Sports

Football in decline, but more popular than ever

Ogden column: It's winter, but this game still rules

North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after b
North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz raises the trophy alongside quarterback Trey Lance (5) as they celebrate after beating James Madison, 28-20, in the FCS championship NCAA college football game on Saturday in Frisco, Texas. (Associated Press)

It’s the second weekend of 2020 and nothing in this wonderful world of sports is bigger than football.

Think about that.

We’re midway through the basketball season for high schools and college, not to mention the NBA. The Iowa men’s and women’s teams just upset nationally ranked Maryland squads. But what’s the biggest chatter among Hawkeye fans? Will Tristan Wirfs and A.J. Epenesa forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL Draft?

Wrestling, a major sport in this state, held one of its biggest events over the weekend, the multi-divisional National Duals for small-college teams. Wartburg won its 12th D-III title, beating No. 1 Augsburg for the crown. Grand View won its ninth straight NAIA championship.

That, however, didn’t make it to a television set near you. Saturday belonged to the NFL with the 49ers and Titans advancing to conference championship games. There also was the FCS championship game, where North Dakota State won its eighth national title in nine seasons.

The FBS champion will be crowned Monday night in New Orleans and the Clemson-LSU game will draw a big crowd and bigger TV ratings.

After televising the FCS championship Saturday, ABC aired a wonderful ESPN college football documentary titled “Football is US: The College Game,” with segments on Jack Trice, among others, and the passion players feel for the game.

Even NPR got in the weekend mood with a segment on its “Only a Game” program called “how some colleges benefit from adding (or dropping) football.”

It’s cold. It’s winter. Yet football remains king.

On the other hand, football is in trouble. It’s a dying sport, some will tell you.

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Numbers are dropping at the grassroots level. The National Federation of State High School Associations released in September participation numbers had declined for the first time in 30 years.

The main culprit? Football (and boys’ basketball).

“Participation in boys 11-player football declined by 30,829 participants to 1,006,013 — the lowest mark since 1,002,734 in the 1999-2000 school year,” the release noted.

In Iowa, there were 17,011 11-player participants in 2016-17. In ’18-19, that number had dropped to 15,984.

Yet nothing stirs emotions in a high school like its football program.

Football is a brutal sport. Head injuries are a serious problem and, likely, a major reason numbers are down at the high school level.

But the college and NFL games appear stronger than ever.

Why?

“... it’s a sort of popular perception that (football is) in decline everywhere,” New York Times reporter Bill Pennington said in the aforementioned NPR program. “But that’s really not so. ...

“It’s sort of the dichotomy that’s going on about this sport in America. There are people that see it as a danger — and this includes colleges ... And there are schools that see it as a panacea for all kinds of things.”

Others will tell you it’s the rivalries or the tailgating or “chess match” that draws an audience and inspires such strong emotions.

I don’t have the answers, but I know if I’m going to sit in front of my TV for three hours at a time, it better be something that excites me. Lots of sports can do that, but none as consistently as football.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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