Two things happened during the 2016 football season that were not unexpected but which now require discussion leading to action:
- The 2016 football season was the first during which the number of Michigan High School Athletic Association Class D high schools sponsoring 8-player teams exceeded the number of Class D schools sponsoring 11-player teams: 48 playing 8-player football; 40 playing the 11-player game.
- The 2016 8-Player Football Playoffs was the first to exclude a six-win team . . . in fact, two of them . . . from the 16-team field and four-week format.
The original plan for the 8-player tournament called for expansion to a 32-team field and a five-week format when the number of MHSAA Class D member schools sponsoring a full season of the 8-player game exceeded 40 for several years. Having now reached the point of expansion, many questions are being raised. For example:
Are Class D schools served well by a 32-team field and a five-week format, like the 11-player tournament? Or, would two 16-team divisions and continuing the four-week format be best?
The two 16-team divisions would have the benefits of smaller enrollment differences between the largest and smallest schools of each division, as well as a one-week shorter season – both of which might be preferred from the standpoint of participant health and safety.
Under neither format is it likely that the championship game(s) would be held at Ford Field. The facility has a long-standing commitment for the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, when the four-week format concludes; and there is not room for a fifth game on either Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving when the eight championship games of the 11-player tournament are conducted.
These discussions regarding the 8-player tournament field and format will invite other discussions. For example, Class C schools that sponsor 8-player teams which are ineligible for the 8-player tournament that is limited to Class D schools only, will ask for a tournament opportunity; but their inclusion in the 8-player tournament will be resisted by Class D schools.
There are people who will advocate that the 11-player tournament should be reduced from eight divisions to seven; and that Division 8 be for the 8-player tournament, with 32 teams and a five-week format concluding at Ford Field on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Of course, this reduces by 32 the total number of teams that will qualify for the MHSAA Football Playoff experience.
We must keep in mind that every enhancement of the 8-player experience invites more conversions from the 11-player to 8-player game, and every conversion makes life a little more difficult for remaining 11-player teams, especially for smaller schools. For example:
- Remaining Class D 11-player schools have fewer like-sized opponents to schedule during the regular season, and they must travel further to play them.
- Some remaining 11-player schools in Classes D, C and B find themselves playing in playoff divisions with larger schools than was the case a few years ago.
The reintroduction of 8-player football in Michigan high schools in 2011 was generally praised; but we knew even then that the day would come when the new benefits for some would create new hardships for others. The discussions needed now will require coaches and administrators to examine the effects of change on others as well as on themselves, and to be fair with their responses and recommendations.