Decline Continues: Peak Football Update 2018

Boulder vs Fairview Football

Last year I wrote a few articles on what I termed “peak football,” the idea that youth participation in high school football had peaked and was in decline. The idea was expressed not as a certainty, but a hypothesis based on emerging evidence. Those articles and an interview on the data can be read at the following places:

Thanks to the excellent work of the National Association of State High School Federations we can now update the data through the end of the 2017-2018 school year. The decline of high school football continues. The sport still remains hugely popular and is not going away anytime soon. However, the evidence of decline is stronger in 2018. Data and discussion after the jump.


The figure above shows that overall football participation (all codes) decreased again in the academic year ending in 2018. The drop from 2017 to 2018 was about 19,000 players. From 2016 to 2017 the drop was about 26,000 players. Still, about 1.07 million boys played high school football.  For comparison, outdoor track and field, in second place, had about 600,000 male participants (soccer had the biggest increase from 2017 to 2018 and had about 456,000 total male participants).


These trends hold if we just look at 11-man football shown above. (There are about 30,000 players in 6, 8 and 9-man football).


It’s not just the total number of participants that are in decline in football, but the sports’ relative popularity among male high school athletes is also falling. The decrease in popularity has been in place since 2007 and has accelerated since 2016. Still, more than 1 in 5 high school male athletes plays football.


The number of 11-man high school football teams has decreased by 200 teams since 2010. In 2018 there was a net loss of 20 teams. These are relatively small decreases in the context of more than 14,000 programs.  But the decrease is real.


The average team has lost about 5 players since 2007, however since 2016 the average team has lost more than 3 players. These numbers help to illustrate who more programs have not shut down. The loss of >40,000 players since 2016 is spread across many teams but is the equivalent of about 540 total teams worth of players.

Bottom line: The idea of “peak football” remains very much alive. New data for 2018, if anything, reinforces the hypothesis that we are in the early stages of a decline in the “king of sports.” For fans of high school football these trends should be concerning but do not indicate a crisis. High school football remains hugely popular and the trends in place have only made a small dent in the sport. But the direction of travel is unmistakable. What will next year bring?

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