How much longer will “Friday night lights” continue?

By CARA COOPER

Every year it’s gets a bit tougher to be excited for the start of the football season. The NFL has a whole host of problems, none of which are worth delving into right now. College football has been rocked by three scandals at Ohio State, Maryland and UNC, just in the last month. Now, high school football, often the last place fans can truly enjoy the basics of America’s most popular game, is fighting its own battle right here in Virginia.

Three public schools in the state will not field teams this year, all because of lack of interest. One of those schools, Manassas Park High School in Northern Virginia, had just 18 students come out for the first day of football practice. The Virginia High School League recommends not fielding a team with less than 25. Manassas Park is classified as a VHSL Class 3 school with just over 1,000 students.

And the problem at Manassas Park could be nationwide.

In 2014-2015, the National Federation of State High School Associations found that 14,154 schools across the country had a football team, with 1,083,617 participants. That number had held pretty steady at just over a million since 2008, the first year of a listed survey by the NFHS. However, the number dropped by more than 25,000 between 2015 and 2016.

When the drop was announced in early 2017, NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner said in a release, “While we are concerned when any sport experiences a decline in participation, the numbers do not substantiate that schools are dropping the sport of football.”

Until now.

In Virginia alone, in addition to the three schools not fielding varsity programs, the Roanoke Times reported this week that at least three teams within just a couple of hours of Henry County will not field junior varsity squads this season, and the VHSL worries that other varsity teams could decide to forfeit the season midway through.

Even in the Piedmont District, while all eight schools will have both J.V. and varsity, and all but Tunstall will also have middle school teams (Tunstall Middle School has no athletic program, so it’s not uniquely football), the number of football players is lower at some schools than most coaches would probably like.

Patrick County, a VHSL Class 3 school, has a listed varsity roster of 27. Magna Vista, by contrast, is also a class 3 school with a run of success in the last decade nearly unmatched in that class. The Warriors have 77 players between JV and varsity, with 13 seniors and 27 juniors on varsity.

Martinsville, the smallest school in the Piedmont District, has a listed varsity roster of 34, but 13 of those players will split time between JV and varsity. The Bulldogs have become used to being the undersized school in the PD, but their roster this season is still 14 fewer than at the start of last year. Both the Cougars and Bulldogs are just a couple of injuries away from falling below that 25 player threshold.

Even Franklin County, a Class 6 school with more than 2,000 students, has just 40 players on the varsity roster, three of which will also play JV. The Eagles have just one more player than Bassett, despite having almost twice as many students overall.

Bassett and Magna Vista both actually saw slight increases in numbers from last year to this year. The growth on the Bengals’ roster can likely be chalked up to the excitement of having alumnus Brandon Johnson returning for his second season as head coach. Magna Vista will also probably see numbers stay high given their two state championships in the last five years.

But is that sustainable? Is winning and a changing culture enough to keep kids coming out? The biggest question about the decline in football is why? Most will probably say safety, especially given everything we’ve learned just in the last half decade about concussions and their long term effects. That’s also why 8-on-8 football seems to be on the rise, and could be coming to Virginia sooner than you think. In fact, the Roanoke Times reported seven private schools will play the smaller version of the sport this season, and the VHSL believes public schools could join them as early as next year.

Football is still by far the most popular male high school sport in the country, with the NFHS reporting that there are nearly twice as many participants in football as track and field nationwide. And every Friday night for at least the next 10 weeks, stadiums across Henry County and Martinsville will be filled with fans, student sections and marching bands. Football is far from dead, and the situation isn’t as dire as many would have you believe. Popularity of different sports ebbs and flows with time, just look at America’s “National Pastime” baseball.

But the sport as we know it now likely won’t stay that way for much longer. Hard hits continue get more difficult to watch, much less to cheer for. NFL and college teams get more difficult to support.

High school football is still the best product the sport puts out, and there’s no greater feeling than a brisk fall Friday evening on the gridiron. But enjoy it now, because if the trend continues, it’s hard to tell how long Friday night lights as we know it now will last.

 

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