Nov 16, 2021 - Sports
Youth participation in tackle football drops in Twin Cities
Data: Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, St. Paul Parks and Recreation; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

A national decline in youth tackle football has hit the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul especially hard.

Why it matters: Football gets kids to exercise, teaches them teamwork and keeps them busy.

  • But effects of the game's hard contact worries parents.

Driving the news: Just 86 kids played tackle football in the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board system this fall, which was only enough to field four teams.

  • Without enough teams for a league, the Minneapolis teams had to play in a suburban league.

Context: Just eight years ago, Minneapolis fielded 45 teams with more than 1,000 players.

  • In St. Paul, youth tackle football participation averaged 675 players from 2011 through 2015, but fewer than 400 kids have played each of the last three seasons, according to city Parks and Recreation data.

The big picture: Tim Grate, athletic program manager for MPRB, said tackle football has been in decline locally and nationally due to heightened concerns about concussions, as well as more specialized sports participation — kids who play one sport year-round.

  • But then the pandemic hit and cratered the numbers further.
  • Some parents still weren't ready this fall to put their kids into a contact sport for fears of catching COVID-19.

Yes, but: The declines aren't happening everywhere.

  • Wayzata Plymouth Youth Football participation has remained steady. The league fielded 20 teams from 4th to 8th grade, said Jeremiah Knaeble, who handles registration for the league. He declined to give total participation numbers.

The intrigue: High school sports rely on a pipeline of young players. Without them, could we see consolidation of football teams at Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools, much like what happened to hockey in decades past?

  • The lone four Minneapolis youth teams this year were from North Minneapolis, which is the one area of the city that has bucked the larger trend.
  • And North High has built a strong football program in the area. They won a state title in 2016.

What they're saying: MPS declined to make a member of the athletic department available for an interview. But when asked about consolidation, a spokesperson said in an emailed statement, "We are always examining ways to maximize playing opportunities for our kids, but no decisions have been at this time."

What to watch: Grate, who played football for the Minnesota Gophers, noted that flag football participation has shot up in Minneapolis.

  • "Some of these hardcore old football guys (say) if you're not tackling it's not real football," Grate said. "That's not true. You can still learn the fundamentals of football through flag just as well as tackle."
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