Two years after COVID-19 related restrictions both led to a decrease in youth, high school and college football action across the country, participation on the amateur ranks appears to be trending upward once again, and the NFL aims to do its part to help further that growth.
Last month while the NFL world descended upon Indianapolis for the scouting combine, the league’s football operations department hosted its annual NFL Youth Stakeholders Forum with the goal of both partnering with youth, high school and college programs with the goal of improving health and safety practices, while also learning of the needs that the NFL and its teams can help meet on a local and national level.
The NFL has committed to give more than $2 million in grant money to support youth and high school programs across the country. Many of those programs share partnerships with current and former NFL players, who as members of the Legends Youth Advisory Committee, serve as a bridge between communities and the league and a sounding board for youth programs like Pop Warner, USA Football and American Youth Football.
Last month’s forum served as a renewal of the league’s partnerships with grassroots football programs and organizations and companies geared towards strengthening the amateur ranks of the game.
“The goal this year is to be better informed on what’s going on in the landscape and try to find solutions together – Riddell, NFL Foundation, our clubs, National Federation of High Schools,” Roman Oben, the NFL’s vice president of football development, told USA TODAY Sports. “We are trying to maintain a better flow of communication throughout the year so we can be ahead of the issues before they fall in our lap.”
Oben, who played 12 seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2003, added, “Every year there’s a different issue, and we want to make sure we’re educating each other on our own verticals. If Riddell can share information on production, materials, trucking, distribution and how that’s impacting equipment, that helps coaches be more prepared on helmet reconditioning. If we’re working with the National Federation of High Schools on how to develop a free virtual tackling certification clinic, that helps all high schools. We don’t just care about the schools whose players end up at Alabama or the NFL. We care about everybody, because most high school coaches don’t coach players that will end up at Alabama and the NFL.”
Oben and his team hope that collaborations will also help lead to safer and more enjoyable experiences for youth players, which in turn will lead to increased participation in both tackle and flag leagues.
In recent years, the amateur ranks of football had experienced declines in participation, first because of concerns over concussions and head-related injuries, and then because of the pandemic.
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In the last five years, tackle and touch football programs offered to participants ages 6 and up had seen numbers decline from around roughly 12,700 youths in 2015 to just under 10,000 in 2020, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), which partners with the NFL on research and education on the amateur levels. Meanwhile, flag football numbers increased from roughly 5,829 in 2015 to 7,000 in 2020. Last fall, as COVID-19 numbers began to decline, tackle and touch football figures experienced modest growth to just more than 10,000 participants nationwide while flag football numbers dipped slightly to just less than 6,900 youths.
SFIA officials anticipate a continued resurgence in 2022, however.
“We think ’22 will be a really strong year for team sports because so many more places will be open and there’s a real awareness that kids need to be in a position of getting back to physical activities, out of the house,” Tom Cove, the president and CEO of SFIA, told USA TODAY Sports. “You see a lot about mental illness and the stress on kids and teens. The surgeon general has really highlighted that American teens are really in a stressful time right now, and a lot of terrible things like drug abuse and suicide, so there’s a real interest in pushing for opportunity for people to play sports, and football is one of the most egalitarian because in football, they don’t cut. In most high schools, you can’t make a baseball or basketball team if you haven’t been a travel player, but in football, you can still make the team even if you’re no good, or slow, or no good. You can still wear the jersey, might not get to play, but can be on the sideline on Friday nights. So football really speaks to a need right now.”
Cove believes that along with opportunity and quality education, strong communication from youth organizations, operating with the goal of forming partnerships with families will lead to further growth of the game.
But many youth leagues have encountered challenges related to resources, which is why the NFL and equipment partner Riddell are working to help meet those needs by offering grants to grassroots organizations.
This summer, Riddell and Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning will resume the Smarter Football community outreach program and donate protective equipment to multiple youth organizations in lower income areas.
“Riddell – (with) and through partners like the NFL and its clubs, USA Football, Pop Warner, Good Sports and more – commits significant resources to equipment grant programs designed to reach deserving organizations,” Riddell vice president of marketing and communications Erin Griffin explained. “Grant programs like these are particularly important following the hardship faced by the football community during the pandemic, which was compounded in some cases by natural disasters.”
Early this summer, Riddell will begin accepting grant applications from low-budget youth football organizations, and the equipment company aims to provide those awards in time for the start of the 2022 seasons.
Meanwhile, the NFL will soon roll out a series of free virtual coaching clinics intended to improve the quality of instruction provided by youth and high school coaches. Additionally, the league and the NCAA are in the process of launching a collaborative effort that will educate high school athletes on eligibility requirements for continuing their careers on the collegiate level. It’s expected that the unveiling of that program will take place later this month.
“We all have to be more aligned on mutually beneficial goals,” Oben said of the league and its suppliers and youth football partners. “Because if someone is not playing football, they’re not buying equipment, or they’re not engaging, they’re less likely to become a fan. It affects everything. … So, we all have to work together on developing better practices from a football standpoint.”