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COMMENTARY: Expanding the Prep Football Playoff Field

By Jason Van Arkel, November 02, 2017

NOTE: all commentary is the sole opinion of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Ottumwa Radio or its advertisers.

Friday night, the second round of the high school football playoffs takes center stage in Iowa. In our corner of the state, however, the pads have already been put away for the season. Five area schools appeared in the first round last week, and all five were sent home decisively.

The results were not surprising. Nor did they necessarily reflect poorly on those schools. Pekin, Centerville, Sigourney-Keota, Moravia and Oskaloosa all had fine football seasons. In fact, the reason all five schools were trounced in the opening round, is the same reason their seasons were so impressive: the state’s playoff format, now in its second year.

As a quick refresher, the Iowa High School Athletic Association decided before the 2016 season to cut the playoff fields in half. Instead of every class featuring 32 playoff teams, there are now only 16 playoff teams per class. The reasoning, which remains sound, is player safety. The 32-team fields caused playoff teams to play games every five days until the semifinals. That’s not enough time to recover from the rigors of a game. The IHSAA considered a few different options, but instead of starting the season a week earlier, ending it a week later, or cutting back to eight regular-season games, they made the somewhat surprising choice to cut a full round out of the playoffs.

Of course, that means it’s twice as hard to make the playoffs as it used to be, so the area schools who got in the past two years certainly didn’t sneak in. On the other hand, for teams that don’t win their district–and none of our teams did this year–the opening playoff game becomes a road contest, usually against a team ranked in the top five. Some people thought the reduction of the playoff fields would mean fewer opening-round blowouts, but at least for area schools, that hasn’t been the case the past two seasons.

The playoff format achieved its purpose. Teams aren’t playing games five days apart anymore, and the sport is that much safer for it. Still, there’s reasons to suspect that another change could come eventually.

The first reason is the most obvious one: money. The reason chopping the playoff field in half was surprising was the loss of revenue. They’re now playing 96 fewer playoff games every fall. That’s 96 fewer crowds in the stands, and while the size of those crowds varies, it’s reasonable to think that most of the teams who would have hosted those games would draw well for a home playoff game. High school sports in Iowa will never be awash in money, so re-establishing another round of football playoffs could come up any time revenue becomes an issue.

The second reason is opportunity for the student-athletes. Sure, under the old format, some people complained when a two-win team occasionally found its way into the playoffs because both those wins happened to be in district games. It never mattered much on the field; the #1 seed would probably win 55-0 whether or not their opponent was 2-7 or 5-4. The more honest gripe would be when that 2-7 team got a spot while a 5-4 team in another district stayed home.

Obviously, there’s no 2-7 teams in the playoffs these days. There aren’t many 5-4 teams either. Only three such teams made the playoffs this season across the six classes. Is the overall quality of the playoff field higher? There’s no way it couldn’t be, but that quality has come at the cost of student opportunity.

The elite football programs in each class will always be there. They might suffer an ill-timed upset and miss the playoffs once in a while, but they’ll be right back the next season. For everyone else however, it’s become a game of musical chairs. There are many programs in the state that, while not powerhouses, could be counted on to put together solid seasons and make the playoffs most years, with an occasional deeper run. Now, those solid seasons aren’t enough to make it. There’s also teams that have been down, but they got the right group of kids together at the right time and made a playoff run that boosted the program. That kind of run is twice as hard now.

The question of student opportunity is also linked to student participation, which has been down in football for a few seasons. The problem mostly rears its head in the smaller classes, which saw several forfeits this season, as well as a few teams who cancelled football before the season ever began. It can also be an issue in the larger classes as well, though. Ottumwa is an example of this, as one of the smaller schools in Class 4A. The Bulldogs played about half their games this season against schools that had many, many more kids in uniform.

Here’s where that intersects with student opportunity, and the smaller playoff field. Under the 32-team format, even struggling programs could hope to keep their young kids out for football each season, with the promise that hard work could lead to a few more wins and a chance to make the playoffs. With the 16-team format, that promise becomes just a fantasy. Football requires a high amount of time, effort and physical exertion, but why would a 14-year-old kid want to put himself through four years of that when there’s no chance of it paying off at some point?

I can hear the adults saying “it’s not about that, it’s about the life lessons that football teaches.” That’s true, but that’s not how a normal teenager views it. Plus, since playing football does teach kids valuable lessons about life, shouldn’t there be as much incentive as possible to play football? Again, the point is student opportunity. It’s not just the 96 teams each season that don’t get one more game. It’s about all of the teams that would compete for those 96 spots, giving those teams and those players something tangible to play for.

Obviously, Iowa is never going back to the previous format. The safety aspect should always be the most important thing, and we’ll never see teams play four games in 15 days again. However, don’t be surprised to see the IHSAA take another hard look at the alternatives at some point. They won’t ever run the state finals into Thanksgiving weekend, so bringing back the 32-team fields would probably mean starting football a week earlier. Admittedly, that would come with its own set of logistical challenges.

Still, there’s quite a bit of incentive to restore the 32-team fields. The five area teams who made this year’s playoffs probably all would’ve had home games in the first round, and a few other teams might have joined the party as well. In prep sports, more participation and opportunity are always good things.