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The Decline of Football in the US, II

The Decline of Football in the US, II

So What about Football?


Last week, this column began an inquiry into the economics of football: is football as much of a money-machine as most people think it to be? Will football, the game which so many people have fond memories of, someday cease to be a mammoth of sports and make room for another sport; or will football continue to remain strong, and grow even stronger?


This week, we continue our investigation into this issue, from a slightly different perspective than from observations of a student at a university with a very large football program.


There are several ways, I think, that we can look into this issue; but the first thing we should look into is the popularity of the sport in children and teenagers. Like anything, if you cut off something from its source – in this case, the source being children who play football – eventually the action will cease. In January of this year, the Wall Street Journal noticed just this: “While football still draws crowds to the TV set, participation in the sport in U.S. high schools was down 2.3% in the 2012-13 season from the 2008-09 season, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations” [1]. By comparison, it continues, basketball participation fell by 1.8%. Further into the WSJ’s investigation, it cites another study, which concluded that organized football participation is down about 4.9% since 2008, amongst children younger than high school-aged.


Forget ticket prices, poorly-coached teams and lackluster schedules, if fewer kids are even interested in playing, it does not look great for a sport with traditionally as much power as football.


What might also be noteworthy is that many school districts, faced with budget concerns, are cutting sports programs, or combining with nearby schools, and this is driving kids to either move or to quit their sport entirely. NPR suggests that with school budgets being cut, football might be the first to stop being supported – because it’s disproportionally more expensive than other sports, because it is single-sex and because there is so much controversy about violence and injury [2].


It looks like the future of football might not be as bright as it was in the past.


But we are merely speculating, based on evidence for young and high school-aged children. What about football right now?


Ben Magrum in his article “Is College Football Profitable for Universities,” tackles the notion that college football programs benefit their universities [3]. While it is true that about 8% of college football programs generate large sums of money, which can be distributed to sports that are not profitable (his example: most Women’s Varsity sports), it is a far stretch to conclude that most football programs do this. In fact, Magrum writes, “figures from the 2010-11 academic year show that only 22 of the 120 top-tier football programs broke even or made a profit. That means that while these big-time teams generate millions of dollars of revenue, the cost of running such programs usually exceeds that revenue…82% of college football teams actually take away money from the university’s budget.” Magrum is referring to the fact that it is not commonly understood that universities subsidize large football programs.


Citing a study of Benedict and Keteyian, Magrum adds: “Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools spent more than $91,000 per athlete compared with just over $13,000 per student. Yet students across the country faced steep tuition hikes and increased fees.”


Perhaps, then, the more immediate issue that football programs face is the backlash of their students. As I suggested last week, students can hardly justify spending more and more money each year to watch football games at home stadiums, instead of paying a few dollars to watch the game at a local bar, or watching from home.


And these rising ticket prices, atop an ever-increasing tuition; at University of Michigan, students received an email from Provost Martha Pollack that tuition would, again, increase in the academic year 2014-2015: this time, 1.6% for in-state students and 3.4% for out-of-state students [4].


The Wall Street Journal backs up this claim, saying that student attendance at football games was down 7.1% overall since 2009, and down 5.6% in the 5 richest football conferences [5].


Traditionally Full Michigan Student Section

Traditionally Full Michigan Student Section (Retrieved from


Retrieved from

A Recent Michigan Student Section (Retrieved from



Therefore, it does not seem to be outrageous to at least suspect that football might be negligible in the near future. Increasing school tuitions are causing backlash from students, which causes administration to find ways to keep prices low. One way to do this might be to cut aid to football programs – like high schools are doing around the country right now; and because most football programs are either not profitable or only slightly profitable, it’s not unrealistic to foresee programs cutting back. These things, combined with a decreasing number of boys playing football spells trouble.


Do you think that football will bounce back, or will it continue to decline? Let us know, by joining our discussion on the web!



[1] Wallerson, Ryan. (31 January, 2014). Youth participation weakens in basketball, football, baseball, soccer. Retrieved from the Wall Street Journal.

[2] Deford, Frank. (16 March, 2011). Budge cuts put school sports on chopping block. Retrieved from

[3] Magrum, Ben. (27 March, 2014). Is college football profitable for universities? Retrieved from

[4] Pollack, M. (2014). U of M tuition and fees 2014-2015 academic year. [email].

[5] Cohen, Ben. (27 August, 2014). At college football games, student sections likely to have empty seats. Retrieved from the Wall Street Journal.