Big Foot’s homecoming football game and the two games leading up to it were canceled. The school only has six seniors on its football team, and key players got hurt.
District administrator Doug Parker said ideally, each class would have about 15 football players. But over the last several seasons, fewer kids are playing. It made canceling the game feel like the only safe option.
“If we had JV kids eligible to play, we would — but we’re not going to put a 5-foot-1, 110-pound freshman on a varsity football field, just to play a varsity game,” Parker said.
Big Foot is not alone. Across Wisconsin, high school football teams have had to forfeit games this season. Participation in the sport has declined for the last decade – and this year, some schools are finding they no longer have enough back-up players to finish out their season.
Wisconsin saw a nearly 25 percent decrease in participation in 11-player football from 2009 to 2019, which is the most recent data available from the National Federation of State High School Associations. The state has seen the biggest decline in high school football participation in the country, according to the association.
Using the WPR’s starting point, the NFHS documented 30,823 athletes playing 11-player football in 2008-09 in Wisconsin. Compared to the 23,154 in 2018-19, that’s a plummet of 24.9%.
Yet, the addition of 646 athletes in the reduced-player format for 2018-19 only softens the decline (2008-09 season to 2018-19) to 23%. If we used the NFHS number from the 2022-23 season (23,371), it’s a drop of 24% since 2008-09; though, making a comparison with more current data means we’re operating with the new variable of impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schools in Wisconsin — one of 26 states to support a level of reduced-player football — began fielding eight-player teams in 2013 as a means of maintaining programs in rural areas and among schools with declining enrollment and participation. In 2022, there were 57 schools supporting eight-player football in Wisconsin. This year, there are 65. Naturally, that means some schools are flipping from 11-player participation. In 2022, there were 366 schools supporting 11-