Finding a way to play
Reduced-player football alternatives like nine-player and six-player football appealing to small schools nationwide
The popularity of eight-player football continues to grow in Michigan.
For other football programs nationwide, eight-player football may not be the answer, so instead schools turn to other forms of football such as nine-player football and six-player football.
Nationwide, nine-player football and six-player football are also popular and growing. Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are among the states that currently hold high school state tournaments for nine-player football.
The field is smaller in nine-player football with the dimensions similar to eight-player football. The rules of nine-player football require that the offense align four players in the backfield and five on the line of scrimmage, with a defensive formation being a 3-3-2 for most teams with three defensive lineman, three linebackers and two defensive backs.
Once upon a time, the Sunday Football League in Grand Rapids used nine-player football and played 16-game seasons while keeping full statistics and used this as a way to keep the game alive for athletes with the passion to continue playing football.
Nine-player football is huge in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. In Minnesota, nine-player football has been a mainstay for more than 70 schools.
Much like the eight-player game, schools in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have turned to the nine-player game due to low numbers and as a way to keep football around in small towns.
The nine-player game has been successful for those three states with schools that qualify with an enrollment of under 150 students, along with some exceptions.
Some schools are below the enrollment number and are eligible for nine-player football, but still choose to play the traditional 11-player game because they have a strong enough teams to do so and because 11-player is a tradition in those communities.
While the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) separates eight-player teams into two divisions, the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) has not classified teams or broken them down into more than one division for nine-player football.
Some of the larger nine-player teams are double the size of the smaller teams.
One problem that arises during playoff time is that larger nine-player schools are bumped up to the 11-player postseason due to enrollment. Teams with an enrollment above 150 are left scrambling just days before the playoffs trying to transition to a different game.
The MSHSL has been outlining possible solutions since more of Minnesota’s smaller schools are transitioning to nine-player football.
Nine-player football has gotten big in North Dakota and South Dakota because it keeps smaller schools competitive and keeps the football tradition alive for those communities.
In North Dakota, teams playing nine-player football have competed for a state championship since 1975 and the game continues to grow.
The tradition of nine-player football for some schools like Linton-H-M-B is rich. The Lions have won four nine-player state championships in North Dakota, tied for the most of any program since the state championship became a prize for the nine-player game.
Nine-player football has also been big in South Dakota for a period of time, but six-player football will also be an option starting next fall.
This past June, the South Dakota High School Activities Association’s (SDHSAA) board of directors decided to implement six-player football for South Dakota high schools starting with the 2019 season and the decision easily passed by a 6-1 vote.
With this change in South Dakota, teams will still have the option to play nine-player football, but the SDHSAA believes 94 out of South Dakota’s 179 schools will be eligible to play six-player football next season.
There is also a possibility of interstate play between South Dakota and Wyoming because some of the smaller high schools in Wyoming are closer to South Dakota programs than they are to a majority of their Wyoming opponents. It could be difficult however because of the number of teams within the classification requirement.
The rise of six-player football once again comes because football participation numbers have declined on a national scale, with Wyoming and South Dakota being no exception.
The emergence of the six-player game in South Dakota is the latest development in the lower-division football growth nationwide as states like Montana, Nebraska and Colorado have well-established six-player football programs and the six-player game continues to grow in Idaho and Utah as well.
The first six-player football game was played and started in Nebraska, but this lower-division style of football has rapidly grown nationwide, especially in Texas.
As of last season, the state had 262 six-player football teams across five different divisions.
That number does not count the schools in other high school leagues in the state whose enrollment is too large to play six-player football in a league-sanctioned district, but continue to compete in the six-player game opposed to 11-player.
The six-player game is so huge in Texas that teams across the five divisions all play for a chance to win a state championship.
Nationwide, 10 states have programs competing in six-player football and the addition of South Dakota next fall will make nearly a dozen.
Six-player football was once a popular draw in Michigan too.
As early as the 1930s, schools in Michigan, especially those in the Upper Peninsula embraced six-player football and the game grew in the state over the next several decades.
A six-player football rules committee was formed in 1937 and it was estimated at that time that nearly 600 schools in the United States were playing six-man football. That number included 12 in Michigan.
In 1938, that number grew to 50 and at least 100 schools played the version created by Stephen Epler in 1939. By 1940, the number had grown to more than 150 Michigan schools.
As eight-player football began to take hold in several states during the 1940s, Michigan saw its six-player participation drop to around 50 schools by 1949. By the early 1960s the six-player game had died out in Michigan. With the start of the 1960 season, the Northern Six Football Conference was the last six-player league in the state and included schools like Indian River Indland Lakes, Mackinaw City, Vanderbilt and Central Lake.
Along with Texas, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota and next year, South Dakota; Montana, Kansas and New Mexico also have growing six-player football in their respective state and the game is also played in parts of Canada as well.
As the growth of reduced-player football continues to grow nationwide, high school athletic associations, football programs and communities will continue to support smaller football programs and find ways for them to keep their tradition alive in their respective communities.
Jonny Zawacki can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5690.