B.C. high school football participation falls to 10-year low

There are 12 fewer schools are competing in the high school football than there were a decade ago.

Concussions, coaches and cost all cited as reasons for decline

High school football in B.C. has struggled to attract players, but organizers hope new tackling techniques and improved coaching can allay concerns over concussions and cost. (Matthew Black / CBC)

For close to six decades, high school football had been a tradition at Hugh Boyd Secondary in Richmond, B.C.

But dwindling student interest coupled with the retirement of two teachers who doubled as coaches forced the closure of the city's last remaining high school football program at the end of the 2017 season. 

"We knew it was tenuous," said Bill Haddow, who coached the school's team along with his brother Bruce for four decades.  

"It was painful," Haddow said of seeing the program they had led for so long wind down. "We were the third-longest running football school in the province."

It's a trend that's playing out across the province, with the number of schools fielding football teams falling over the past decade.

A lack of dedicated coaches is just one reason blamed for the drop, with schools also citing a growing awareness and concern over concussion injuries, and the cost of running a football program. 

Fewer teams

CBC News reviewed a decade's worth of standings for senior-level high school teams in B.C.

The data shows a general participation decrease over the past 10 years, with the overall number of teams dropping from 57 in 2009 to 45 in 2018, including a decrease in each of the past five seasons. 

While participation has held relatively steady for Lower Mainland schools, the number of teams from Vancouver Island and the rest of B.C. have fallen steadily over the past decade.

Home to 10 football schools as recently as 2011, the Island had only half that many teams take to the field this year. Similarly, the number of teams from the Interior fell from a dozen teams in 2009 to eight in 2018. 

Concussion concerns

"I think a lot of that has to do with contact sports in general," said Brien Gemmell, president of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association (BCSSFA). "There's been a lot of talk around concussions and injuries."

Gemmell says the BCSSFA believes football-related head injuries are decreasing, though the numbers are difficult to confirm. The association cites its efforts to limit full-contact practices and teach players tackling techniques designed to minimize violent collisions.

"We've been teaching kids to take the head out of the contact areas," he said.  

Nonetheless, head injuries remain a concern for parents. 

"I was a bit nervous about the whole concussion thing," said Nataly Bos, whose son played three seasons for Vernon Secondary. 

Bos says the school's coach convinced her to let her son play, and that the school and league were taking proper player safety precautions.

"[The coach] was like, 'you know what? We really look after our boys,'" said Bos. "They have the best gear and they teach them how to tackle." 

Parents Danusha Ryan (in blue) and Nataly Bos (in grey) were among those who travelled from Vernon to Vancouver for the high school football playoffs. (Matthew Black / CBC)

Those who let their sons play say the risks are worth the rewards. 

"I'm proud of every single boy that plays on these teams," said Danusha Ryan, a parent from Vernon whose son plays on the school's offensive line. 

"We go and we support our teams," she said. "We're a family, a whole community." 

"It enhances your education experience," said Gemmell of playing high school football. "It creates accountability but it also creates a brotherhood and camaraderie." 

Coaching crunch

But finding teachers willing to volunteer to coach and administer those teams has proven difficult for some schools. 

"It's very expensive to run, so you have to have a really extremely motivated coaching staff," Gemmell said. 

Without those individuals programs can falter, as Haddow knows from Hugh Boyd, where football fizzled after his departure.

Brien Gemmell, president of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association, says high school football can be a rewarding experience for those who play and volunteer. (Matthew Black / CBC)

Schools offer widely varying levels of funding for things like equipment and administration, meaning teams are often kept afloat in large part through fees paid by parents.

"It's always been a costlier sport," Haddow said. "It's a lot more than buying a pair of shorts and a singlet for basketball."

'Laptop athletes'

At Hugh Boyd, Haddow found mustering the two dozen players for a bare minimum of a roster was an increasingly difficult battle in recent years.

He says Hugh Boyd's program had enough players for a team this season, but lacked a coach to lead the squad. 

"I do believe in my heart of hearts there was enough bodies to run a team this year," said Haddow.

Football, he said, shares the struggle of attracting players with most other sports.

Bill Haddow coached Hugh Boyd football teams alongside his brother for more than four decades. (Bill Haddow)

"This electronic age that we're in has turned a lot of kids into desktop, laptop athletes," he said. 

"I think a lot of these kids think they're actually playing football or playing sports when they're battling it out with their friends online." 

Signs of comeback

There are signs that football's plunge in popularity may have plateaued. 

This season, Sardis Secondary in Chilliwack resurrected a program that had been dormant for more than a decade, and Sullivan Heights Secondary in Surrey added a team as well.

In Kelowna, Okanagan Mission Secondary looks set to bring back its team next season after having not participated since 2012.

Still, Haddow worries for the future of football as we know it. 

"With some numbers playing flag football ... you know, there may come a day where that's football," he said, referring to the non-contact version of the game.

"It's hard to believe."

About the Author

Matthew Black

@TheMatthewBlack

Matthew Black is a B.C.-based writer, producer and reporter. He writes mostly about sports and has worked for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver as well as abroad in London.