Like most sports, football is all about numbers, such as yards, downs and points.
Those statistics are numbers make up the game.
However, over the past few years, some football numbers aren’t adding up.
“They’re dramatically down from what we’ve had in the past,” said Randy Doty, Templeton Youth Football president. “They’ve been increasingly declining over the last six years.This year we’re considerably low in numbers.”
The number of kids playing football on the Central Coast is getting lower by the year
“From our peak, we’re down about 17 percent,” said Central Coast Youth Football League president Chris Sette.
The Central Coast Youth Football League includes teams from Paso Robles to Santa Ynez.
Sette said the league once had more than 2,500 players. Now, the number of players has declined to about 1,900.
The reduction in players has the potential to significantly impact not just individual community programs, but the entire league.
“Without the flow of kids and the parents and the families that want to take part in the sport, it’s going to be tough to keep that going,” said Sette.
Once community struggling with low football participation is Templeton, which has seen its league dwindle from a high of about 150 players to just 35 this season.
“It makes everything from scheduling to the amount of funding the chapter can get to survive,” Sette said. “You need a certain amount of players to be viable.”
Less players on youth fields means naturally less players that will progress on to the high school level and then further on to college and the pros.
It’s a situation that’s already being felt at many Central Coast high schools.
“We’re definitely on a pretty steep decline in the past three to five years,” said Arroyo Grande athletic director Stephen Field. “We traditionally have pretty good turnout for football. Right now, we’re at about 50 for our freshman. We’re below 30 for our JV’s and our varsity is about 47.”
Field said the drop in player participation at the traditional football powerhouse is down 35 percent.
“I high school football, the more kids have out, the more support, the more help you have. You have more depth within your football team and your football program, so losing that definitely hurts,” said Field, who starred at Arroyo Grande as an offensive lineman before twice earning All-American honors at Cal Poly.
With fewer players coming out for football, schools now have fewer teams to field. Many area schools no longer offer three levels of teams (freshman, junior varsity, varsity)
“At our high school, we have a freshman team, but we didn’t have a JV team,” said Nipomo High School freshman coach Oscar Magallon. “There’s small schools, they don’t even carry a freshman team, they just have what they call a frosh-soph.”
At Mission Prep, numbers are so low this season the program dropped from 11-man to 8-man.
Nationally, youth participation is down more than 700,000 since 2011.
High school numbers are dropping as well. In California, participation is off more than 3 percent in the last year according to the California Interscholastic Federation.
With numbers dropping, the big question for football leaders is why and what can be done to stop it?
“Football is very physical sport,” Field said. “There is a lot of contact obviously and with that creates the potential for things to happen unfortunately and I think people are choosing to not participate.”
The threat of head injuries is a significant reason many parents are now electing to keep their children off the field.
It’s a situation Rob Simas of Nipomo can relate to. His nine-year-old son began his second year of football in August when he suffered a head injury in practice.
“He ended up tripping up over another defensive team member, falling straight back on the back his head,” said Simas.
After suffering a concussion, Simas’ son soon had another. After the second head injury, the family decided to end his brief football career.
“He’s over it,” said Simas. “He doesn’t want to go back. He’s thinking about possibly going and playing golf.”
As the dangers of concussions become known, football leagues at all levels are responding.
“This is probably the safest last few years that we’ve ever had,” said Doty. “Between the helmets, between the training that we go through, between the referees, there’s so many different steps in protecting the children, protecting the kids on the field and in practice, where that wasn’t in place 10 years ago.”
More attention to concussion prevention gives comfort to football parent like Mireya Cuevas. The Nipomo mother has two players who play in the Nipomo Youth Football league.
“I’m fully aware of them and I think as long as you’re aware of them and know the signs of a concussion and if they can get treated in a timely manner then i think it’s a pretty safe sport, they’re well protected, so I think my boys will continue to play,” said Cuevas.
Beside concerns about concussions, there are several other factors also pulling players away from the gridiron.
“There’s a lot more options out there than there was 10-to-15 years ago, where we now have 23 sports and that wasn’t always the case,” said Field.
More kids playing fewer sports or simply concentrating on just one.
Kids that do play are required, as are their parents, to give maximum commitment and support, something that can be challenging for families.
“With school, with life, with everything that’s going on, I think it’s a difficult task for maybe a single parent to undertake,” said Doty. “Getting Johnny to practice, then home to do homework, and then traveling down to where ever on Saturdays for football games, so I think that has a lot to do with it as well.”
According to Magallon, who also serves the Nipomo Football League president, coaching plays a big role in keeping players in the sport.
“You have to have the right coaches down at that level because that’s the beginning stage,” said Magallon. “They’re learning how to tackle, they’re learning their stance, all the proper stuff and if you do it in a way that they’re enjoying it and you get a little discipline, it’s a win for us.”
Magallon adds that making sure kids stay enthusiastic about the sport is a key aspect in having them want to return in future years.
“I think if the kids have a good experience, starting with the bantam level, and working their way up, then you get kids coming back,” said Magallon. “If the parent have a good experience too with the coaching, they decide to bring their kids back to the program also.”
In an effort to bring in more players, local youth teams are being proactive, using community outreach, education and other new ideas to recruit more players.
“We need to get out there and state our story that it’s becoming safer and safer,” said Sette. “We need to promote our sport. We need to get to the younger families that have the kids to fill our programs.”
Sette also said the league’s annual all-star game is a popular way to build community engagement, as is creating a connection with high school teams.
“We’re pushing the all-stars, we’re pushing the social interaction with our high school teams and just trying to get them excited, as excited as we can about a really good sport that can build your life,” said Sette.
Building programs is vital for the youth leagues, as well as high school teams that rely on the pipeline.
Without it, the game is over.
“I think people are passionate about football and I think that the more that we stay on top of that and stay on top of things, I’m hopeful that we can keep the ball moving,” said Field.
Sette is also optimistic about the future of football despite the current challenges.
“I believe it’s going to be here as long as we keep it strong and as long as we work at it,” said Sette. “We have got to keep these kids interested. In my experience, once a kids steps on this field for the first time, he’s hooked, she’s hooked. They love it and they’re going to stay.”