PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — In Florida, football is king and Tampa Bay has been home to powerhouse programs pumping out top talent, but the I-Team found a significant drop in player participation is leaving some schools struggling to field a team.
The number of Florida varsity football players dipped to its lowest since 2012, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern uncovered the decline in football rosters for Pinellas and Hillsborough since 2015 – an emerging trend across Florida and the nation.
Just this week, Gulf High School in Pasco County cancelled the remainder of its football season this week due to a lack of players and a string of injuries, including three concussions and one broken leg.
The struggle to field a team
In Tarpon Springs, the city is steeped in gridiron tradition.
“Football’s always been big,” said local business owner Vasile Faklis. “Local pride and we're a close-knit community.”
Faklis has had a front-row view of the homecoming parade for the Tarpon Spongers from his downtown store, Faklis Department Store and Shoe Repair, for as long as he can remember.
“Football’s huge,” said Faklis, the third-generation owner of his family store. “My father played and some of my uncles played for Tarpon High back in the 40s…back with the leather helmet days.”
At a recent Friday night game, Tarpon Springs Mayor Chris Alahouzos said, “We’ve been to championships so many different times.”
Every Friday night is a hometown reunion, said Alahouzos, who pointed out I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern also graduated from Tarpon High.
But this season has been tough to watch for fans. With six games on the books, the Spongers scored just one touchdown, with a loss of 88-0 on the record.
The team did finally post a win against Gulf High School – which canceled its season shortly after.
“The score was very difficult, but now, we’re looking at it as a learning process. It’s a period that the team is growing,” said Alahouzos.
The losing record comes after concerns not enough players would turn out to field a varsity team. There were not enough kids to support a junior varsity team this year.
Still, Alahouzos holds out hope, saying, “This is our team, this is our culture and the heritage that we have. Football is always Tarpon Springs.”
But some fans are divided.
“Oh, certainly. Certainly,” said Vernon Page when asked if had kids today whether he would let them play.
But his wife, Nancy, interjected: “Ha! No.”
Faklis said he remains a fan.
“You don’t give up on your team,” he said. “You’re always concerned about injuries. It’s a rough sport, but we love to watch it and support it.”
The reason for the decline in players
Pinellas County Schools Athletic Director Al Bennett said he’s thought through several reasons for the declining participation.
“The youth football leagues where kids start at 8-years-old – that’s declining. That’s struggling, so I think perhaps parents, kids are choosing other sports early on and they’re not filtering in to the varsity high school football,” said Bennett.
Bennett noted he’s seeing an increase in other high school sports at the same time football participation is declining.
“Soccer has trended up,” said Bennett. “We added lacrosse in Pinellas County – there’s participation interest in that and basketball. Basketball has trended up over the last three to four years.”
The I-Team found participation in high school soccer in Florida jumped from 15,769 in 2013 to 19,923 last year.
When it comes to football, Bennett said, “There is… a little bit of a scare for some parents with all the data on head injuries.”
In the latest study from Boston University , researchers found the risk of degenerative brain disease doubled for every 2.6 years a football player stayed in the game.
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The new alternative booming in Tampa Bay
ABC Action News found some players are flocking to a booming alternative to tackle football.
South Tampa is home to one of the largest youth flag football league in the nation.
It’s part of Under the Lights , which has leagues in more than 150 cities. The South Tampa league tops the list in participation. The current wait list is 100 players long.
“We were on the wait list here,” said parent Alyssa Irvin, whose 6-year-old son Brayden is playing this season. “This league is very popular.”
Florida boasts more players than any other state that has Under the Lights, according to Justin Rudolph, who heads up the South Tampa league.
“Each year, I’d say we increase anywhere from 10 to 15 percent. It’s truly extraordinary,” said Rudolph
Alyssa Irvin said she prefers Brayden to play flag football for now, telling ABC Action News, “There’s no need to put his body through that before it’s even developed all the way.”
Brayden’s father is Bruce Irvin, an NFL player who won the Super Bowl in 2013 with Seattle Seahawks. He now plays for the Carolina Panthers and said his son grew up around football.
“I put my body through a lot of stuff. You know, this is my ticket,” said Irvin.
But he said it’s not a ticket he wants his son to have to punch – just yet.
“For me, the biggest thing is protecting his body and his brain as long as I can,” said Irvin. “It’s just a violent game. I think it’s even more violent when young kids – their bones haven’t fully developed yet.”
Irvin said he feels kids should wait until at least middle school to play in full pads.
“You got a 6 or 7-year-old out here wearing a helmet, you know, hitting each other… I just think it’s not the best idea,” said Irvin.
Last week, a controversial new public service announcement hit the airwaves, comparing tackle football to cigarettes.
The ad, which shows young children smoking states, “Tackle football is like smoking. The younger I start, the longer I’m exposed to danger. You wouldn’t let me smoke. When should I start tackle? Choose flag under 14.”
The video also states children who start playing tackle football at age 5 are 10 times more likely to develop a brain disease than those who start playing at age 14.
“It’s an interesting conversation,” said Irvin. “I think everybody’s got their own opinion about it.”