The 2019 Roster
A look at who is playing football around America — and what is driving participation next season.
The big-picture participation numbers for tackle football in the U.S. have certainly been better, but they could be worse. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) most recent Topline Participation Report, there were 5.2 million tackle football players (age six and older) in the U.S. in 2018. That’s a 17.1 percent decline from the 6.2 million football players in the U.S. in 2015.
Of those 5.2 million current players, 2.9 million qualify as “core” players — those who practiced and/or played 26 or more times in 2018.
Illustrating how far participation has declined, though, as recently as 2011 tackle football participation in the U.S. reached a high of slightly more than 6.4 million.
As overall participation in tackle football has been dropping, interest and participation in flag football has been increasing. Since 2014, overall participation in flag football in the U.S. has grown every year – from 5.5 million in 2014 to 6.6 million in 2018.
Because of the lack of a national, European club-like structure in the U.S. that keeps people playing team sports well into adulthood, tackle football is primarily played by those under 18-years old.
The High School Game
At the high school level in the U.S., there is only one boys’ high school sport with more than one million participants — boys’ 11-player tackle football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
• In the 2017-18 school year, 1.03 million student-athletes played high school football, a 6.7 percent drop from 1.1 million during the previous school year.
• Football ranks fifth in the number of high schools with football teams —14,079, a slight increase from the 14,047 schools in 2016-17. (As an aside, basketball ranks number one with 18,510 schools.)
• The top 11 states for high school football participation are Texas (164,664 participants), California (94,286), Ohio (42,637), Florida (41,852), Illinois (40,111), Michigan (35,475), Georgia (33,027), Alabama (30,882), New York (30,210), North Carolina (28,600) and Pennsylvania (25,605).
• While 11-player tackle football dominates, other versions of tackle football proliferate in corners of the country. For instance, six-player football is played in six states; eight-player football is played in 19 states; and nine-player football is played in five.
• Tackle football is certainly dominated by young males, but in the 2017-18 school year, girls played 11-player high school tackle football in 35 states. Girls are also playing six-player football in two states; eight-player football in 12 states; and nine-player football in two.
Inside the College Game
There were 73,558 football players in the 2017-18 school year at the three college levels, an increase from the 2008-09 school year when there were 64,879 football players.
At the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) level, participation in football is strong, especially in the largest collegiate football conference in the country – the 22-member Mid-South Conference that includes teams from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
“We have teams filled with players who love to play football and coaches that love to coach it,” says Eric Ward, Mid-South Conference commissioner.
And according to Kelli Briscoe, senior manager of championship events at NAIA, there are 94 colleges and universitiesthat currently play NAIA football. Five of those schools – Keiser (Florida), Allen (South Carolina), Indiana Wesleyan (Indiana), Lawrence Tech (Michigan) and Ottawa (Arizona) – started new football teams in the fall of 2018.
And, St. Thomas University (Florida) will start its new football program in August of this year.
Participation statistics from the NAIA indicate that the average roster of an NAIA football team is nearly 125 players, which means the NAIA has more than 11,600 football student-athletes.