Football’s wane hasn’t reached Lehigh Valley
While teams nationwide lose players, participation remains strong in Colonial League, EPC programs
While nationwide participation in high school football has trended downward over the past five years, the Lehigh Valley remains one of the spots where the sport is healthy.
The Morning Call contacted the 12 Colonial League schools that play football, plus the 12 Eastern Pennsylvania Conference programs in the Lehigh Valley. Athletic directors at 16 of those 24 schools responded, with 14 ADs reporting that football roster sizes at their schools have remained steady or grown over the past three to five years.
The United States, meanwhile, has had 77,604 fewer high school football players, or 7.2%, over the past five years,
according to National Federation of State High School Association survey data. The NFHS, which consists of 50 state associations and the District of Columbia, has compiled yearly participation surveys since 1971. The PIAA is one of the state associations that reports participation data to the NFHS.
Pennsylvania is one of 43 states in which participation in 11-player tackle football decreased last year, though the drop was minuscule. The state went from 25,605 players to 25,515, a decrease of 90 players, or 0.35%.
Over the past five years, Pennsylvania has experienced only a 1.9% drop. That number is consistent with the state’s 2.0% population drop in high school-age boys (data is for ages 15-19) from 2014-17 (census data isn’t available yet for last year).
When factoring in population changes of high schoolage boys (0.65% increase), participation nationally in football has decreased by 7.8%.
Roster sizes nationwide have also seen only a small dip. The average roster has gone from 73 boys to 70 boys (freshman, junior varsity and varsity) over the past two years. The number of schools offering 11-player tackle football actually increased by 168 last season, climbing to 14,247 schools.
The increased awareness of concussions and their longterm health impact is often cited as a prime reason for declining numbers in high school football nationwide. While fear of concussions may account for a few kids not playing football locally, Lehigh Valley athletic directors who responded to The Morning Call did not mention concussion
“The key is, are these kids going to stick together?” — Catasauqua Athletic Director Tom Moll
fears as a drain on rosters.
Catasauqua Athletic Director Tom Moll said on-field struggles, not concussions, have led to smaller football rosters at his school. The Rough Riders have featured around 30 varsity and junior varsity players the past two seasons. Their roster size sat in the low 40s earlier this decade when the team enjoyed more success.
A good middle school team could boost Catasauqua’s football participation in the next few years.
“The key is, are these kids going to stick together?” Moll said. “Are they going to stay here in terms of going to school here? All that stuff is such a big variable.”
Having a few small classes can also cause football rosters to fluctuate. Northern Lehigh had four straight years with single-digit player participation per grade. Its numbers have started trending upward again, putting it on pace to feature the 40 or so varsity and JV players that were common earlier in the decade.
Bryan Geist, Northern Lehigh athletic director and Colonial League president, said good leadership at the youth level has helped boost participation.
“We bottomed out last year at 31,” Geist said. “This year we’re up to 38, and with our seventh and eighth graders, we have two classes of 13 participating in football. So we’re projecting to be in the low 40s next year and the mid-40s by the following year.”
While smaller Colonial League schools such as Catasauqua, Northern Lehigh and Pen Argyl struggle with roster size at times, the league’s larger schools are fine. Southern Lehigh, Northwestern Lehigh and Saucon Valley reported consistent roster numbers in the high 40s to low 50s. Wilson’s roster returned to the mid-50s this season after it dipped to the high 30s in 2016.
Lehigh Valley schools in the EPC, which features larger schools than the Colonial League, have plenty of studentss playing football. Nowhere is that more evident than Easton, where roster totals from middle school to high school top 200 players. The Red Rovers feature 109 players on their junior varsity and varsity rosters.
Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty and Northampton also reported steady football participation for freshman, JV and varsity football. Freedom, for instance, has averaged 55 varsity and JV football players in the past three to five years, Athletic Director Nate Stannard said in an email. Its freshman numbers have increased over the past two years, with 35 players turning out this season.
While Pennsylvania’s participation has remained steady (0.1% increase) over the past five years when factoring change in population, four other states experienced increases. Hawaii (4.4%) had the largest increase, followed by Vermont (3.8%), North Dakota (3.5%) and Alabama (2.2%). Washington, D.C., had an 11.2% increase, but because of its small population, minimal changes can appear as large percentage swings.
The five states that have experienced the biggest decreases in the last five years are New York (21%), Alaska (18.3%), Illinois (16.8%), New Mexico (16.2%) and Iowa (15.6%).
Catasauqua has watched its football roster shrink in the past two years, but a good middle school team could reverse that trend in the next couple of years.