From 2000 to 2016, North Dakota’s high school football participation numbers fell 19 percent, from 5,024 to 4,062. In South Dakota, a Forum News Service report in 2015 showed that football participation fell 17 percent from 1984 to 2014.
In North Dakota, there are 99 teams playing in four divisions, while South Dakota has 136 teams in seven – yes, seven – divisions. In North Dakota, the Class AAA division has 14 teams, while in South Dakota, there are only nine. The next division down, Class AA, shows 10 teams in North Dakota and nine in South Dakota.
The result is that this week, champions in both states are being crowned in divisions that feature only nine or 10 teams.
Considering declining participation numbers and small, watered-down divisions in both states, here is an idea: Combine the Dakotas into a single high school football confederation, where universal Dakota champions are crowned at the end of each season.
Consider this: Grand Forks to Dickinson is 358 miles, yet schools from those towns regularly play each other. Meanwhile, Dickinson is a little more than 200 miles to South Dakota’s Black Hills, home to large schools like Rapid City Central, Rapid City Stevens, Spearfish and Sturgis. Those teams travel the length of their state to play in places like Sioux Falls, 350 miles away.
Minnesota is 407 miles from top to bottom. There, football teams play geographically for the regular season and then branch out in the playoffs, often meeting in neutral sites to reduce mileage. Combined, the Dakotas are 448 miles from north to south. The Minnesota system could be employed here successfully.
After combining the states, natural rivalries would emerge. For example, Oakes, N.D., this year traveled two hours and 40 minutes to play at Fort Totten, but the Tornadoes didn’t play Britton-Hecla, just 23 minutes away and across the South Dakota border.
We could go on with examples of reduced mileage and new, nearby rivalries, but two other points should be even more important to prep football fans: This trend of reduced participation will only exacerbate travel woes, since fewer teams surely will be the norm in each state.
The same trend – schools with many boys out compared to schools with few – will continue to create brutally lopsided scores, another plague in both states. Some teams cruise to a championship with few, if any, close scores. That’s not fun.
Combining the states for high school football would create new and exciting rivalries, would reduce annual mileage for some schools and would add more teams – and therefore more prestige – to divisions that currently have only nine or 10 teams playing for championships. Perhaps it would boost lackluster attendance figures at North Dakota championship games.
After all, wouldn’t it be exciting to see traditional powers from Bismarck and Sioux Falls meet in a championship game in the Fargodome?
Crazy? Sure. And we assume it will never happen.
But it could work, and it would add a needed shot of excitement to a proud sport that is, unfortunately, experiencing a sad and probably unstoppable trend.
-Grand Forks Herald editorial board