Recreation Management Rec Report - The Newsletter for Recreation, Sports & Fitness Facility Managers

Feature Story

September 2019

High School Sports Participation Declines for the First Time in 30 Years

By Dave Ramont

During the 2017-18 school year the number of participants in high school sports reached an all-time high of 7,980,886. But in 2018-19, participation declined for the first time in 30 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) annual High School Athletics Participation survey. However, this year’s total, which dropped by almost 43,400 students compared to last year, was still the third highest ever, consisting of 4,534,758 boys and 3,402,733 girls. This according to numbers reported by the 51-member state high school associations, which includes the District of Columbia.

Football and basketball were the biggest contributors to the decline, with participation in boy’s 11-player football experiencing its lowest numbers in 19 years, dropping by nearly 30,900 participants. And while the number of schools offering the sport increased slightly—up 168 schools to 14,247—it was the fifth straight year of declining participants. But participation in six-, eight- and nine-player football increased by nearly 1,600 players, adding 156 schools. Additionally, participation by girls in 11-player football has nearly doubled over the past 10 years, to 2,404 last year.

The decline in football participation is due in part to concerns about injury risk, according to Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. She said they’re working with their member state associations, the nation’s high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible. “Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practices, and every state has concussion protocols and laws in place, so we continue to believe that the sport is as safe as it ever has been.”

Combined basketball participation was down by nearly 24,000 players in 2018, with girls accounting for 13,340 of those participants. That reflects the lowest number for girls in more than 25 years, though a large part of that is due to Texas losing 25,000 girls basketball participants over the past two years. If you disregard the Texas numbers, participation among girls has remained steady over the past several years.

Among the girls’ top 10 sports, volleyball added the most participants at 6,225, followed by soccer (3,623) and lacrosse (3,164). Of the boys’ top 10 sports, four increased their numbers, including track and field (5,257), soccer (2,715), wrestling (1,877) and tennis (1,163).

Even with a decline this year, 11-player football remained the number one participatory sport for high school boys, followed by outdoor track and field, basketball, baseball, soccer, cross country, wrestling, tennis, golf and swimming/diving. The top sport for girls was outdoor track and field, followed by volleyball, basketball, soccer, fast-pitch softball, cross country, tennis, swimming/diving, competitive spirit and dance. Some of the more popular non-traditional sports included bowling, weightlifting, badminton, flag football and archery.

Since 2012, some sports have enjoyed substantial gains, including boys and girls lacrosse, increasing by 19%. Boys and girls soccer participation increased by 9%. Boys’ volleyball numbers increased by 26% in that time, and girls’ volleyball participation rose by 8%. Competitive spirit has seen an increase of 38% for girls since 2012.

Various adapted sports sponsored by U.S. schools gained 4,102 participants, while Unified sports participation increased by 2,938. These reflect the largest increases over last year.

In 2018-19, the top 10 states by participants stayed the same, with Texas and California leading the way, followed by New York, Ohio and Illinois.

Niehoff said that while they will continue working to regain participation levels in football and other traditional sports, they’re thrilled to see different sports emerging with larger participation numbers. “Our ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in high school sports and other activity programs.”

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