Almost immediately after his August 2017 appointment as Minnesota State High School League associate director overseeing football, Bob Madison heard from 13 programs in crisis.
“I’ve heard: ‘We need help. Our youth numbers are dwindling,’ or ‘We’re not sure if we’ll have a team next year,’ ” said Madison, recalling the e-mails and phone calls to his office or conversations at fall area meetings around the state.
A follow-up survey of state football coaches conducted earlier this year brought the concern into sharper focus: More than half of them said their program is seeing a decline in participation.
Safety issues, including concussions, were cited most often, but sport specialization and changing school enrollments also are big contributors, the survey said.
“Football is not really at a crossroads but there are concerns, not only in the Twin Cities or greater Minnesota, but nationally as well,” said Scott Gonnerman, vice president of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association.
The organization e-mailed an eight-question survey to its 331 registered members in January, seeking to understand to scope of problems while offering possible solutions to activities directors and coaches. The survey, created by the MFCA and supplemented by Madison, received 275 responses, shedding light on not only participation trends but varsity program success rate, youth football in the community and best practices for maintaining or growing participation.
Gonnerman said he couldn’t recall a previous such survey being sent to all members.
Of the nearly 57 percent of coaches who indicated their program lost numbers in the past three years, most described it as a drop of 10 percent or less. But 80 coaches — nearly 30 percent who responded — characterized the decline as moderate (11-15 percent) or concerning (more than 15 percent).
About one in six coaches said their program numbers were growing, while about one in four reported no change.
Those patterns were generally consistent across all seven classes of Minnesota football, a headliner activity among high school sports, as well by metro and outstate programs.
Asked for reasons for the change in participation, coaches most often cited safety concerns (55 percent), which have received considerable attention at all levels of football. Sports specialization was mentioned by 45 percent and changing school enrollment by 36 percent.
“Some coaches tell us that concussions are part of every conversation they have with parents,” Madison said.
The prevalence of sports specialization, with athletes choosing to focus on a single sport and give up playing in others, surprised both Madison and Gonnerman, though both have seen the effects. Gonnerman — who will begin his 18th year coaching football at Benson, about 130 miles west of the Twin Cities — cited a growing number of offseason options, such as fall baseball in his community, drawing athletes away from football.
Other factors mentioned included after-school jobs (21 percent), a program’s competitiveness (14 percent) and players’ unwillingness to commit themselves (11 percent).
“When your program is not going well, it’s one more reason not to play,” said Kevin Merkle, who preceded Madison as the MSHSL’s football overseer.
Merkle said he “never kept track” but added that the 13 programs that Madison heard from when he took over last year “did seem like a higher number than the norm.”
In extreme cases — such as Frazee, which forfeited the 2017 season because of low numbers in the program — problems stemmed from a senior class of one and a junior class of six.
Frazee’s plight “hit me right between the eyes,” Madison said, because his former school, Mounds View, had declining football numbers among seventh- and eighth-grade classes.
Beyond the survey, the MFCA held a Minnesota Football Summit in May. The gathering was the second of its kind in the nation, modeled after Oregon.
“It’s something our coaches were looking for,” Madison said. “It shows communities they are not alone and it’s a way for them to share information.”
The mission was to create a statewide strategy for maintaining interest in football from youth levels through high school and provide communities with resources for supporting football programs. The application? Complicated.
“There isn’t just one magic approach to creating a progression in a community,” Madison said. “It’s a lot of work, and if you’re not winning, it’s even harder.”
Coaches must know not only youth numbers but overall interest, Madison said, adding that low numbers for tackle football might not reflect the amount of flag football players who will transition to helmets and shoulder pads.
As for combating specialization, Madison encourages educating families on the unintended consequences of repetitive motion injuries.
The ebb and flow of school enrollment is beyond any organization’s reach. Gonnerman said Benson, a Class 2A program based on school enrollment, is “about 10 students away from dropping to 1A.”
Madison said the league’s district football model, which creates game schedules for like-sized schools in the same geographic area, allows a chance at the right competitive fit. But coaches must be more proactive than ever to ensure the vitality of their programs.
Survey responses to best practices included on and off-field engagement, from building relationships through summer youth camps, welcome letters to all boys in school, mother-son brunches and father-son nights and passing leagues.
“Even if you’re humming along, it can happen pretty quickly,” Madison said. “It’s not as predictable as it used to be.”