Study: For first time in 30 years, high school sports participation is down

Photo: Al Goldis/For the Lansing State Journal

Study: For first time in 30 years, high school sports participation is down

High School Sports

Study: For first time in 30 years, high school sports participation is down


For the first time in 30 years, participation in high school sports declined, according to a study by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

In the 2018-19 school year, there was a decline of 43,395 from the year prior, according to the NFHS’s annual High School Athletics Participation Survey.

The last time the report found a decline was in 1988-89.

The sports with the largest declines were two of the most popular ones: 11-player football and basketball.

Boys 11-player football touched its lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. The study found that 1,006,013 boys participated in it, which was almost 31,000 fewer than 2017-18.

The study found participation in boys 11-player football dropped in 44 of the 51 states counted, which includes the District of Columbia.

However, boys 6-, 8- and 9-player football teams expanded. There were 156 more schools that offered these forms of the sport, and about 1,600 more participants overall.

Additionally, girls 11-player football has doubled over the past 10 years.

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff said in a statement.

“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 6-player or 8-player football in situations where the numbers have declined.”

Basketball had the second-largest decline. Almost 24,000 fewer students participated in the sport, and the girls total of about 399,000 is the lowest since the 1992-93 school year.

The study notes, however, that the majority of the girls drop-off came from Texas. There has been a decrease of 25,000 girls basketball players over the past two years; excluding that state, the number held steady.

The report isn’t a doomsday prediction regarding high school sports involvement.

Though participation dropped, the 2018-19 season still had the third-highest number of athletes the study has ever recorded.

Since 2012, boys and girls lacrosse has increased 19%, and boys soccer is up 9%. Volleyball has seen growth for both genders, rising 26% for boys and 8% for girls in that time span. Competitive spirit has increased 38%, and girls wrestling has grown 27%, up to 21,735 participants.

There are now 70 different sports offered including bowling, weightlifting and archery, and 14 are specifically tailored for students with disabilities.

“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,” Niehoff said. “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.”

Niehoff added the NHFS is “thrilled” to see more sports emerging.

“Our ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in high school sports and other activity programs,” she said.


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