After years of increasing safety concerns from parents brought on by greater awareness about risks of brain and other injuries, football leaders finally have good news to celebrate: a modest, one-year jump in the number of children playing the game.
A total of 1.23 million youth ages 6-12 played tackle football in 2015, up from 1.216 million the year before, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which commissions an annual survey of participation rates in United States households across a range of sports.
Participation in flag football within that age group saw a slightly larger jump, from 1.086 million to 1.142 million.
Sport leaders have become more attuned to participation rates in recent years, in part due to research showing that youth who play a sport are more likely than nonparticipants to become fans of it, as those affinities extend into adulthood.
"One year does not make a trend, but it's a good sign," said Tom Cove, CEO of SFIA. "If you look at the last four years, the numbers have been relatively stable, particularly in the [core], which is the most objective measure of parents making decisions about their children playing the sport in a serious way."
The most engaged children are "core participants," which SFIA defines as anyone who plays football 26 or more times during the year. These are the children typically involved in organized tackle leagues, in which there were an estimated 991,000 youth involved last year, up 3.3 percent from 2014 and not far from the pre-recession levels of 1 million-plus.
There are caveats to the bump in numbers, however.
A record 4.3 million children were born in the U.S. in 2007 -- they are now around age 8, when communities begin to offer tackle football. As a share of the age 6-12 population, the total participation rate remained the same as the past year, 4.2 percent.
Further, taking the biggest hit in recent years is casual participation, which has long been considered important to building the pipeline for the game. Throwing a football in the backyard with friends on an occasional basis can pique interest and lead to signing up for a league as children move toward high school. Only one in four kids play occasionally now, down from one in three in 2010.
There is evidence of declining interest once adolescence hits. Among teenagers ages 13-17 who are core participants, tackle football saw a drop in both total numbers and in share of the population playing the game between 2014 (1.631 million, 7.5 percent) and '15 (1.566 million, 7.1 percent). Core participation was at 9 percent in 2011, during the recession, but it hasn't recovered.
Across the board, in the 6-12 and 13-17 age groups, participation in football on a regular and casual basis is down since 2009, before the risks of youth playing the game began to grow, partly due to research findings and a number of former NFL players saying they would keep their kids from football or delay their entry into tackle until adolescence.
In 2009, 3.96 million youth ages 6-17 played tackle football. Last year, that number fell to 3.21 million, down from 3.25 million in 2014.
Cove said he recognizes the safety concerns but notes that other factors are placing pressure on football's numbers.
"If you go to any high school coach whose numbers are down, they'll point to sport specialization," said Cove, noting the trend of youth athletes being asked to play a single sport nearly year-round as early as grade school. "Is that part of it? Definitely. And it's probably other things as well, including potential risk of injury and time constraints."
On Monday, Outside the Lines re-aired a 2014 feature on NFL marketing to mothers of young children, in response to comments by Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians' saying parents who won't allow their children to play "are fools" and blaming moms for the caution.
The data in the piece was the most recently available in 2013, when it was produced, and cited a 28.6 percent drop among ages 6-12 since 2008. The new data from 2015 was provided by SFIA and Sports Marketing Surveys USA, the firm that conducts the household survey, to the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program in connection with its Project Play youth sports project. It shows that over the past year, most team sports are flat, slightly up or slightly down at the two levels traditionally measured by SFIA for youth, ages 6-12 and ages 13-17.
In March, USA Football issued a news release touting the one-year bump in youth rates, though it cut the age groups in a different manner. Citing SFIA data reflecting casual and core participants, the group said tackle football among children ages 6-14 (pre-high school age) increased 1.9 percent to 2.169 million, while participation among ages 15-18 (high school plus some first-year college players) increased 2.5 percent to 1.248 million.
"Football participation increases, even modest increases, may signal that medically endorsed programs, including our Heads Up Football program and practice guidelines, are making a positive difference," USA Football CEO Scott Hallenbeck said in a statement. "It's clear that coaching education -- including concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and sudden cardiac protocols is improving and driving behavior change."
However, it's also clear that USA Football efforts with Pop Warner and other community programs so far have had a minimal impact nationally, as the latest SFIA data shows most youth coaches are untrained in areas related to safety.
In 2015, only 43.8 percent of adults who coached youth football (ages 14 and under) in the past five years say they were trained in concussion management, up from 43.6 percent in 2012. Another 51.6 percent said they were trained in CPR/basic first aid, 46.8 percent in general safety and injury prevention, 48.2 percent in physical conditioning, and 33.9 percent in sport skills and tactics -- all down from 2012.
Cove, a board member at USA Football, said those numbers need to improve.
"I don't think there's any question Heads Up Football is making a difference," he said. "The problem is all of these unregulated community programs around the country. Football, more than other youth sports, is highly dispersed. We have to move away from the era in which if you played high school football, you're OK to coach kids."