Pascagoula High School Football takes on Vancleave High School in 2022.
As the high school football season gets underway next month, MHSAA is hoping the addition of a 7A classification will create more competitive balance among its member schools while kickstarting a greater interest in high school sports.
Starting in the fall of 2023 and running, for now, through the 2025 school year, the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) announced a reclassification for athletics earlier this year.
This year, for the first time in Mississippi, there will be a new 7A classification. Magnolia Tribune recently spoke with MHSAA Executive Director Rickey Neaves to get the inside scoop on what the additional classification and the changes associated with it mean for the upcoming athletics season.
One of the biggest differences with the new classification will be the shift in competitive balance. As Director Neaves detailed, in the past under the six classifications, the disparity in student population between teams in the same classification was at times as much as 1,200 students.
“That creates a lot more athletes to choose from,” Neaves said. The competitive imbalance was often evident with such a wide population disparity between the schools at the top of a classification compared with those at the bottom. With such a big disparity in the old structure, the MHSAA felt the need for a shift.
Previously, the 5A and 6A divisions featured 32 schools apiece. With the new structure, the 5A, 6A, and 7A divisions will feature 24 schools each.
“That structure cut the disparity in half for those classifications,” Neaves said. “From there, we put 40 schools in each classification down to 1A, and that cut the difference down to 50 students or less between the smallest and largest schools in our lower classifications.”
After seeing the need and addressing the competitive balance issues in high school athletics, the MHSAA proposed the plan to schools at the MHSAA conference last year. According to Director Neaves, around 90% of the state’s schools were in favor of the new classification.
“With that, we came back together and drew it up,” Neaves explained. “We think [the new structure] will offer better competitive balance and allow more schools in the playoffs. It will give schools who haven’t made the playoffs in some time a chance to be competitive.”
The new classification structure means teams will be better matched based on student population. Along with this, the MHSAA hopes that the new structure will help to build pride in high school athletics across the state.
“This will help not only to build pride in our schools and student athletes, but also in our communities across the state,” Neaves continued. High school sports are a powerful community builder, and with this new structure MHSAA believes community unity will increase as more schools have opportunities to win and compete for championships.
Director Neaves went on to say that the new structure has been received well by the 245 high schools under MHSAA’s direction.
Specifically for football, one of the biggest positive selling points has been the expanded number of state championships given out each year. With a new division comes a new set of playoffs and restructuring the championship format.
In the past, the state’s six championship games have been played in the span of two days. Starting this year, the seven championship games will take place over three days. Neaves said this should have numerous impacts on championship weekend.
For starters, having the games take place across three days eliminates the need for early morning contests. In the past, some teams have been subjected to playing in the dreaded 11am kickoff window.
“It’s hard to play,” Neaves stated, referring to the early kickoff times.
Now, the championship games will take place later in the afternoon or at night, increasing both the level of play and viewership of the games.
“This should be a win-win for everyone,” Neaves said.
He and the MHSAA hope that the shifted kickoff times translate into higher levels of play in the championship games, but also get people excited about high school sports.
“I’m hoping that we kickstart a greater interest in high school sports and get people out to support their schools, getting more enthusiasm at our local schools,” the MHSAA Director said.
In less than a month’s time, the high school football season will be kicking off, and the new structure should translate into a highly competitive 2023 season.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing how these play out,” Neaves added. “I think it will be great not only for football but for all of the athletics in our state. I encourage everyone to go out and support their local teams this year.”
To learn more about the new 1A through 7A classifications and to see what level your local high school will play in this coming year, click here.