By Karissa Niehoff
NFHS Executive Director
The enduring popularity of football in the United States was celebrated in the past year at all levels of the sport.
The NFHS celebrated its 100th year of service in all areas of high school sports, including the writing of football playing rules, although the first-known games date to the 1870s.
This past year, the NCAA recognized the 150th anniversary of college football which started in 1869 when Princeton and Rutgers met for the first time. And the National Football League just closed its 100th season, which started with a 1919 game between Dayton and Columbus.
From those beginnings to today, the impact of football on life in America is incalculable. From the youth leagues, through high school and college, and on to the NFL, football is the runaway leader as this country’s most popular sport – both from a participant standpoint with about three million players annually at all levels, to the millions of fans who attend or watch games.
Every fall, millions of families spend a portion of their weekends supporting their grade-school kids in youth football programs. Through these programs, kids are exposed to the basics of the sport and, more importantly, they begin to learn teamwork, sportsmanship and how to win and lose in a proper manner.
On Friday nights, beyond the one million high school students – boys and girls – actually playing football, there are more than 150 million fans who attend games each year. Parents are involved in booster club activities, and homecoming activities occur during one football game every year. In many communities – particularly smaller cities and towns – Friday night football is often the most anticipated event of the week.
Another 50,000-plus players are involved in college football on Saturdays. As is the case at the high school level, homecoming events are tied to one football game every fall. Postseason bowl games have been a part of American culture for decades, and the new College Football Playoff has brought even more excitement to the end of the season.
NFL games on Sunday complete the three-day weekend focus on the country’s favorite sport. Thanks, in part, to the singular weekly focus as opposed to multiple games each week in the other three major professional sports, football dwarfs its competitors.
The interest level in playing football – and following the sport at all levels – has never been higher. With that continued interest in the sport comes the expectation that everything possible is being done – at all levels – to ensure that the safety of each and every participant is of the upmost concern.
With that backdrop, last week we met with leaders from USA Football, several state high school association executive directors and high school coaches and athletic directors representing the National High School Football Coaches Alliance and the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, respectively.
Collectively, these groups are committed to consistent messaging and support to ensure the ongoing popularity of the sport for the next 100 years. We believe the Football Development Model (FDM) enacted by USA Football will re-invigorate interest in the sport at the youth levels. The FDM reduces contact in youth football and advances the game through comprehensive education, game progressions and safety standards.
There was also agreement about the importance of high school football coaches. By connecting with coaches of youth football programs in their communities, high school football coaches can spur excitement on the part of youth players and their parents and improve chances of kids continuing to play the sport. Without a doubt, high school football coaches can be the focal point to success of programs in communities across the nation.
Working together, we can count on a continuation of the sport’s popularity at the high school level.
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her second year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.