Many Maine high schools have too few students to justify offering what they have in the past – and not only in the classroom.
The same drop in enrollment that makes it difficult for schools to offer some elective classes has left some scrambling to fill out football rosters. In response, the Maine Principals’ Association is considering creating two divisions for eight-man football.
It’s a good solution to what will likely be in most cases a longstanding problem, if not a permanent one.
Eight-man football, which drops two linemen and a back from the usual 11-man formation, is growing in popularity, particularly in the Midwest, where rural schools are losing enrollment, just as in Maine.
Michigan had eight schools playing eight-man ball in 2009 but now has 61. In Nebraska, there are 120 eight-man high school teams. New York, the farthest state east to offer eight-man leagues, started in 2017 with six teams, a move credited with reviving football in some areas.
At least 19 states offer eight-man high school football now, with 847 teams and nearly 20,000 players.
Each school that has made the change has done so for the same reason. Falling enrollment and lower interest in football – partly because of interest in other sports and partly because of concerns over head injuries – have made it difficult to field a traditional team. Low numbers make it hard to practice and put younger, inexperienced players in positions they aren’t ready for.
However, despite good arguments in favor of it, switching to eight-man football has typically been met with skepticism by parents and fans who see it as lesser than the game they know.
These dynamics are now in play here. The number of high school players dropped 17 percent in the decade after 2008. Rosters have shrunk, and a few schools – even some with storied football programs – have been unable to field teams.
The MPA previously changed the class structure to accommodate shrinking rosters, adding the Class E developmental league for schools struggling to attract players. The organization also has encouraged co-op teams combining two schools; Deering and Portland high schools are considering such an agreement after only 14 city eighth-graders played football last year.
On Tuesday, the MPA proposed cutting 11-man football back to three classes while adding two divisions of eight-man teams. The MPA is asking schools to decide by Jan. 25 what kind of football they want to play next year.
Twenty schools have previously expressed interest in eight-man football; others that the MPA placed in those divisions aren’t so sure.
Some wary about the proposal wonder if eight-man football is football at all. But coaches and players now playing eight-man say otherwise – the field may be a little more narrow, but the action is almost the same.
“If you put a helmet on and you’re running and you’re going to be hit by someone, that’s real football,” former University of Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove told the Press Herald last year.
Some people also think the drop in players is only temporary, and that programs just have to build themselves back up.
That may be true in some cases, but overall the trend is clear. Football participation is suffering – the stark decrease in youth participation shows where this is going. However, there are still many students throughout the state who want to play football, and many fans who want to see the games on Friday night.
For those Mainers, eight-man football could be a savior.