CINCINNATI – Ohio high school football participation rates are on a decline statewide since 2009, but that data isn’t entirely reflective of the trends among Cincinnati area programs.
WCPO.com surveyed more than a dozen area schools this season and found most in that group have stayed consistent or increased numbers over the past three seasons.
Just as the reasons for the slight decline are varied, the same holds true with those on the rise.
Elder coach Doug Ramsey, in his 20th year as head coach, said this preseason that a roster reduction over the years isn’t necessarily a negative for his Greater Catholic League South division program. Elder won Division I state titles in 2002 and '03. The Panthers are in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
“It’s funny, I think our numbers are dropping because I think football is hard,” Ramsey said.
“You know people talk about concussions. I don’t think concussions are the reason. I think it’s that kids have too many other opportunities to play other sports and concentrate on this sport or that sport. So I think the numbers are falling. Where it used to be hundreds of kids on our team, now our roster is 78 varsity players.”
Data from the Ohio High School Athletic Association shows football participation numbers are down more than 8,000 players since 2009.
The participation numbers for this season won’t be known until the spring. So it’s speculative to draw cumulative statewide conclusions for this fall.
The reality is the past two years have shown an increase statewide. In 2015, 44,007 student-athletes in grades 9-12 participated. That was up slightly from 43,884 in 2014.
In 2009, there were 727 teams statewide and 52,098 players. The number of teams increased by 10 one year later and the number of participants dropped by more than 6,000.
OHSAA spokesman Tim Stried said the recent numbers reflect a slight decline in the past decade, but added the governing body is not alarmed or panicking at the numbers.
“We want kids to play multiple sports,” Stried said. “Football is as safe as it’s ever been.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) reported a decline of almost 10,000 football players nationwide in 2014.
However, in 2015, the numbers were almost identical to 2014 with just a drop of 309 participants.
While some states reported a decline in 2015, 24 states registered increases in boys’ participation in 11-player football, according to a report by NFHS in August.
“The NFHS and its member state associations have taken significant steps over the past 10 years to minimize the risk of participation in football and all high school sports, so this report on the continued strong interest and participation in high school football is very encouraging,” said Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director.
“With the adoption of state laws and protocols for concussion management in place, we continue to believe that the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it has been since the first rules were written in 1932 -- and we believe this year’s participation report is confirmation of that belief.”
Reasons for popularity
Football participation is generational in many Cincinnati-area communities. Other programs have been infused with new energy from an influx of younger coaches.
Oak Hills, one of the largest high schools in the state, has had three coaches in the past three years. But the enthusiasm and energy around head coach Kyle Prosser, a 2004 Oak Hills graduate, was quite significant in the preseason.
That carried over to the regular season where the Highlanders won four games and were still mathematically alive entering Week 10. Oak Hills, a Division I program, won a combined three games the previous two seasons.
“We compete with the largest schools in the state and all boys grow at a different pace,” Oak Hills Athletic Director Tony Hemmelgarn said.
“The reality is that once a boy enters high school and decides to play football he has to be dedicated to hitting the weight room and working hard year-round. A lot can be accomplished when the masses are committed. They have to see results, believe in the program and aspire to be the best they can be.”
Princeton, another Greater Miami Conference program and the only Division II team in that 10-member league, had 83 players in mid-season -- up from 62 just three years ago.
Princeton has won three state titles (1987, 1983, 1978), but hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007.
But first-year Vikings coach Pat McLaughlin had Princeton on the cusp a playoff berth entering Week 10.
“Success, new coach, new culture in athletics and the building,” Princeton Athletic Director Gary Croley Jr. said. “Numbers are huge for us.”
At the small-school level, success also has a profound impact on whether younger student-athletes want to give the extra effort in high school, with several sports vying for their time.
Indian Hill coach Tony Arcuri has 57 players on the roster this season -- the third consecutive season numbers have increased for the Division IV program. Indian Hill is making its second straight playoff appearance.
“I would attribute the numbers to winning and the excitement surrounding the program,” Arcuri said. “The school went three losing seasons in a row. Going 5-4 (in 2014) and 11-1 (in 2015) makes a big difference.”
Wyoming, another Cincinnati Hills League member and Division IV program, has seen its numbers increase over the past three years at all levels including middle school.
Wyoming has 674 program wins -- one of the most successful football programs in state history. Wyoming, which won a state title in 1977, has four consecutive playoff appearances.
The Cowboys were at 48 players in 2014 and increased to 56 this season.
“I believe our numbers have gradually increased because of success and tradition,” Wyoming coach Aaron Hancock said. “I also believe football is important and valued in our community.”
