Tackling the Challenge: How the NFL is Addressing the Decline in Youth Participation in Football

Sunday, January 28, 2024

The One Minute Risk Manager/ERM/Tackling the Challenge: How the NFL is Addressing the Decline in Youth Participation in Football
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With the Super Bowl right around the corner, and it being one of the most watched sporting events in the world, it is appropriate to take a look at the challenges of the sport from an ERM perspective.  Using the ISO 31000 definition of risk, risk is the "effect of uncertainty on the objectives."  The mission statement of the NFL is "We unite people and inspire communities in the joy of the game by delivering the world's most exciting sports and entertainment experience."  Underlying this mission is that it is profit seeking and needs great players to deliver its sports and entertainment experience.  The challenge they have faced over the last decade is the decline in youth participation in the sport...which is the funnel that feeds colleges/universities...and ultimately the league.  

In recent years, there has been a concerning decline in the participation of high school football. Since 2006, the number of boys playing the sport has dropped by 17%, marking it as the most significant decline among the top 10 most popular boys' sports. Moreover, the participation of children aged 6 to 12 in tackle football has also seen a decline of 13% from 2019 to 2022, based on data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). These figures highlight the need for action to address the challenges faced by youth football. The NFL, recognizing the importance of this issue, has taken proactive steps to address the decline and ensure the future of the sport is bright. Through the implementation of various initiatives and programs, the NFL is starting to see the decline in participation slowing and possibly rebounding.

One of the biggest changes was the acknowledgement by the NFL that CTE was a real issue.  For years the League fought the idea that CTE was real and caused by playing the sport.  After the release of the movie "Concussion" in 2015, starring Will Smith, they could no longer deny the evidence  that the game’s very nature could cause brain damage. It is a reality the sport has now gone to great lengths to try to remedy. All 50 states now have laws regarding concussion protocols and rules limiting full-contact practices, and every rule change and advances in helmet design and tackling techniques have attempted to reduce violent collisions and their impacts.

​Still, even with these changes, more evidence of a link between football and brain trauma has grown. In 2023, researchers at Boston University said CTE had been found in the brains of 345 of the 376 (92 percent) former NFL players they studied. And despite rule changes and safety measures, the NFL in 2022 reported an 18 percent rise in concussions, year over year.  This has also led to some states passing laws that youth under the age 12 cannot play tackle football.

So if you are the NFL, seeing your pipeline of athletes dry up...as well as potential future fans of the sport, what do you do?  You create NFL Flag.

The NFL, which reported revenue of more than $18 billion in 2022, has not only embraced flag football but has attempted to co-opt it through its own nationwide league, NFL Flag, which now bills itself as the largest flag football organization in the United States. Last year, the league named star quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson as “Global Flag Ambassadors,” calling the sport “the cornerstone of the NFL’s domestic and international participation and development strategies.” This year’s Pro Bowl was a flag game.

The NFL eventually came to understand this shift from tackle to flag that parents were driving at an early age was actually a boon to the game,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society program, which studies sports participation. “... The barriers for entry are so much lower. It costs less to play. You don’t need 11 players to play. Girls can play. Families can play.”
- From the Washing Post

Flag football has experienced a remarkable surge in youth participation, surpassing tackle football in 2017. Last year, over 1 million children ages 6 to 12 regularly played flag football, while tackle football had approximately 725,000 participants, according to the SFIA. Recognizing this trend, the NFL has embraced flag football as the future of the sport. In fact, top NFL executives have publicly declared that "the future of football is flag". This shift in youth sports preferences has prompted eight states to sanction girls' flag football as an interscholastic sport at the high school level, with many more considering similar steps. It is clear that the NFL sees the rise of flag football as a way to ensure a bright future for the sport.

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