Football is king when it comes to conferences

It was tough to accept the inevitable as a kid. Your life basically belonged to someone else — your parents or guardians — whether you liked it or not.

They dictated whether you got to have a sleepover with your friends or stay up late to watch TV. In fact, pretty much every relevant decision you made was usually up to them. You could argue until you were blue in the face, but it wasn’t going to alter the chain of command.

In a way, football has a similar stranglehold on Mahoning Valley schools. Well, when it comes to picking a conference, at least.

Just like an angry kid, athletic directors and superintendents can deny it if they want, but football is almost always the deciding factor as far as which league a school joins.

This happens for a couple of reasons. The first is because football is the only Ohio high school sport in which a team has to earn its way into the postseason. Teams are automatically entered into the playoffs in all other sports. The reason the schedule plays such a big role in football, of course, is because computer points determine if a school qualifies for the postseason.

The top eight teams (according to a complex points system) in each of the 28 regions around the state advance to the playoffs. Teams earn points through a number of factors, but playing competitive schools within a team’s respective division (or higher) is critical. That is why being in the proper conference is so imperative.

For instance, a Division IV football team playing in a league that is full of teams from Divisions V and VI would curtail its chances of reaching the postseason because they don’t earn as many points with a win over a team from a smaller conference. Sure, they could schedule a few stronger teams during the non-conference portion of their schedule, but if they lose those games, it wouldn’t help their cause. Teams need to play other schools similar in size to earn points.

Another reason scheduling around football is so important is the opposite end of that spectrum: being the smaller school in a big-school conference. While a Division IV or V team can often earn a lot of points with a victory over a Division II or III school, the collateral damage of injuries can result in more harm than good.

Spending a season playing bigger schools wears on a team. That is one of the reasons seven schools from the All-American Conference recently left the league. Teams like Lakeview and Girard did not want to continue to play larger schools, which often had upwards of 100 more male students. A vote earlier this year to restructure the conference was going to send two more larger schools, Howland and Canfield, from the Red Tier to the White Tier.

The biggest gripe of the White Tier schools was that they often had to play these teams toward the end of the season, with injuries mounting and playoff berths on the line.

So, they and a group of others left to create the Northeast 8 Conference, which will consist of Lakeview, Girard, Niles, Hubbard, Poland, Struthers, Jefferson and South Range. And, they made the change for football.

“For us, it was the schedule we might have to play after the league vote in football,” Lakeview athletic director Ron DeJulio said in May when asked why the Bulldogs left the AAC for the NE8. “The number differential in boys was kind of big for us. We don’t mind playing one of those teams a year (in football), the first three games when we’re all healthy, but when we’re banged up and we’re looking at two big schools back-to-back at the end of the year, it kind of hurts.”

While those are the main factors of why football controls scheduling, they’re not the only ones. The final straw is the money generated through the popularity of the sport. Football regularly brings in the most income of any high school sport.

Not only do most Mahoning Valley teams enjoy good home crowds, but opponents often pack the stands as well, which leads to a lot of money at the gate, at the concession stand and at any other fundraising booths set up. According to several athletic directors, boys basketball is the only other sport that comes anywhere close to reaching the dollar figures of football. Since football is a big reason other non-revenue-generating sports (ie. baseball, softball, tennis, cross country, golf) can stay afloat, the gridiron often gets its preference when it comes to conferences.

The reasoning make sense, and the conferences usually work out … but only for a limited time. Communities and school districts grow and shrink, and as they do, their needs change when it comes to a league. This is why conferences often only last about 10 years. Then, it’s back to the drawing board, which usually starts with a big football in the middle of it.