Milford’s numbers have been fairly consistent the past three seasons. Coach Shane Elkin said the restructuring of the junior high to three teams allows more players to receive game reps and increased the competitiveness of the Division I program.
Elkin said this past offseason Milford worked to improve the number of multi-sport athletes.
“It isn’t just about more kids,” Elkin said. “It is about having more athletic kids.
“However, I can tell you that when we were recruiting our in-house athletes many of them expressed concern about possible injuries because of football. That was a recurring theme with parents as well. Our response was to share data about the benefits from playing multiple sports and the dangers of overuse injuries when an athlete specializes too young.”
Reasons for decline not always obvious
Mark Porter is director of ScoutingOhio.com, a Youngstown-based website that offers recruiting information to some of the top college programs. The site also tracks scholarship offers and commitments.
Porter, who played at Kent State, travels around the state watching games each season. He’s heard anecdotal discussion from coaches about participation rates dropping at the middle school level.
“Maybe it’s that there is a Google search generation,” Porter said. “There are a lot of options. Football is a tough sport.”
Porter echoed Stried’s sentiments that the game has never been safer. Still, he hears the media reports about concussions and knows some families are worried.
He’s heard some high school coaches sending literature to youth-level coaches assuring the families of the sport’s safety.
Other players may want to play the skill positions and don’t want to put in the effort elsewhere.
“Flag football is getting really popular,” Porter said. “Everyone wants to play quarterback, running back or wide receiver.”
At La Salle, the Lancers are reigning two-time Division II state champions and have had several high-profile recruits over the past three seasons. La Salle is down about 15 players from 2015 (93 to 78), according to coach Jim Hilvert.
This year’s freshmen team only has 35 players. Last year, there were 53 players.
The reasons for the decline are often difficult to pinpoint. There are many sports to select from at a high-profile athletic program like La Salle.
The school recently won outright Greater Catholic League South division titles in soccer, track and field and baseball. The baseball team was Division I state runner-up in 2015.
Lakota West, another one of the premier programs in the area, saw its numbers decline this season.
“Some of it is just one of those seasons,” said Lakota West coach Larry Cox, who just completed his 20th season.
“If you stay around long enough, you have one. Some of it is kids aren’t as tough minded and don’t want to work hard without a guarantee of being the star. Some of it is the (pay to participate) fees, although we have since changed that. Some of it is injury. It’s not just one of these but a combination of all.”
The Lakota District will reduce pay-to-participate fees by $200 next school year so coach Lakota East coach Rick Haynes believes that may help his numbers. The fee this school year is $400.
Sometimes, it's simply enrollment.
The number of students is down at Ross High School and coach Brian Butts said his numbers reflected that.
“We have experienced a few that said they are not playing because of concussion concerns but that seems to be a bigger problem for our youth programs than our junior high or high school programs,” Butts said.
At Little Miami, the numbers have stayed consistent the past few years but there is a large problem keeping freshmen games, according to head varsity coach Nate Mahon.
“Our biggest challenge is that we have about 25 freshmen and about 25 junior varsity kids (with 25 playing varsity),” Mahon said.
“A lot of teams are canceling JV or freshmen games due to numbers which is having a trickle-down effect as we either don’t have a game or we play someone who is much larger than us. With pay to play being expensive ($265) here at Little Miami, it’s important that all three levels play a full schedule.”
Educating and recruiting
At Madeira, the USA Football Heads Up program has helped increase the numbers in the youth levels, according to high school head varsity coach Mike Shafer.
The numbers for the Division V program have been consistent for the past three years. Shafer estimates only two to three players were lost due to the “concussion scare.”
“This year we have enough players to have separate third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade teams,” Shafer said. “I think that is due to us scheduling schools that are the same size or have the same number of kids we do.”
Shroder coach Gerald Warmack said all Cincinnati Public Schools programs have become certified in the Heads Up program and that's helped instruct the proper techniques of the game -- a critical ingredient given the smaller numbers and the fact that Shroder often plays larger schools. Shroder is Division V in football.
The other issue is a lack of facilities, Warmack said.
"Many students would much rather attend a school that plays football on campus instead of having to travel to other locations to play games," he said.
Another challenging aspect is the competition from basketball, which is a winter sport but played early all year long thanks to Amateur Athletic Union competition. And that's something football coaches and athletic administrators will need to pay attention to closely in the near future.
“The numbers of young people participating in football in the inner city are declining rapidly,” Warmack said. “AAU basketball is creating a major divide in the inner city with young people being forced to specialize. Many of the best athletes are choosing basketball over football.”