It’s been well-documented that participation in high school football is in decline across the country.
Local participation numbers appear to be following that trend.
According to a survey conducted by The Herald, more than half of the area’s high school football programs have fewer total players in their programs this season than normal.
Fifteen of the 27 responding schools reported their football turnout this season was lower than normal compared to previous years. Six schools reported a normal turnout, and six said their turnout is higher than usual.
South Whidbey was the only local school that didn’t respond to the survey. First-year North Creek, Class 2B Darrington and 1B Tulalip Heritage weren’t included in the survey.
Nationwide, participation in 11-man high school football decreased by more than 53,000 players from 2008 to 2016, marking a 4.8 percent drop, according to data from an annual survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The decline grew steeper last season, as nationwide participation fell by more than 23,000 players (2.1 percent) from 2015 to 2016. Last season’s nationwide total was the lowest since 2004.
Local coaches cite a variety of reasons for the declining numbers — including safety concerns, sports specialization, a shift in interests among youth, program-specific issues and recruiting.
“I think it’s a big pie of reasons,” longtime Edmonds-Woodway coach John Gradwohl said. “I think there’s a lot of things. I don’t think it’s one thing.”
Edmonds-Woodway has seen one of the area’s biggest declines, as the Warriors’ program has decreased from 152 players in 2007 to 82 this season.
Kamiak typically fields about 125 players, according to coach Dan Mack, but the Knights are down to 97 this year.
Since 2015, Meadowdale has decreased from about 110 to 80 players. Arlington usually hovers around 100 players, coach Greg Dailer said, but the Eagles are at 76 this season. Stanwood coach Eric Keizer said his program typically draws at least 95 players, but this year the roster has dipped to 72.
The low numbers are more pronounced for some of the area’s smaller programs.
Sultan has just 36 players this season, and Cedar Park Christian-Bothell is down to 32. Granite Falls, a 2A school, has just 35 players.
Due to low numbers, Everett dropped its junior-varsity team this season. Seagulls coach Doug Trainor said not having a junior-varsity hurts the development of certain players, particularly juniors who are behind players on the varsity depth chart.
“They’re not getting that development of those seven or eight games,” Trainor said. “They’re just not getting enough snaps.”
Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace also dropped their junior-varsity teams, despite having normal overall numbers. Marysville Pilchuck dropped its C-team due to a low freshman total.
CPC-Bothell dropped its junior-varsity this year, leaving the Eagles with only a varsity squad. Other schools, such as Granite Falls, are playing an abbreviated junior-varsity schedule.
“It’s tough to field JV teams at times,” Granite Falls coach Tim Dennis said. “You’re playing guys on Friday who should be playing on Monday.”
Last season, South Whidbey’s varsity roster dipped as low as 14 players. In an attempt to build up the program’s participation numbers, the Falcons opted to play an independent schedule this fall that features mostly opponents from the Class 2B level.
The Falcons are following in the footsteps of Bellingham, which left the Northwest Conference in 2014 to play an independent slate for two years in an effort to bolster participation numbers.
Sehome and Shorewood also are playing independent schedules this season, though the Thunderbirds are doing so to combat a lack of talent rather than low numbers.
“There’s some real issues and some real concerns across the state and in District 1,” District 1 athletic director Jim Piccolo said.
In recent years, numerous studies have investigated the link between football and the long-term effects of head injuries such as concussions.
While the data is far from conclusive, there’s no denying the increased spotlight on safety risks has led some parents to keep their children from playing football.
“When the media is hitting this so hard from the NFL all the way down to youth football,” King’s coach Jim Shapiro said, “that can obviously dramatically impact a parent’s desire to have their kids involved in youth football, which becomes the feeder for junior high and high school football.”
Meadowdale coach Matt Leonard said safety concerns are a significant factor in declining turnout.
“I think that parents are afraid,” Leonard said. “If a kid loves football and a family’s a football family, they’re still going to play. It’s the fringe kids who used to play that aren’t anymore.”
Added Shapiro: “Kids that might be on the bubble of turning out — or maybe being a backup kid or wanting to try out for the first time — just don’t feel like it’s worth (the) risk.”
Ironically, coaches said, football is safer now than it’s ever been because of increased awareness and a heightened emphasis on safety.
Coaches pointed to new tackling techniques, concussion protocol, rule changes and decreased contact during practices as some aspects that have improved player safety.
