High school football participation numbers have been on the decline nationwide and statewide for more than a decade. But here in Central Oregon, multiple football programs are seeing record participation numbers this season.
Almost 1 million high school boys played 11-man football in the 2021-2022 season. That nearly equaled the totals of basketball and baseball combined.
But the sport has faced multiple challenges over the past decade, including safety concerns, vocal critics speaking out against the game and declining participation numbers nationwide.
“A lot of frustration from a lot of guys because it is going the other direction for most. I think part of it is, you know, we have a big concussion scare the last five, ten years,” said Ridgeview High School coach Patrick Pileggi.
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Statistics show that participation numbers have been falling since 2010: 11-man football is down 9.6%. But coaches, programs and the game are pushing back.
Equipment has never been safer.
“Riddell produced a system that actually has a five zone sensor in those helmets that we can, in real life data, get impact blows on a helmet,” said Summit Head Coach Corben Hyatt.
Practices have never been more regulated.
“We practice differently. Wearing a helmet and shoulder pads and we don’t take guys to the ground. We’re teaching proper techniques which has made the game safer and less hits on kids is better,” said Hyatt.
Protocols have been mandated.
“We have to go through hours and hours of certifications every year,” said Hyatt.
But the optics of a big and now illegal hit can still be hard to look at.
“You think about Xs and Os and trying to how do you win games? But your offseason is ‘OK, how do we increase our numbers and get kids out for football?'” said Hyatt.
Statistics paint an even grimmer picture statewide in Oregon. The decline in participation numbers since 2008 is approaching 24%.
In 2008, the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) reported 14,775 participants in football across the state. Fast forward to 2021 and that number dropped to 11,260.
But the trend isn’t a hard and fast rule. In Central Oregon, many schools are seeing an increase in their numbers and even breaking school records.
“So this year we have 125 kids participating. The highest ever at Summit was 94. So we’ve blown the doors off,” said Hyatt.
Hyatt’s numbers are so high, he ran out of lockers.
“I came home after handing out gear. The first day of practice and I came home and told my wife to get on Amazon and we had to Amazon Prime gear in the next day because we just didn’t have enough of certain things,” said Hyatt.
And at Ridgeview High in Redmond, it’s the first time in the school’s history that they’ve been able to field three teams.
“They fielded a freshman team in the past, but there’s no JV team,” said Pileggi. “This year, we have all three. I think we’re up to 34 freshmen at the moment. Got a solid sized JV team and obviously a varsity team. So we’re looking about 95 kids in the program currently.”
Pileggi chalks it up to multiple factors, including a willingness to adapt his program to a new generation of kids.
“It’s finding ways to connect with kids and get them interested. Putting out game day publicity, you know, putting their cool graphics, things like that. Player of the Week. Kids like that, they live on social media. And so, again, it’s one of the things that they see that might be kind of cool to try this football thing out,” said Pileggi.
A social media presence, making practices more fun, success on the field, academic success and building relationships with parents are all factors that both coaches point to for their increased numbers. But investing in youth programs is where they believe the true difference is made.
“We had eighth grade recruit night and so just like what the colleges do, you bring the kids in and they do the photo shoots and they dress up in the uniforms and have these big elaborate photo shoots,” said Hyatt.
“Meeting those kids, getting to know those kids, get them involved as much as we possibly can early,” said Pileggi.
There’s no doubt the game is evolving and successful coaches and high school programs are evolving with it.
“Teach differently. We practice differently,” said Hyatt.
Can you get teenagers with unlimited options for entertainment and activities excited to play football?
Can you prove to mom and dad that safety is being practiced and not just preached?
Can you get it done on the field and in the classroom?
And can you make the little kids excited to one day wear that high school jersey?
Answer yes to the majority of those questions and your numbers are probably doing just fine.
“We have a fun program and we build relationships and we care about kids,” said Hyatt.
Participation numbers for football across the state in the 2022 season won’t be reported to the OSAA until November.
It’s also worth noting that although 11-man football participation numbers declined three percent over the last three years nationwide, six, eight and nine-man football participation numbers increased 12% over that same time frame.