NFL

Youth Participation in Pop Warner Football Has Declined, But Let's Not Jump to Broad Conclusions Yet

Austin Collie should probably start getting tested now

Outside the Lines ran a report last night that youth participation in Pop Warner football leagues has declined by almost 10% over the last two years. That, of course, led to immediate reaction and tying it to the head injury litigation and concussion concerns with football.

It has even led Gregg Doyel to use this information to write a sweeping article about what this means for the future of football.

One day — maybe not in your lifetime, but maybe so — the sport won’t be offered in my hometown. Or yours. Because this sport is going, boys, and it ain’t coming back.

Doyel cites several things in addition to the Pop Warner info, including declining high school participation rates, and yes, Vermont. According to Doyel, Vermont has seen its participation numbers shrink by nearly 33 percent since 2006. Remember the old saying: “As Vermont goes, so goes the nation.” (Oh, it was Maine?)

As a parent, I have great interest in all of these issues. Let me just explain, though, why this report from Outside the Lines and the article from Doyel about where football is heading should be viewed conservatively.

First, if I am going to present numbers about a decline, what am I going to do? Give you the point for maximum impact, right? Here are a couple of lines from the OTL article that are relevant to this issue.

Consistent annual growth led to a record 248,899 players participating in Pop Warner in 2010; that figure fell to 225,287 by the 2012 season.

. . .

After years of steady growth, the organization saw participation drop 5.7 percent for the 2011 season, according to the internal Pop Warner data provided to “Outside the Lines.” Last year, the figures fell 4 percent. Officials said they do not have statistics for the 2013 season but expect that participation rates will be flat.

So 2010 was a record setting year for participation in Pop Warner. Either it was going to keep setting records, or it was going to regress and slow down. The larger decline was in 2011, and there is also that statement about expecting the participation to be flat this year. If that is true, hardly the continued decay rate we might expect if there is a massive snowball building.

Mike Tolbert lowers helmet and knocks out Eric Reid-a

Here’s another reason not to jump to broad conclusions. Pop Warner may be the most well-known organization; I doubt it accounts for even half of the youth playing across the country. For example, American Youth Football is another national organization that claims to have over 830,000 participants. (A phone call to AYF to clarify participation numbers has not been returned at this time.) Here’s an article, for example, from a town in Massachusetts concerned about having both organizations.

In addition to national organizations, many communities have independent leagues for football. My son played in the Lee’s Summit (Missouri) Football Association, and according to commissioner Tom Benassi, that league had its highest participation rate since 2006, with over 800 kids. The distribution of that is interesting. Tackle rates are steady to slightly down (within 5%), while flag football participation has risen dramatically, growing at 10 to 20% annually, with almost half the kids now doing flag. This year, the league had 5th grade flag teams for the first time, and anticipates increasing the ages for flag as long as the demand continues.

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Pop Warner, which is almost entirely a tackle organization, lies in that middle ground between tackle leagues that are preferred by some (because Warner is based on weight and not just age), and other leagues that have been more pro-active in offering flag football at the youth level. One thing to keep in mind with the participation numbers, who is measuring the flag numbers? If flag football participation is on the rise, what does that mean for our view of the future?

Yes, that 800 number is a small sample from one local league. So is Vermont, and that did not prevent it from apparently signaling the demise of the sport. I found the National Federation of State High School Associations because I Googled as Doyel recommended. Vermont has just over 1,100 football players in high school. It has seen a severe decline; let’s just say that is not typical, unless you think Vermont is the butterfly signaling climate change issues.

High school participation is down about 1% since 2010. A look doesn’t show across the board decline, though. It is up 7% compared to a decade ago, so for lots of reasons, participation in football had been on the rise. A look at individual states, and not just Vermont, suggests that broader factors like population shifts and the popularity of the sport relative to other options has played a huge role.

Every state in SEC country has seen consistent growth, none have declined, whether we are talking the last five years or last two years. Texas, a state with slightly more football players than Vermont (over 167,000), has seen participation rise 3.9% in the last few years. States in the North and East that have seen population shifts have also seen declines over the last decade. Other areas of growth include the Colorado/Utah/Nevada stretch in the West. Arizona and New Mexico have seen declines.

This is not to say that there are not reasons for concern for the NFL and college. Two years of incomplete information, though, is not going to cut it. Pop Warner is in every state, but are they more heavily centered in the regions that have also seen general decline in recent years (North and East) compared to other independent leagues and national organizations (Pop Warner was founded in Pennsylvania). This will be an ongoing issue to monitor for the next decade.

If we are looking at just two years of info, though, we need to account for Pop Warner not representing the full picture, including the impact of flag football participation on the future of the sport at youth levels.

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