“I’ve been coaching for 24 years,” Shapiro said. “It’s dramatically improved over the last 24 — even in the last 10. Even in the last two years, the rule changes they’ve made have already made the game safer.”
Gradwohl said he thinks safety will continue to improve as the new tackling techniques become second nature.
“The new tackling system has been in place for a couple years now, but it’s not generational yet,” Gradwohl said. “Five, six years from now, all the kids would’ve been brought up that way and that (would be) the only way they’ve learned how to tackle.
“It’s safer now than it was. But even five years from now when that’s the only type of tackling kids are doing, I think it’ll even be that much more safer.”
Multisport athletes are becoming less common in this age of sports specialization. Many athletes focus on a single sport from a young age.
That can have an adverse effect on participation numbers in all sports, including football.
“Before, kids played three sports growing up — sometimes four,” Trainor said. “And with the specialization that happens at such an early age, you don’t get that kid back to play football.”
Mountlake Terrace coach Kelly Dougan, who ran the area’s youth football program for 16 years prior to taking over as the high school’s head coach, said specialization has contributed to football’s declining numbers.
“There are a ton of kids in Mountlake Terrace that just play basketball or just play baseball,” Dougan said. “And they do it year-round … to the detriment of playing anything else.
“It has a big impact on football, for sure.”
However, sports specialization tends to be less prevalent at smaller schools, where there is less competition to make teams and players are sometimes needed to fill out rosters.
“A lot of our football players, they’ll probably do wrestling or basketball,” Sultan athletic director Scott Sifferman said. “Or if they’re not a winter-sport athlete, they’re going to play baseball or soccer.
“I don’t think that there’s anybody not playing football because, ‘Hey, I’m only a basketball player.’”
Arlington coach Greg Dailer remembers spending his youth playing all sorts of pickup games.
“Football, basketball, baseball, whatever,” Dailer said. “That’s what we did for fun. And then (during) the sports season, we got to do it for real.”
Times have changed, Dailer said.
“I don’t think it’s that way anymore. I can’t remember the last time I drove by and saw a pickup game of anything, anywhere,” he said. “I think kids are just in to different things.”
Dailer and other coaches mentioned the rise of technology, saying the vast array of entertainment options has made it easy for youth to stay entertained from the couch.
“Our society is a little bit different right now,” Leonard said. “It’s so easy for (kids) to be on a phone or a computer or a video game at home. When I was growing up, staying at home sucked. Now (you’ve) got video games, Snapchat and Instagram that can take up hours of (their) time.”
“A lot of kids don’t do a whole heck of a lot anymore,” Gradwohl added. “They’re not involved in clubs, music, drama, band or any sport.”
Shapiro said this generation of youth isn’t always willing to put in the hard work football requires.
“(With) this generation, hard work in some kids’ lives is not necessarily something they want to pursue,” he said. “And football is definitely one of those sports that is not necessarily easy or fun to practice.
“It kind of weeds out the kids who maybe aren’t willing to put the time in.”
Dailer pointed to the summer commitment football requires, including weight lifting, camps and practices that begin in mid-August.
“Football practice is tough,” Dailer said. “It’s not just getting to go play games the whole time. When the (time) comes around, they aren’t all that interested to give up their summer.
“I think that’s a big part of it. They’re not motivated to come out and give up their free time.”
This past summer, Oak Harbor coach Jay Turner lost four projected varsity players who moved out of the district.
Such is the nature of coaching in a military town such as Oak Harbor, home to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
“What we’ve seen lately is a lot more kids moving out of district (because of) parents getting transferred to different Navy bases,” Turner said. “We’ve really seen it here in the last couple years (with) the number of kids that start with us (and) move out before they even play any varsity football.”
Turner said his program’s turnout has been on a downward trajectory for six or seven years. At one point, he said, there were about 130 players. This season, the Wildcats are down to 97.
“Our high school enrollment has dipped down, just the way the Navy has invested who’s up here right now,” Turner said. “And I think that has an effect on us.”
Sultan is another program with unique circumstances that have contributed to declining numbers.
The Turks are playing under their third head coach in three seasons. Sifferman said the lack of continuity has affected turnout.
“When you have that kind of change, it’s tough to have some continuity,” Sifferman said. “I know there’s some kids that played last year who didn’t play this year, just because they didn’t feel a connection. It just was, ‘I don’t want to play for a different coach.’”
