AUGUSTA — Nineteen states nationwide offer interscholastic eight-man football divisions, among them such hotbeds of the sport as Alabama, California, Georgia, Michigan and Nebraska.
If there’s enough interest, Maine might join that group in the next few years.
The football committee of the Maine Principals’ Association agreed during its postseason meeting Wednesday to conduct a survey of high schools around the state to learn if there is sufficient interest to consider adding an eight-man football division, perhaps as soon as the 2013 season.
The survey is the latest step in the committee’s ongoing reclassification efforts as the sport continues to grow statewide.
As the number of schools fielding traditional 11-man football programs has continued its steady increase, the MPA considered expanding from three to four divisions in 2010 but opted not to recommend any changes for at least two years so several issues centering on enrollment cutoffs and geographic breakdowns for the divisions are given further study.
“With the work the committee did before concerning four classes, there were some concerns with what the cutoffs were and the alignment between East and West,” said MPA assistant executive director Mike Burnham. “This is part of a fresh approach that looks at what’s good for high school football across the entire state, and possibly getting more schools involved.”
There’s reason to believe a need exists for eight-man football, which would require fewer players on a team’s roster than the 11-man version and might be a new avenue to introduce the sport at schools that currently do not field football programs or help sustain it at schools that are experiencing enrollment downturns due to population shifts.
It also could enable a school currently entered into a cooperative arrangement to field a joint 11-man football team with a neighboring school to establish its own eight-man program.
“I think there are a number of programs across the state that may be dealing with some lower numbers that may be interested in participating in eight-man football,” said Burnham, “and also there may be some programs that currently are struggling that might see eight-man football as a viable option for them.”
While the MPA’s 11-man football ranks have grown to 76 schools statewide with Hermon, Washington Academy of East Machias and Telstar of Bethel all fielding new varsity programs this fall — several eight-man football programs not affiliated with schools also have emerged on the scene in recent years, particularly in northern Maine.
And with fledgling programs also in various developmental stages in other areas of the state, the MPA committee sees establishing eight-man football as a fourth division as having the potential to provide a new option for schools and communities as well as providing more youngsters with an avenue to realize their football dreams.
“That’s the exciting part of it, that there’s been such a growth in football from 58 schools a few years ago up to the mid-70s now, along with a lot of other communities that have football that isn’t school-sponsored,” said Mike Bisson, athletic administrator at Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln and chairman of the MPA football committee.
“It makes it unique that a sport that people consider to be expensive is continuing to grow in these tough economic times. That tells you about the love for the game that’s out there, and I think our job as stewards of the game is to make sure we’re providing the best opportunities for kids and allowing programs to continue to be successful as well as to grow and develop.”
A thriving eight-man football program has existed for several years in Aroostook County, joined more recently by a team based in the Piscataquis County town of Milo that makes the long trip north to play in the non-affiliated league.
Some of those teams might be candidates to join an MPA-sanctioned eight-man football division. So, too, may some 11-man football programs that have experienced competitive struggles in recent years due to enrollment-based participation declines.
“It could be some really established programs that are struggling as the enrollments in Maine have shifted and followed that I-95 corridor into southern Maine,” said Bisson. “I think you’re seeing that some of those more rural, traditional powerhouses are really struggling numbers-wise, and this may be an avenue for them to continue to be successful with their programs.”
The brief survey will be sent out to high school athletic administrators statewide in the coming weeks. The football committee then will meet early next year to discuss the results, as they could have an impact on the ongoing reclassification effort for the existing 11-man football classes — particularly if several of those schools express interest in shifting to an eight-man division.
“We don’t know where this is going to go,” said Bisson. “But if you took out some of the currently existing programs it would shuffle the numbers around, and that could help us deal with some of the issues we’re having with trying to create good schedules for everybody.”