Prep sports participation drops, led by decline in football

Sports

Paintsville’s John Walker Phelps on a 44-yard touchdown run past Lawrence County’s Andrew Tackett on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 in Louisa, Ky. Paintsville won 48-17. (Kevin Goldy/The Daily Independent via AP)

Led by a decline in football for the fifth straight year, participation in U.S. high school sports dropped in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years, according to an annual survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants was a decline of 43,395 from the 2017-18 school year, when the number of participants in high school sports reached a record high of 7,980,886.

The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school year.

The group said 11-man football dropped by 30,829 to 1,006,013, the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. It was the fifth consecutive year of declining football participation.

“We know from recent surveys that the number of kids involved in youth sports has been declining, and a decline in the number of public school students has been predicted for a number of years, so we knew our ‘streak’ might end someday,” said Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “The data from this year’s survey serves as a reminder that we have to work even harder in the coming years to involve more students in these vital programs — not only athletics but performing arts programs as well.”

Although the number of participants in boys’ 11-player football dropped, the number of schools offering the sport remained steady. The survey indicated that 14,247 schools offer 11-player football, an increase of 168 from last year. A comparison of the figures from the past two years indicates the average number of boys involved in 11-player football on a per-school basis dropped from 73 to 70, which includes freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.

While participation in boys’ 11-player football dropped in all but seven states, participation in six-, eight- and nine-player football gained 156 schools and 1,594 participants nationwide, with the largest increase in boys’ eight-player football from 19,554 to 20,954. In addition, in the past 10 years, participation by girls in 11-player football has doubled, from 1,249 in the 2009-10 school year to 2,404 last year.

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” Niehoff said. “Certainly, we are concerned about the reduction in the number of boys involved in the 11-player game but are thrilled that states are finding other options by starting six-player or eight-player football in situations where the numbers have declined.

“While we recognize that the decline in football participation is due, in part, to concerns about the risk of injury, we continue to work with our member state associations, the nation’s high schools and other groups to make the sport as safe as possible.”

The NFHS said combined basketball participation was down 23,944 (13,340 girls and 10,604 boys), and the girls basketball total of 399,067 was the lowest total since the 1992-93 school year. The decline was largely attributed to a 25,000 drop in Texas during a two-year period.

Four of the top 10 boys sports registered increases, topped by track and field with an additional 5,257 participants. Other top 10 boys sports that added participants last year were soccer, wrestling and tennis. Among girls top 10 sports, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse all added participants.

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