The Biggest Threat to the Future of Football

As the football industry prepares to celebrate its pinnacle annual contest on Sunday — this time between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots — Footwear News takes a look at the biggest factors impacting the sport’s future.

In recent years, football has faced several PR challenges. To list just a few, there was the never-ending Deflategate, debates about Native American mascots and conflict over NFL players making political statements or even wearing nonregulation cleats on the field. And of course, there is the real and serious issue of safety for athletes of all ages.

But according to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, one of the greatest threats to the future of football is sports specialization among young athletes.

Julio Jones Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons.
CREDIT: AP Images.

Each year, the Silver Spring, Md.-based organization analyzes team sports participation in America, for 13 major sports including football, basketball, baseball, cheerleading and tennis. In its most recent data set, for 2015 (SFIA is in the midst of finalizing its 2016 numbers), it recorded an across-the-board increase in team sports participation among young people. That’s the good news.

“The bad news is that the core participation numbers for people who play between 13 and 25 times per year has gone down over a five-year period in some significant way,” Tom Cove, president & CEO of SFIA, told FN. “Of those 13 major sports, only three increased [in core participation]: ice hockey, lacrosse and rugby.”

Why is this decline important to the sports industry? First, core participants matter to manufacturers as consumers. Casual players won’t spend much on shoes and gear, but regular players will. “Their families are willing to invest a substantial amount in product and in the commitment to the sport: travel, training, lessons, everything,” said Cove.

They also matter because these athletes could become the next superstars of college or professional leagues such as the NFL. Those institutions need healthy youth and high school programs to cultivate tomorrow’s big talents.

Odell Beckham Jr. Craig Sager Nike Kickasso.
Odell Beckham Jr. playing against the Detroit Lions in his Craig Sager-inspired custom Nike cleats by Kickasso.
CREDIT: AP Images.

After analyzing the possible causes of the participation decline, Cove and his team have pinpointed sports specialization, which in essence requires kids to focus on one sport year-round.

On the surface, that seems like a good thing. After all, mastery of any skill requires dedication.

But Cove points to a number of unfavorable results. “Playing 12 months of the year at 12 years old might make you really good when you’re 13, but it’s probably not a great thing to do for most kids,” he said. “Over time, kids get burned out and quit. Also, the cost goes up with specialization, and you’re driving out other kids who might show up to play.”

One bright spot for football is that out of all team sports, it tends to have the least amount of specialization. In fact, participation goes up in high school, unlike other activities.

“Football is completely different from, say, basketball,” said Cove. “Football doesn’t cut; football needs as many people as they can get. And frankly, you don’t have to be that good at it. You can be a big kid who’s not that coordinated, a small kid who’s fast or just a normal kid, and they will welcome you on the team.”

Clemson's Wayne Gallman
Clemson’s Wayne Gallman runs during the first half of the NCAA college football championship game.
CREDIT: John Bazemore/AP/REX/Shutterstock

However , the sport does have its own particular challenges with safety and concussions. While the SFIA’s data doesn’t currently show safety having a large adverse affect on participation — remember: the three team sports that are growing were all high-impact — Cove emphasized that the issue must be addressed.

“Football has a very real challenge to address perception and reality,” he said. “Parents want to make sure that whatever program they put their kids into is safe. Good programs can answer those questions and bad programs can’t, and bad programs are going to go away very fast.”

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