GRANITE FALLS — Youth football in Granite Falls was in peril.
Participation numbers in the Granite Falls Youth Athletic Association were dwindling. The number of teams fielded by the organization was cut back. The size of the rosters were so small that players as young as 6 years old were having to play full games on both offense and defense.
Therefore, the organization decided to take a drastic step in an effort to survive, and that step is working.
The GFYAA is offering youth football for free this year, and the move has created a huge jump in the number of players registered.
”It’s been a great response so far,” GFYAA board president Brandy Anderson said. “The kids want to play, and we want them to come out and play. As board members we think it’s unfair if a kid can’t play football because it’s expensive.”
A year ago the GFYAA, which plays in the North Cascade Youth Football League that extends north to the border, had just 65 players spread across three teams in the Pee Wee (ages 6-8), Junior (ages 11-12) and Senior (ages 13-14) divisions. The organization was unable to field a team in the Midget (ages 9-10) division. This year, with players moving to the high school level, Granite Falls was looking at the possibility of having to cut back to a single team.
But after offering football for free this year’s numbers have nearly doubled, with about 120 players currently registered with registration still open. Not only will Granite Falls be able to enter teams into all four divisions, it’s possible it will get enough players to field two Pee Wee teams when games begin on Aug. 25.
“We didn’t expect it to go that high, so we’re thrilled,” said GFYAA vice president Tim Putnam, who also is one of the coaches of the Junior team. “We’re pulling in kids who have never played before, which is a good thing. We have eight or nine kids coming back on my team this year from last year, and we have 30 kids signed up on that team, so we have more than 20 kids who have not played football.
“We’re just doing it to give the kids the experience of playing football,” Putnam added. “The whole point is to get the kids off the streets and on the fields.”
Granite Falls had been caught up in the national trend of declining participation in football. An examination of high school football participation conducted by the Herald in the fall found a trend of shrinking football participation throughout Snohomish County. For a small community like Granite Falls, any decline in participation is a threat to a sport that requires large rosters to field a team.
The assumption was that the decline in participation was the result of increased awareness of the long-term effects of head injuries and concussions, which are prevalent in collision sports like football. The release of the movie “Concussion” in 2015 introduced Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to the mainstream, as did tragedies involving former NFL stars affected by CTE like Junior Seau. Parents must now consider those risks when deciding whether to allow their children to play football.
However, what the GFYAA discovered was that the bigger driver of shrinking participation was economics. Two years ago it cost $275 for a child to play football for GFYAA, which Anderson said was among the lowest fees in the area. Last year the fee was cut to $175, but that had little effect.
So the decision was made in February to take the dramatic step of eliminating the fee altogether. The organization was able to do this because it had saved up some money it could put toward this year’s costs for things like renting fields and hiring officials. The league also eliminated some expenses, such as streaming games online, and fundraising efforts will be increased.
The response has been massive.
”It saves me a lot,” said parent Tyana Herbrandson, whose son will be in his second season playing at the Pee Wee level. “I’m a single mom on a pretty low income, so it would have been a stretch to put my son into football again this year. So this is a big deal for me.”
The GFYAA’s original plan was to offer football free for one year, see how it went, then decide how to proceed from there. The response from the community has the board determined to try and make it a permanent thing.
“It makes you driven,” Anderson said. “We’re all very driven right now. We have six board members and we all wake up and thinking about football and go to bed thinking about football. If we want to keep making it free or as cheap as possible, we have to be creative and keep things going.
“It’s all for the kids,” Anderson added. “We live in a really small community where everyone really does know everyone. We know everybody’s kids and we know all the families. We’ve heard from the kids that they want to play football, and we want to give them a place to play that is great.”
If you have an idea for a community sports story, email Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.