A recent study of participation in all forms of tackle football in United States high schools showed dramatic growth in the decade to 2008, a peak in 2009 and a decline thereafter. Since 2014, high school football is reported to have lost more than 45,000 participants. In the last year alone, the Washington Post reports high school player numbers have fallen by over 20,000.
The study also considered participation as a proportion of eligible players of high school age, with the data suggesting football peaked in 2013, with a notable decline since then. According to the US Sports & Fitness Industry Association, pre-high school participation dropped by 30% between 2008 and 2013. The author of the US study suggests that increasing awareness of health-risks associated with the game are a primary cause of falling participation.
The Washington Post reported that 20 US schools nationwide in 2017 dropped football completely as a sporting option. Touchline wonders if the same thing is occurring with Rugby Union in New Zealand secondary schools?
According to New Zealand Rugby data, the total number of teenagers at secondary school playing the game has fallen by over 1,000 in the past 12 months alone, with a significant drop of 4.8% (over 1,700 players) in terms of teenage boys, a decline representing nearly 80 fewer secondary school boys’ teams.
The year following the 2011 Rugby World Cup saw 43,315 teenage players register to play the game, up 0.5% from the prior year. By 2016, that had fallen slightly to 42,275. The following year, 41,381 were registered, while last year (despite the actual figure not being publicly disclosed), the estimated number (based on the percentage figure provided above), has fallen to around 39,000.
In summary, since the 2011 Rugby World Cup (the “peak” for teenage participation?), in New Zealand the number of teenagers playing rugby has decreased by nearly 4,000 (or around 180 fewer secondary school teams). As in the United States, the decline appears to have accelerated in the past two years.
There are three fundamental questions which arise.
Is it possible that the current year-on-year trend will be reversed, with participation numbers growing back to levels seen at their recent peaks? If not, can the decline be arrested (participation numbers stabilised) through the implementation of new strategies to improve the appeal of the game? And, bearing the preceding questions in mind, what is the ambient level of teenage participation (relative to the pool of eligible participants) likely to be in the future? The new governance structure being proposed for secondary school rugby will no doubt address these (and other) questions.
Noting the cause of the participation decline in the United States, Touchline’s opinion is that the exposure of youth to accelerated programmes beyond their physical, emotional and mental developmental stages, is harming both secondary school and club rugby. It is harming secondary school participation by over-exposing teenagers to elite development programmes at a cost to their educational development and centralising the limited sporting resources of schools on that goal. It is harming club rugby by fast-tracking teenagers into adult senior community teams without establishing social connections to the communities that the clubs represent.
So what is to be done?
Let’s start with the “Top 4”. Firstly, sports governing bodies must acknowledge and overcome their obsession with success being measured by awards on the global stage. Not all sporting pathways must lead to Olympic medals or World Cups. Secondly, sports governing bodies (and New Zealand’s educational authorities) must agree and establish policies for promoting sport as careers for teenagers. In the same way that academically talented students are not fast-tracked into universities based on their profiling as 15 year olds, talented rugby players should not be promoted into development programmes beyond their physical and emotional capability. Thirdly, more needs to be done to take the professional “big-hits” aspect of professional rugby union out of secondary schools. The “smashed-em-bro” culture is probably the single biggest deterrent to participation for players and parents, (who are the primary influencers of secondary school sport choices for their children). Finally, let’s educate teenagers about the benefits of being part of sport in the community and the mental (as well as physical) well-being it can create. It must be time to bring local clubs closer to schools to build the social relationships essential for Rugby Union’s future survival.
(*100 years ago, “Touchline”, a sports correspondent for the New Zealand Freelance newspaper wrote on the future of sport in schools. Touchline wrote, “if the lads and lassies in our schools are taught that their physical development is just as necessary as their excelling in education, it cannot but result in good for the nation in the years to come”. The youngsters should be … as proficient in as their powers, properly developed and taught, will allow them to be.”)