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Football's popularity continues to take a hit across Southland campuses

Football's popularity continues to take a hit across Southland campuses
As football participation declines, soccer participation is holding strong. More than 100 tried out for El Camino Real soccer team this past week. (Eric Sondheimer)

There were more than 100 students at El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills trying out for the boys’ soccer team last week. Some wore colorful jerseys, many featuring the names Messi, Bayern Munchen and Toronto FC.

A 13-year-old freshman, Kiernan Murawski, said he has 10 different soccer jerseys to wear. Virtually every player trying out listed a club team for which he competes — Real So Cal, Valley United and Rothenberg, among others.

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On the adjacent all-weather football field, fewer than 50 students donned helmets and shoulder pads to practice for their season opener. From an elevated vantage point, I watched these two groups working out side by side. Then it hit me: Fútbol is becoming more popular than football on various high school campuses in Southern California.

Whether because of demographic changes, safety concerns or time commitment, football is facing real challenges. There are nearly 10,000 fewer students playing the sport in California since 2015. A participation survey expected to be released this week by the National Federation of State High School Assns. could show another year of decline in football participation nationally. Last year, there were 25,901 fewer students playing 11-man football.

“Our game is under assault,” West Hills Chaminade football coach Ed Croson said.

Several years ago, the Eagles had 160 players in their football program. The number’s down to 88 this season. An entire league in the City Section, the Exposition League, dropped junior varsity football, which will slow the development of underclassmen since there are no freshman teams. Perennial Southern Section power Westlake Village Oaks Christian didn’t have enough players to have a freshman team this season.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of students wanting to play soccer. Birmingham High in Lake Balboa had 120 try out for its JV and varsity soccer teams. At El Camino Real, the defending City Section champion, there are 29 returning players and only 19 open spots, mostly for junior varsity. There were 130 students trying out.

Coach Ian Kogan is holding three days of tryouts, then will post the 19 players selected for the team Tuesday morning on a window outside the P.E. office. He’s feeling plenty of pressure. The reaction when someone doesn’t find their name on the list can be heartbreaking.

“This is the hardest three days of the year for me,” he said.

Plenty of people think this is just a phase football is going through, with media attention focused on concussions, which is scaring parents.

“Football players are kids attracted to chaos and risk,” Croson said. “Our world seems to be like trying to make us all the same and we aren’t. The fear of concussion isn’t anything like it was in the ’60s and ’70s because of the advancement in the game. USA football is doing tremendous work taking the head out of the game.”

Safety concerns are being addressed, but high school coaches need to start re-evaluating how they run their programs. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with trying to emulate college programs with their emphasis on elaborate weight-training programs, fancy shoe-company-sponsored uniforms and advanced technology with video gadgets, but be careful what you wish for. The focus is all about winning in college. Coaches get fired and players lose scholarships if they don’t produce.

High school players who used to come out just to be part of the program, learn life lessons and hang out with friends are vanishing. The time commitment isn’t worth it and there are other sports to try, such as lacrosse, soccer and volleyball. Coaches need to figure out ways to get more people involved than just the stars, make practices fun and create an environment where participation matters again.

At El Camino Real, I asked a freshman trying out for soccer why he doesn’t try out for football.

“I don’t like football,” Arian Pourharandi said. “It’s boring.”

Many Americans used to say that about soccer. Times may be changing.

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