Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 1
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Local power, grassroots appeal make high school sports compelling

Rich Luker
High school sports have arrived at the big time in America.

More Americans are avid fans of high school sports than are avid fans of NASCAR, the NBA, or the NHL. Fifty-five percent of all Americans are fans of high school sports, making it the sixth-largest fan base in sports. Eighteen percent are avid fans of high school sports, fifth overall (see charts). This is from the February 2011 results of the ESPN Sports Poll measuring interest in 33 different sports.

But big-time interest doesn’t always translate into big time business opportunities. And in the case of high school sports, there are a lot of people who passionately believe it should not. For more than 90 years, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) has held the protection of the high school experience from exploitation as a centerpiece of its overall mission.

That is why there have never been sanctioned national championships at the high school level. Many organizations and individuals have tried to find a way to do championships without NFHS sanctioning. For example, in 2009 there were 528 interstate high school basketball tournaments, but none of them have succeeded in building critical mass.

The challenge isn’t just concern over exploitation. What makes high school sports so compelling is their local power and grassroots appeal. That same small scale also makes it very difficult to bundle into something more meaningful for businesses. There are 32 NFL teams and more than 100 large college football teams. But there are more than 15,000 high school football teams. The NFL represents one pie of American fans split into 32 pieces. Even if you hate all but one team, you know them all. So it is possible to have aninterest in the outcome of any game. Why would a typical school football fan in Iowa care about any game between Colorado and Michigan high schools, let alone a specific rivalry?

And now a third voice of concern about doing more to build high school sports is being heard. Jon Reynolds, a retired school superintendent from Michigan, recently said that if he were still on the job he would work to eliminate sports and the arts from schools. Heresy, I thought.

“Do you think parents of Chinese high-school-aged students are taking four hours to watch a game? Do you think their kids are focused on playing sports?” Reynolds asked. “I think they are learning math. We have had a lot of years in America where sports were part of a healthy mix. I think this is a time for us to take school more seriously.”

Reynolds is by no means alone in this thinking. Municipalities looking for ways to stay on budget are listening. School budgets for sports and other activities are being cut.

And yet, more than half of all Americans are fans of high school sports. There is more than fun, more than a diversion, at stake in high school sports. In earlier columns, I highlighted the declining sports interests of young men ages 12-17. Would it surprise anyone to learn that most in this group (85.8 percent) are fans of high school sports and 48.3 percent are avid fans, making it the top sports for that age group?

High school sports offer the industry the opportunity to build the love of sports without overcommercialization or exploitation. To do that, we need to better understand what is driving the love of sports and the challenges to investing in high school sports in America.

I am convinced the power of this interest is similar to what we are seeing with Minor League Baseball and smaller college sports. Americans want a closer connection with sports in the community in a way they can easily and literally be involved. The interest in high school sports goes beyond those who have kids in the game. Seventy percent of high school sports fans don’t have kids at home between the ages of 12 and 17, nor do 57 percent of those who are avid fans.

More than 85 percent of young men ages 12-17 are fans of high school sports.
Farmers Insurance (see Forward Thinking) may be ahead of the curve in what it is doing in high school sports. It is investing more than $10 million because it sees the connection and the need for the support at the local level. It took a true grassroots approach to identify the need/opportunity and then built its investment in the space.

Mark Toohey, senior vice president of media relations, and Charles Browning, vice president of community branding, said they develop strategy from the field up. Farmers agents have been seeing the cuts in budgets for sports and other extracurricular activities, so they sharpened their approach and identified 17 states with acute needs and have targeted them for significant local investment. They told me their field people are also investing in those local needs. When asked whether this was a time that called instead for more serious things, they said, “We need to do it all.”

High school sports is big time. It’s a big-time opportunity to invest in the future love of sports and support a fuller and more balanced life during the adolescent years. And it is too big to ignore as a significant business opportunity. &;

Rich Luker ( is a consultant with The Luker Co.

The NFL is in a labor stoppage, and the labor issue rose among topics cited by panelists this quarter, with the subject now sharing the most votes for top trend. While the immediate focus is on labor, though, the economy remains the long-term concern.
Rank (PVS)
Score (% 1st-place votes)
1 (2)
Ability of middle-income American
families to spend money on sports
232 (23)
2 (1)
State of U.S. economy
226 (39)
3 (3)
Pending league/union labor negotiations
210 (39)
4 (5)
Competition for sports sponsorship
dollars from tech and entertainment
5 (4)
How financial pressure that companies
feel will affect sports investments
Notes: Results from a panel of 26 industry leaders. Participants ranked each of 10 issues with 10 points being assigned for a first-place vote, nine for second-place vote, down to one point for a 10th-place vote. Percentages have been rounded. Only the top five are listed.