Participation in high school football in Illinois has continued to decline.
The total number of football players in the state has dropped about 25 percent in the past decade, with 38,366 student-athletes now taking part in the sport, according to an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Safety concerns are one factor, but there are others, said Matt Troha, assistant executive director with the Illinois High School Association.
“Participation has dropped dramatically in the city of Chicago in terms of number of teams,” Troha said. “A big part of it is there’s more schools with smaller student bodies. There’s been a huge increase in charter schools, which are generally smaller in enrollment.”
Those changes aren’t limited to the Windy City, as continued population loss across downstate counties figures in as well.
“A lot of our rural and smaller schools have gotten smaller,” Troha said. “They have fewer kids and less participation there. I think the days of 60 or 80 or 100 kids on the sidelines are gone. There’s a lot of other things that kids can do. Anecdotally, what we hear from coaches is they feel like some kids are less inclined to put up with the rigors of the game.”
There’s been at least one bright spot in the attempt to turn that trend around.
“A lot of our smaller schools are moving to eight-man football,” Troha said. “I anticipate we’ll have a playoff and championship in eight-man football in the next few years. There have been some programs reporting that since they made the switch they’ve had more kids come out.”
Football still is by far the most poplar sport nationwide, with more than one million high school players across the country.
“I think a lot of the initial research, and continued research, is going to show the high school level is the safest level,” Troha said. “There’s a frustration factor because we have to wait for some of that research and data to be collected. I think we just have to continue to promote what we believe to be the value of the game at this level and the safety and the changes that we’ve made.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations survey showed America’s overall sports participation last year dropped for the first time in three decades. Illinois also had fewer athletes, declining from 340,000 to around 334,000, the fifth-most in the country.
“Girls has actually grown, but boys has gone down,” Troha said. “But overall, Illinois’ numbers in just about every sport are very healthy.”
The IHSA reported activities, such as lacrosse, are becoming more popular. The state has seen a 63 percent increase in lacrosse players over the past three years, with about 7,300 students now taking part.
“As you talk to people that’s the one that they say is blowing up,” Troha said. “They just see gains and more leagues and more teams.”
The most popular girls' sports program in the state is volleyball.