Lower turnout for high school football has officials exploring alternatives to keep programs running

Friday night lights could be dimming across the D.C. region as several high schools are making sweeping changes to their football programs, which have included canceling freshman or varsity football programs altogether. The drastic moves come amid low turnout and less interest in the sport.

Schools in Northern Virginia are no exception to the downward trend. For the first time in decades, Manassas Park High School will not be fielding a varsity football team this season due to low turnout, creating a potentially dangerous situation on the field and in practice for players.

The Virginia High School League (VHSL) said safety concerns about concussions and contact along with students choosing to specialize in year-round sports have contributed to a noticeable drop in high school football participation.

"When I look at our participation numbers over the last five years, we have seen a 13-percent increase in boy's lacrosse," said Virginia High School League Executive Director Billy Haun. "We have seen an 11-percent increase in indoor track. We have seen an almost nine-percent increase in swimming. I think there's a lot of reasons that we could be seeing smaller participation numbers."

Haun made the recommendation that led to Manassas Park High School terminating its varsity football program this year. After an average of 15 players showed up to practice each day for two weeks straight, the Virginia High School League reiterated its recommendation that at least 25 players are present to maintain a varsity football team.

FOX 5 has learned the Virginia High School League is now exploring ways to keep Friday night football alive, which includes minimizing the roster as an alternative for high schools facing a massive drop in students interested in playing football.

"One of the things that we have had the most interest in is offering eight-man football," said Haun. "There are 30 other states that already offer eight-man football. In Virginia, the private school league actually has a league that has seven teams that are playing eight-man football this year. So again, that's a viable option."

"Although we're a football loving family, we supported our son to decide not to play," said Haymarket resident Anne Young. "Concussions can happen with any sport and we know that, but we are kind of okay with him deciding not to play for a lot of health reasons."

Prince William County Public Schools said in a statement, "We recognize that football participation may have declined in surrounding divisions. In Prince William County schools, we have not researched this specific issue division-wide to determine whether or not a consistent trend exists."

The school district goes on to reiterate schools do promote and encourage students to participate in activities or athletics to create a meaningful connection to the school.