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Section III football changes a reasonable solution to enduring problems - FlagSpin

Section III football changes a reasonable solution to enduring problems

At first glance, Section III football’s new divisional alignment and schedule format looks unorthodox and, frankly, out of left field. 

Dire situations call for drastic solutions. 

The section’s football organizers officially acknowledged the handful of changes — which includes the elimination of independent programs and the introduction of first and second tiers within each classification — in last week’s 2023 schedule release. 

Within the format are some quirks. Auburn, which the section now considers a Class A-1 team, is already guaranteed a top four seed and home game in sectionals … before a single game has been played.

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That’s just one example. And it’s all for the sake of ridding Section III of independent teams. 

The emergence of independent teams within the section dates back almost a decade. From 2014 to 2016, Section III offered what was effectively an independent league sponsored by the National Football Foundation for struggling programs. In 2017, Section III folded the NFF league in favor of 8-man football. 

Eight-man introduced another option for woebegone programs, but tradition reigned supreme for some who, despite lack of competitiveness within classification, preferred 11-man.

To appease those schools, Section III offered a developmental league in 2018 and 2019. While it may not have known at the time, the section’s developmental league initiated the surge of independent program. In 2020, seven teams chose the independent route. That inflated to 10 teams in 2021 and 13 in 2022. 

For the uninitiated, this may not seem like a big deal. But the more teams that play independent, the less scheduling options for those that don’t. 

Consider this: Had Section III retained its previous format and independent teams remained, the section’s Class A division would have only four teams (Auburn, Corcoran, West Genesee, Whitesboro). 

Unless the section tried something truly radical — like a home-and-home series for each team — those schools would’ve had the unenviable task of filling out a seven- or eight-game schedule with only three opponents within the section.

While it’s one thing to schedule one or two out-of-section opponents — Auburn, for example, will play Section II’s Niskayuna and Section IV’s Binghamton in the fall — those teams shouldn’t make up the majority of the schedule. 

To be clear, this is not an attempt to pin blame on programs that went independent. No team prefers to play an independent schedule, just like no team prefers to drop to 8-man. 

In an ideal world, all teams would play in a classification and the final score of every game would be within seven points. That’s not reality. 

Prior to this new alignment, struggling programs in Section III were left with the following options: Continue in classification and risk being tail-whipped every week while interest in the program wanes; drop to 8-man, which might address participation numbers but could be a hard sell in old-fashioned communities; play independent, which helps with schedule flexibility but comes with no hopes for postseason play; or combine with another school district.

Imagine if, back in 2018, in lieu of playing 8-man or going independent, Port Byron and Weedsport chose to combine football programs. Two rival communities with rich football histories, now one. “The Warrior Panthers.”

Parents and students alike would’ve stormed school board meetings in protest. So, in many instances, that doesn’t seem like a realistic option. 

This is all to say, there was no idea that would’ve solved all of Section III’s issues in one fell swoop. Each program warrants their own considerations, and introducing the first and second tier concept allows more flexibility for competitive and struggling programs alike.

Perhaps a rising tide will lift all boats. The greater issue at hand, though, goes beyond central New York. The landscape of high school football is changing, both locally and nationally. 

Consider first what’s happened to Section III in recent years. Since 2017, the section has dropped from 13 Class AA teams to eight, 18 Class C teams to 16, and 17 Class D teams to 11. 

That can be attributed to growing interest in 8-man football, but enrollment and participation numbers, in general, are taking a hit. 

The Aspen Institute releases a report each year called the “State of Play,” a study on participation trends for all youth and high school sports. According to the report, tackle football participation among children ages 6 to 12 declined 29% from 2016 to 2021 (high school tackle football rates have remained steady). 

At some point, high school programs will feel that effect. Some already are. 

“Look at Auburn,” said Maroons coach Dave Moskov in a recent interview, discussing Section III’s new format. “Last year (2022) we had the worst numbers we’ve had since I coached here. We really didn’t recover from COVID. We’ve lost so many kids. We’re not a Whitesboro right now. We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re not gonna roll in there with 45 kids.”

High school football’s problems are a surface-level issue, and not one that can be solved by changing divisions. Investment needs to begin at the youth levels, with new ideas to attract children and parents alike. 

While Aspen cited tackle football’s declining interest, it also noted the increased popularity of flag football. The latter had over 300,000 more participants than the former last year at the youth levels, a complete flip from a decade ago. 

Flag has also become more commonplace at the high school level. Six New York state sections offered girls flag football in 2022, and in 2024 the NYSPHSAA will hold its first girls flag football state championships (though there’s been no word if/when Section III will partake). 

Could boys flag football be in the offing? Perhaps that’s a question for another day, but if Section III’s recent announcement offers any indication, no thought is too outlandish. 

Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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Travis Burnett

Travis Burnett

A pioneer in the flag football community, Travis helped co-found the Flag Football World Championship Tour, FlagSpin and USA Flag. Featuring 15+ years of content creation for the sport of flag football, creating and managing the largest flag football tournaments on the planet, coaching experience at the youth and adult level as well as an active player with National and World Championship level experience.

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