By Karissa Niehoff
NFHS Executive Director
When the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey was released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in August, many headlines across the country focused on the drop in the number of boys playing 11-player football. After all, the report showed 30,829 fewer participants than the year before. However, perhaps the most important number was overlooked – 14,247.
Yes, 14,247, the number of high schools with 11-player football teams. While there was a slight decline in the number of participants in many states, the number of schools sponsoring the sport was the highest in five years. In fact, the number of schools last year with 11-player teams has only been topped twice in the survey’s history – 14,262 in 2013-14 and 14,279 in 2010-11.
In addition, smaller schools in some states have shifted to 6-player, 8-player and 9-player football and have had good responses. The survey indicates an additional 156 schools and 1,594 participants involved in these alternate forms of the sport; and, in the past 10 years, participation by girls in 11-player football has doubled, with more than 2,400 participants this past year.
These numbers express the desire by high schools to keep alive one of the oldest and most treasured traditions in our nation – Friday Night Football Under the Lights. Although there are many options today for the entertainment dollar, nothing surpasses supporting the local high school football team on Friday nights. The No. 1 fan base in America? The answer is that number again – 14,247.
In Week 2 of the National Football League season, just under 1.1 million fans attended the 16 games. While impressive, it doesn’t come close to the number of fans who watched high school football during the corresponding week. It’s all in that number – 14,247.
With approximately 7,123 games every Friday night (14,247 divided by 2), and with a conservative estimate of 1,000 fans per game, there are more than 7 million fans in high school football stadiums every week. An unofficial attendance survey conducted by the NFHS in 2011 indicated about 165 million fans attended high school football games during that season, which included up to five weeks of playoffs and a weekly average of 11 million fans. Either way, the number of fans at high school football games dwarfs the numbers attending professional football games.
Early season crowds have been strong in many areas of the country with terrific fall weather – filled by current and former students; parents, grandparents and friends of players on the team; and longtime fans and supporters in the community. Unlike crowds at the college and professional levels where fans have little, if any, identity with the players, there is a connection between the players and fans at the high school level.
With concussion protocols and laws in place in every state, with a reduction in contact levels before the season and during practices, and with teaching of proper tackling skills at lower levels, we believe people, including parents of high school student-athletes, are seeing and believing that the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it ever has been.
We urge you to support your local high school football team this Friday night.
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her second year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.