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Michigan’s Football Numbers Game – Corrected

Today’s blog was written by MHSAA Second Half Editor Geoff Kimmerly

The demise of Michigan high school football has been greatly exaggerated – or, at least, recently misreported by one of the U.S.’s most recognizable newspapers that noted as part of a larger story on football decline that Michigan has seen a “net loss of 57 teams in the past five years.”

It’s easy to understand how this error took place – especially when a reporter is not familiar with the football landscape in our state – but that doesn’t make this statement any less misleading, or harmful considering the story since has been picked up by multiple large news organizations. So let’s quickly clear up the misinterpreted information:

  • The data that led to this error came from an annual participation report released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Every spring, state associations (like the MHSAA) from every state and Washington, D.C., tally up how many of their member schools have a sport and how many athletes play it. 
  • For 2016-17, the MHSAA submitted to the NFHS a total of 580 schools with 11-player football – that number actually includes all schools that reported having at least one football player, including primary and secondary schools in co-ops. And yes, that 580 is 57 fewer than the 637 11-player schools the MHSAA submitted for 2012-13. 
  • But saying Michigan has lost 57 football programs misses out on something incredibly significant – the MHSAA also submitted 60 schools with 8-player football last year, up from 16 in 2012-13, making that net decrease in football schools over five years 13 – far fewer than 57.

And with a few more brush strokes, the picture of football in our state actually shows a healthy landscape:

  • The 640 schools in Michigan with at least one football player for 2016-17, 11 and 8-player combined, is actually eight more than we reported to the NFHS four years ago and 10 more than three years ago. 
  • A better picture of Michigan’s football consistency is shown by how many varsity programs are taking the field. This fall, that number is 616 – 555 11-player varsities and 61 8-player – and we also had 616 for most of the 2016 season, 616 in 2015 and 615 in 2014. 
  • We’ve had programs bring back varsity teams this year, and in one case a school has a team on its own for the first time. Benzonia Benzie Central and Suttons Bay were unable to field varsities in 2016, but Benzie Central is back playing 11-player and Suttons Bay is back with an 8-player team. Brimley, an 8-player school going back to 2010, also is fielding a team again after being unable to do so last year. Mount Clemens played only two varsity games in 2016 and forfeited a third, but has seven scheduled for this fall and lost close in its opener last week. And Bear Lake, previously a secondary school in a co-op program, now has a team all its own for the first time and is playing at the 8-player level. 
  • Yes, there has been a decrease in Michigan high school football participation when it comes to the number of players – for reasons we discuss frequently, including more extracurricular/entertainment options than ever for students, more who are specializing in other sports and safety fears that often are misplaced. But we’ve also seen a three percent drop in enrollment at MHSAA member schools over the last five years. And despite that trend, Michigan again had the sixth-highest 11-player football participation in the nation in 2016-17 (and seventh-highest in 8-player) while ranking 10th nationally in number of residents of high school age. 
  • So yes, while a nine percent drop in the number of football players over the last five years in Michigan clearly is troubling, and something we’re working with the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association to reverse, let’s also put those numbers in perspective. At medium-sized to bigger schools, it could mean a roster of 40 might have only 36 players. A roster of 20 at an 8-player school might go down to 18. Neither would signal the need to eliminate a football program. 
  • And that move by so many schools to 8-player? It definitely started as a way for low-participation programs to keep football (and has worked for most of them). While that still may be the driving force as schools move from 11 to 8, others have made the switch because most of their former opponents did and joining them makes scheduling easier and travel shorter. Michigan has a multitude of small towns, and you’ll find most of these 8-player programs in pockets in the thumb, southwest or northern Lower Peninsula, or Upper Peninsula. And keep in mind, only Class D teams remain eligible for the 8-player playoffs – and only two of 61 teams playing 8-player this fall are larger than Class D and its enrollment limit of 203 students for 2017-18.

The story behind “a decrease of 57 schools” clearly is a little complex to explain and explain away, but it’s necessary to do so. 

Yes, Michigan’s total number of football players is down a few percent. But the sport’s prominence and importance in our schools and communities remains high. 

Posted in: Football

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About the Author

Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts has been at the helm of the MHSAA as its Executive Director since 1986, implementing programs and overseeing tournament administration and regulations for the Association which boasts 1,500 member schools, 10,000 registered officials and 13,000 head coaches.

During the last 44 years, Roberts has spoken to educator and athletic groups, business leaders and civic groups in almost every state and five Canadian provinces. He is one of the nation's most articulate advocates for educational athletics.

Roberts has served on the board of directors of the National Association of Sports Officials (NASO), is in his second term on the board of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and is the first chairman of the NFHS Network board of directors. He has been board president for the Refugee Development Center for seven years, and is a past-chair of the board of directors of the Michigan Society of Association Executives. He is vice chair and secretary of the board of trustees for the Capital Region Community Foundation.

He is a 1970 graduate of Dartmouth College, where he played defensive safety for the Ivy League's winningest football team during that span, and he sang in Dartmouth's close harmony vocal group.

His wife, Peggy, has retired from a 30-year career in social services, and is serving as president of the board of the Fenner Nature Conservancy in Lansing.