The Cracks are Starting to Show

Kids are taking to the football field less, and its only a matter of time before the impact is felt at the highest level.

American Europhiles have long heralded the coming of soccer to our shores, claiming it was only a matter of time until the world’s most popular sport finally took hold in the U.S. But for the past century, our country has managed to resist the allure of the Beautiful Game, instead deciding that football will be our sport of choice. Considering that we as a nation historically manage to choose the most consistently self-harming courses of action, this may be the most on brand decision we could have made. But it looks like things are finally starting to change.

The New York Times forcasted soccer surpassing football in popularity — in 1907.

Football teams are folding In Illinois. New York. New Jersey. California. Maine. Colorado. Virginia. Indiana. North Carolina. And more. In Michigan alone, 60 football teams have been cut over the past 5 years. Together, this is more than offsetting increases in places like Arkansas and Florida. Per Reuters, the number of high school students playing sports has increased by 15% since the turn of the century, but over that same time period, football participation has fallen 5%. While that may not sound like much, most of that 5% change has come in the past two years, and only seems to be accelerating. And when a sport requires as many bodies as football does, even a marginal loss is enough to shutter many programs.

While it’s still certainly thriving in the hotbeds of the southeast, awareness of the dangers of playing — as well as the increase in alternative sport options — has steered many away from the game. And with the much publicized death of Maryland’s Jordan McNair — along with a slew of high school students across the country — those dangers are getting harder for players, parents, and administrators to ignore. But it’s not soccer that is benefitting from this pool of athletes in search of a new sport. Track and field seems to be seeing the biggest gain in participation as football declines, and lacrosse and basketball are ascendant as well. We’re even seeing many schools switch to 8v8 flag football as a safer, more manageable alternative — there are now almost a thousand schools across the nation fielding teams. After so many years of people predicting that football would eventually be replaced with soccer, it’ll be nice for them to say they were at least half right.

What happens next? As the pipeline slows and less players are available to fill rosters at the college level, we may begin to see smaller programs shut down. The USCs and Alabamas of the world will be fine at first, but even there we may eventually begin to see a drop in the level of competition, as our best athletes migrate to better paying, less destructive sports. This will continue on to the NFL, where the decreased level of play will further suppress ratings, and the flow of money going from the networks to the League will dry up as broadcasting rights become less valuable. And though as the Times showed above its never wise to make such prognostications, I wouldn’t be shocked to see not soccer but basketball as the preeminent American sport within a few decades.