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February 2017 26 www.sportseventsmagazine.com t SPORT Report Programs such as USA Football's Heads Up, which address those safety concerns combined with growing interest in flag and touch football, are bringing players back to the field. Overall, 2.169 million youth ages 6 to 14 played tackle football in 2015, up from 2.128 million in 2014, according to recent statistics from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Participation in flag football for the same period saw a larger jump, from 1.535 million in 2014 to 1.669 million in 2015, or 8.4 percent. In the 15-18-year-old age group, 1.248 million U.S. children played tackle football in 2015, up 2.4 percent from 2014, or 1.218 million. Flag football participation among this age group totaled 548,000 in 2015, up 10 percent from 2014, or 496,000. While high school football has seen a drop in numbers, it remains the No. 1 participation sport in the country's high schools, with 1.1 million players each year, according to a recent survey from the National Federation of State High School Associations. But while overall numbers look good, some organizations have seen either reductions or stagnant participation. At Pop Warner Little Scholars, numbers have remained flat from 2013 to 2016, with 225,000 athletes hitting the gridiron each year, said Executive Director Jon Butler. Sports Network International works with more than 200 tackle football leagues with athletes ages 7 to 14. "We're seeing a number of reductions or static numbers in most every market," said Justin Gates, vice president/competition director. The largest decreases come in higher-in- come areas, while numbers are fairly steady in lower income areas, Gates said. But putting an emphasis on training and smarter play has helped slow the bleeding in the sport, Butler said. Youth programs across the country — such as Pop Warner — address those concerns head on and that has helped foot- ball programs overall, Butler said. "We are working very closely with the NFL and USA Football because of our proven success rate in terms of reducing injuries and concussions. We are very proud of that," Butler said. In 2010, Pop Warner became the first national youth sports organization to imple- ment concussion rules and in 2013 started requiring coaches to take USA Football's Heads Up training. Pop Warner teams re- duce contact to 25 percent of practice time and the organization eliminated kickoffs for its youngest divisions. If a player suffers a suspected head injury, he or she must receive medical clear- ance from a concussion specialist before returning to the field. "Basically, if your kid is not playing Pop Warner football, they should be," Butler said. As a result of the strict safety standards, the organization is seeing 87 percent fewer injuries, he said. At the Pop Warner Super Bowl at Disney in December 2016, 2,300 players partici- pated in almost 100 games. There were two non-concussion injuries and one possible concussion experienced during play, Butler said. Heads Up training spearheaded by USA Football educates youth football leaders on more than just non-contact safety but also issues such as hydration. "Kids playing youth football now are playing a much, much safer game than I used to play," said Gates, who is also a Pop Warner coach. But to continue to stabilize player partic- ipation, youth programs have to do more. Education is key. "It's also important to get the word out to parents that there is a clear difference in youth football and the NFL in terms of mass inertia impact," Gates said. "There's no comparison." To keep athletes participating in football through high school or even college means developing a love of the sport at the youth and recreation levels. Sports Network International has hosted "Kids playing youth football now are playing a much, much safer game than I used to play." —Justin Gates, Sports Network International