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Let’s Expand the Playoff! Part 2 - The Sport is Dying

College football alone can’t stop the decline but it can certainly do its part to hold interest

Missouri vs. Texas Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In 2014, National Football League televised games were 34 of the top 35 most-watched television programs in the country. Attendance at college football games had just hit an all-time high with more than 44 million attendees. And 2.2 million males, aged 6-years old through high school, were playing the game.

And that, very likely, was the peak of football popularity in America.

Roger Pielke, Forbes

In the subsequent years, the decline of interest and participation in football has fallen sharply. From 2008-09 to 2018-19, the total number of youths aged 6 to 18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000, going from 2.5 million to 1.9 million; even before COVID-19 the number of youths in that age range set to play football in 2020 was below 1 million, the lowest level of participation at that level since 1998. Over that same time frame attendance at FBS football games declined by 10% per school. And even the Super Bowl, the NFL’s crown jewel – and America’s most talked about sporting event – lost more than 12.5 million viewers from 2011-2019, dropping to its lowest viewership (as proportion to U.S. population) since freaking 1976.

There is no law that says football must stay popular forever, and several factors have helped that fact rear its ugly head. First, the fact of the matter is that American football is one of the most dangerous sports that an athlete can play, particularly from the “hidden wounds” of CTE. (TRIGGER WARNING) Between the Andre Waters and Shane Dronett suicides, the tragedy of Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, and the very public, much discussed suicide of Junior Seau shooting himself in the chest because he knew something was wrong with his brain, CTE has been a huge deterrent to anyone picking up the sport – at least until technology and treatment advances enough to mitigate, or eliminate, CTE. And while the medical issues with football – and the culture surrounding the discussion of it – needs a lot of focus and rehabilitation from all involved, the physical toll tends to be the main issue turning away young people from picking up football in the first place.

The issues with the NFL, however, are probably the most damning aspect of American football’s decline, since – in this author’s eyes, anyway – the issues pushing people away from football are self-inflicted, and easily fixed. Colin Kaepernick’s knee has introduced countless debates and rage from both sides while the NFL blackballs him from making a team and puts “Black Lives Matter” hashtags in its end zones. The continued sheltering of men who have harassed, abused, and raped women while the NFL pushes to celebrate and champion women in and around the sport continues the trend of hollow motions to silence “issues” that distract from the game. And, at the very bottom of importance, poor officiating coupled with long reviews of complicated rules and an over-saturation of commercialization has taken away from the flow of a given game.

College football’s problem is different. The college game acts as a second “filter” of football players, separating the elite athletes from the average joe football player and putting them on a bigger, faster, more intense level of the game. As the NFL’s unofficial minor league, the college game does an excellent job of taking those high school players who made it to the next level and showing them how to train, how to analyze the game, and how to prepare week to week in order to make it through the last “filter” – the NFL. Unfortunately, the college game has developed additional filters that are killing the quantity – and therefore, quality – of player that continues in their football playing career.

Look at the graphic below:

Data: NFHs; Graphic: Roger Pielke, Forbes

This shows the change - green for positive, yellow/orange/red for negative - from the 2017-18 academic year to the 2018-19 academic year in high school football participation. Seven (of 50!) states improved, every other state declined. Maybe you point out that the majority of the states in decline were in the 0%-5% range, which, yes, is a valid point. And one year does not make a trend. So let’s look at this graphic:

Data: NFHS, Graphic: Roger Pielke, Forbes

Evidence shows that football is becoming hyper-regionalized with participation, and interesting enough, mostly concentrated in the southeast. The graphic shows which U.S. states saw increases in participation (green) or decreases in participation (orange) from the 2008-2009 academic year through 2018-2019. As you can see, there were only seven states that saw increases in football participation. If you add the 8 states that had the smallest decreases you come out to 15 states and, of those 15 states, over half (8) have an SEC school in them. Interestingly enough, Missouri and Arkansas are the only SEC schools to have considerably larger declines in football participation. BUT! Every state that saw a 20% or greater decline in high school participation over the past decade are north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Is it any wonder that the states that either increased their football participation (or had the smallest decrease) produced over half of the blue-chip recruits from 2013-2017? Or that the participants – and champions – of the College Football Playoff overwhelmingly come from those states? The southeast dominates in producing elite recruits and participating in the Playoff and it’s killing the interest from the rest of the country.

For example: Let’s say you’re an NFL-level talented blue-chip quarterback from Tucson, growing up rooting for the University of Arizona and being a Pac-12 fan. The Pac-12 has had Oregon and Washington make it to the Playoff in two separate years…and that’s it. You know you can’t go to a G5 school because the G5 isn’t allowed to participate in the Playoff and you want your name to be relevant in the national conversation. You could try to play for Arizona, but the team sucks right now, and even if you made them way better and challenged for the conference title, the competition in the Pac-12 is…lackluster, to put it nicely. So now you have to haul your ass halfway across the country to try and get a scholarship from Alabama or Georgia or Clemson or LSU and hope that you can beat out every other blue-chipper they have in order to start for a team that has a chance to win the ultimate goal of the sport. If you don’t cut it then you either ride the bench or transfer to a school with a lesser – or zero – chance of being relevant in the national conversation. Does that sound like a good deal to you?

I know that playing in the Playoff isn’t the ultimate determinant of making it in the NFL, but it’s the best way to stay on the radars of scouts, keep your name in the zeitgeist, and prepare for the challenges that the next level brings. The South dominating college football is cool for The South but terrible for the long-term viability of the sport. Football, above all other sports, has the greatest demand of number of players. If the NFL has 1,696 spots to fill, their product will be of a higher caliber if they’re picking from a pool of 30,000 college football players than 20,000 (or fewer). And the college game is a much better product if it’s funneling those 30,000 from a pool of 2 million high school players rather than 1 million. That type of decline will build on itself exponentially as fewer parents are ok with their kids playing the game, the college game continues to be dominated by 15 states, and the NFL continues to not stand for anything except its own bottom line. College football can’t control what happens at the high school or professional level, but it can absolutely control its own issues. And while there are way more issues at the college level than just the Playoff itself, if the NCAA/ESPN/university presidents want to maintain the popularity (and consequent revenue generation) that college football brings, it needs to include every conference possible. Going to Oregon State or Toledo or Marshall or Western Kentucky should not mean that there is no chance you get to participate in the ultimate prize of college football. While the teams and conferences might not be ready to compete at a playoff level, opening it up to all conferences (plus the next six highest ranked teams) gives schools in those regions a chance. And giving those schools a chance gives them the opportunity to matter on a national stage. And mattering on the national stage catches the eyes of high school players, which inspires them to keep playing to get their shot to take their favorite team to eternal college glory. And that increase of interest in an incredibly dangerous sport keeps the sport alive and thriving for a longer period of time.

There is a solid chance that football as we know it has a very near expiration date. Doing nothing changes nothing, and while one level of the sport making inclusive changes doesn’t guarantee the long term survival of football, it certainly wouldn’t kill it faster.