On School Size, Football, Soccer, And Cross Country

A closer look at how the presence or absence of football and soccer programs impacts the number of available athletes for cross country.

Author's Note: This is an article I've been thinking about for a while and wanted to slip in under the February 1 deadline when I no longer have editorial control over the content of Colorado Track XC. Some of you will find this article both pertinent and interesting, some will find it merely interesting, and some will find it neither. Hopefully, nobody finds it pertinent but uninteresting, though that's certainly another possibility.

As implied with the inclusion of football in the article title, this article is primarily about boys sports. Sorry, I can't really think of a way to make this extend to girls sports in the same way as it applies to boys. Girls sports are a different beast when it comes to how they impact cross country.

This article is also mainly about 3A schools, though there is some spillover into the realm of 2A as well.

My main thesis is this: Enrollment counts, though still the most useful means of classifying schools, don't necessarily tell the whole story between schools that have all of football, (boys) soccer, and cross country and schools that have only one of football and (boys) soccer, plus cross country.

Allow me a few paragraphs here to flesh out that idea. 

Almost every 4A and 5A school in the state has all three of football, soccer, and cross country. So, any comparisons between schools that have only one of football and soccer, plus cross country, simply don't apply when it comes to 4A and 5A.

It's a very different story with 3A and, to a degree, 2A.

Normally, we don't think of football impacting cross country in any meaningful way. Football and cross country don't draw very much from the same pool of athletes. And yet, the presence or absence of a football program can have a significant bearing on the size of the school and distribution of athlete types in the student body (particularly in urban and suburban settings, where school choice alternatives abound). 

Let's take a hypothetical 3A school with an enrollment of 400 students in an urban or suburban setting. It might well be a charter or private school, but it wouldn't have to be. 

If that school does not have a football program, then--almost ipso facto--the athletic composition of that school's student body will be different than a similar school in the same area that does have a football program. 

If a school does not have a football program and is not the only school option for several miles in any direction, then those people--and often their families as well--who have an interest in playing football will tend to pack their duffel bags and head for another school. Additionally, a few families value schools that don't have a football program and might opt to attend that school on that basis.

What this means is that a hypothetical school of enrollment 400 without a football program might easily have as many, or more, potential cross country athletes as another school of 600 students with a football program. At the very least, that school of 400 students almost certainly has proportionately more cross country types than a school of 600 with a football program.

Soccer is a somewhat different situation, yet the net results look much the same in the end. 

Soccer probably does not quite yet have the same power to draw student-athletes to a school as football does, based on the presence or absence of a program, but soccer does wield a larger and larger stick where attendance decisions are made with each passing year. If a school does not have a boys soccer program, they will lose students to other schools in the area that do have a program. 

Although the presence or absence of a boys soccer program probably does not exert as strong of an influence over who enrolls in a school as the presence or absence of a football program, soccer tends to make up for any such shortfall by competing with cross country for the same pool of athletes much more than football does.

So, if you have a school of 400 students without a boys soccer program, the cross country program can almost certainly count on a larger turnout than if that same school did have a boys soccer program. 

The truth of the matter, though, is almost all 3A-and-larger schools in urban and suburban areas now support a soccer program. It's rare to find one that doesn't. It is, however, a little bit of a different story in outlying areas of the state.

Either way, though, it's a net gain for the cross country program if a soccer program is not in place. The cross country team may gain by a decreased school enrollment which allows the cross country team to compete in a smaller classification. Or, the cross country team may gain by not competing directly with soccer for an overlapping pool of athletes. Or both.

At this time, nearly all of the larger 3A schools have all three--football, soccer, and cross country. In smaller 3A schools, if one of the three is missing, it's most likely to be football (and, of course, particularly so with charter and private schools). 

So, effectively, competitive disadvantages for 3A cross country programs with smaller school enrollments are not as dramatic as it would seem for schools without a football program. Those schools at a more profound disadvantage in 3A are not simply the smaller schools, but the smaller schools with a football program. They have the double whammy of a smaller enrollment and a more typical distribution of athletic types within the student body.

There is a sense in which a school with 40 boys out for football has an effective enrollment of 80 fewer students than a school of the same size without a football program, though that assumes every boy on the football team would be in a different school if the school didn't have a football team.

The presence of a football program more or less assures a "normal" balance of students (normal having more the sense of typical than of prescriptive in this case). The absence of a football program tends to skew a school's population distribution somewhat toward the soccer/cross country type of athlete.

The application of all this to 2A schools is limited by the fact very few 2A schools have all of football, soccer, and cross country under the same roof. And, even where such schools exist, it's not as if your the overall enrollment of those schools has pushed the cross country program into a larger classification than they would be in without football or soccer.

To a very limited degree, girls cross country is impacted by all this as well, just not as dramatically as boys cross country. If there's an equivalency with girls, it comes in the spring with soccer and track.

I'm not sure any of this warrants any immediate tinkering in how we break up classifications based on presence/absence of football and soccer programs. There are way too many variables and moving pieces here to seriously consider tripping down that path. But, I hope it's at least an interesting conversation with some explanatory value.