deliver those messages. This is an important effort.