Several coaches also mentioned recruiting as a factor in declining turnout within certain programs.
Trainor said there have been talented players from feeder middle schools that have been recruited away from the Everett program.
“It’s hard to put 25 kids in a class together every year when (some) of them are gone right off the top — the really good athletes,” Trainor said.
Gradwohl, who said he knows of programs that have lost players to other schools, lamented the current state of high school sports.
“(It’s) a sad state when you allow schools to recruit all-star teams,” Gradwohl said. “(When) you cherry-pick the best players out of schools, it’s not good for those schools. And then you get less turnout — ‘I’m not going to play because our quarterback is now over there.’
“It’s just bad news, man,” he added. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be like Division I football. You’re going to have super teams and everybody else. And it’s going to kill the sport.”
Dougan said recruiting also impacts youth programs.
“There’s youth programs that pop up from time to time and may have a tendency to poach kids out of communities,” Dougan said. “They offer them incentives.”
Shapiro said both schools and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association need to do a better job of enforcing rules.
“As schools, we need to do better self-policing on where kids are coming and going,” Shapiro said. “I think the WIAA needs to do 100 times better on implementing their rules for what recruiting is and what recruiting isn’t.
“It’s very clearly stated in the handbook of what recruiting is, and both public and private schools I know of are breaking those rules.”
District-wide competitive imbalance
Declining turnout within certain football programs has played a factor in some of the competitive imbalances across District 1, which includes Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
“Some (programs) are really, really good,” Piccolo said. “And some are really poor.”
The most notable instance has been the discrepancy between Archbishop Murphy and the rest of the Cascade Conference in recent years, which spurred debate over athletic imbalances between private and public schools.
Last season, five of the conference’s seven teams forfeited to Murphy because of player-safety concerns over facing a physically superior Wildcats team that featured four starting linemen who weighed 260 pounds or more. This year, Murphy has outscored conference opponents by 36.5 points per game.
One contributing factor has been roster size. The Wildcats’ numbers have been trending upward, while each of the league’s other teams are experiencing declining turnout.
Murphy has 73 players in its program this season, more than twice the roster size of conference opponents Granite Falls, Sultan and CPC-Bothell. Murphy and Granite Falls are both 2A schools, while Sultan and CPC-Bothell are 1A.
CPC-Bothell and fellow Cascade Conference member King’s recently applied to join District 2’s Emerald City League.
“There’s definitely a group of haves and have-nots,” Murphy athletic director and coach Jerry Jensen said prior to this season. “And the haves don’t want to have these blowout games every night, either. That’s no fun for their kids, and it doesn’t get them better. And the have-nots are wondering why they’re suiting up on Friday nights.
“So, definitely, something has to be done.”
Roster size also has contributed to competitive imbalance within the Northwest Conference, where in recent years there’s typically been a sharp contrast between the top 2A football programs and the bottom ones.
Piccolo said a district-wide football meeting is scheduled for Oct. 30, and issues such as declining turnout and competitive imbalance will be discussed.
Piccolo said the district might need to consider a tiered approach similar to what District 2’s Metro League instituted this season. To combat competitive imbalance, the Metro League split into three separate divisions based on competition level so that teams face similar-caliber opponents.
“It’s a balance issue,” Piccolo said. “They’re tough conversations, but the athletic directors will have face-to-face (conversations) about how can we help each other.
“It’s not about my school trying to be the best,” he added. “It’s about how can we help each other. It’s about football, and trying to help football.”
Listed below are the total number of players in local high-school football programs this season. Coaches and athletic directors were asked to report their program’s participation numbers and whether they are normal, lower than normal or higher than normal compared to the program’s numbers in previous years.
Lower than normal (15 schools)
Snohomish – 105
Lake Stevens – 103
Mariner – 103
Kamiak – 97
Oak Harbor – 97
Edmonds-Woodway – 82
Meadowdale – 80
Arlington – 76
Stanwood – 72
Cedarcrest – 66
Everett – 65
King’s – 55
Sultan – 36
Granite Falls – 35
Cedar Park Christian – 32
Normal (6 schools)
Marysville Getchell – 100
Shorewood – 85
Marysville Pilchuck – 75
Lynnwood – 72
Lakewood – 70
Mountlake Terrace – 52
Higher than normal (6 schools)
Glacier Peak – 147
Jackson – 135
Monroe – 94
Cascade – 93
Shorecrest – 87
Archbishop Murphy – 73