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Are Lower Participation Numbers For High School Football In California Indicative Of A Larger Decline In The Sport’s Popularity?

Football field
Football field
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High school football participation has dropped by more than 3 percent in the state of California, according to new numbers released earlier this month by the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s governing body for high school sports.

Other sports, like volleyball, basketball and soccer, saw notable increases across genders. But football continued its steady decline from previous years and is now down a total of more than 12,000 participants since its peak in 2014-2015.

So, why is this happening? Experts point to a number of possible factors, one of the biggest being the increased awareness among parents as to the potential for football to cause serious head injuries. Youth leagues and high school programs across the country have altered rules regarding how many times a team can practice per week and how much of that time can be spent hitting, and have also changed certain rules of the game like eliminating kickoffs and implementing a two-point stance instead of a three-point in the lower levels of Pop Warner football. But it remains to be seen whether those changes have assuaged the fears of parents who don’t want their kids playing football because of the risk of head trauma. But there are other factors at play too, like an increase in one-sport athletes at the high school level and, very simply, fewer kids wanting to devote the time they have outside of schoolwork to playing a sport that has a very slim chance of parlaying into a career.

What do these new numbers say about the popularity of football statewide, especially in a place like California which has long been a recruiting hotbed for top college programs? Are we seeing similar drop-offs in youth football participation? Is this decline reflected in participation numbers at the national level? And is there anything that can be done to increase football’s popularity, or has the sport finally reached its peak?


Eric Sondheimer, prep sports columnist for The Los Angeles Times who has been covering high school sports for the paper since 1997; he tweets @latsondheimer

Paul Watkins, regional director for Pop Warner Football Wescon Region, which is comprised of 13 member leagues across Arizona, Hawai’i, Southern California and Southern Nevada

Roger Pielke, director of the Sports Governance Center at the University of Colorado