As a sport, American football has lots of problems. The NFL's foibles have been well-documented here at KnowNOW! Marketing, and we all know that the CTE brain injury issue is gaining steam as more evidence mounts that significant numbers of former players have the irreversible disease that is caused by head trauma. Of the two problems, the CTE issue is by far the one that poses the greatest long-term threat to the health of the sport and the billions upon billions of dollars it generates. The NFL might be losing viewers, but football is losing participants.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado found that high school football participation actually peaked back in 2009 and has dropped each year since then. This was well before CTE became a well-known issue, and so there are probably other factors at play in why there are fewer players. The bad news is that there will be less talent in the future as a result and thus a lower quality product at both the collegiate and professional levels. The good news is that flag football participation is actually on the increase, which means that as those leagues become more available to young people, perhaps the slide in football interest overall can be abated.
Since marketers know that people who participate in a particular sport are more likely than the general population to consume that sport as a spectator, it would follow that seeing participation rise at any level is good news--even flag football. And since CTE is now a reality, perhaps flag football is part of the sport's future even on a spectator level. That's hard for many football fans to swallow, and it would surely take a couple of decades for any meaningful changes to take place, if indeed they do take place. But it is hard to ignore shifts in the socio-cultural environment. Changes in attitudes often lead to changes in behaviors, and it's always best if marketers follow a trend from its inception rather than reacting to it much later on in the game.
Perhaps those with a vested financial interest in the game should band together, find out what the current perceptions are through some exhaustive marketing research, and develop a concerted plan to deal with the issue. The "Milk Mustache/Got Milk?" campaigns immediately come to mind. Maybe it's time for the great football minds of our time to take a cue from the dairy industry and work together to raise the entire category. Ignoring a problem means you fail to address it.
Discussion: Do you believe football is in crisis? Why or why not? What would you do to increase youth participation?
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