Participation in High School Sports Registers First Decline in 30 Years

In what has to be classified as nothing but bad news for the team sports business, participation in high school sports declined in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years, according to the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). The factors are numerous – specialization, cost of play, e-Sports, the rise of elite travel teams, safety concerns, the Inactivity Pandemic among America’s youth, the list goes on – the bottom line is that fewer kids are playing high school sports than a year earlier for the first time in more than a generation.

The 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants is a decline of 43,395 from the 2017-18 school year, when the number of participants in high school sports reached an all-time record high of 7,980,886. While this year’s total is still the third highest ever – with 4.5 million boys and 3.4 million girls playing, it is still the first year-to-year decline since the 1988-89 school year.

The biggest contributors to the decline were the two longstanding and popular sports of football and basketball. Participation in boys 11-player football declined by 30,829 participants to 1,006,013 — the lowest mark since 1,002,734 in the 1999-2000 school year.

Although the actual number of participants in boys 11-player football dropped for the fifth consecutive year, 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 that the average number of boys involved in 11-player football on a per-school basis dropped from 73 to 70, which would include freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams.

While participation in boys 11-player football dropped in all but seven states, participation in 6-player, 8-player and 9-player gained 156 schools and 1594 participants nationwide, with the largest increase in 8-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 1249 in the 2009-10 school year to 2404 last year.

“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,” says Dr. 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.”

“The survey certainly confirms that schools are not dropping the sport of football, which is great news,” Niehoff adds. “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.

“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. 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 has ever been.

Combined basketball participation was down 23,944 (13,340 girls and 10,604 boys), and the girls’ basketball total of 399,067 is the lowest since the 1992-93 school year. However, the decrease in girls’ basketball participation from 430,368 in 2016-17 to 399,067 in 2018-19 is largely attributable to a 25,000 drop in Texas during that two-year period. Dismissing the Texas numbers, girls basketball numbers have been steady in the range of 430,000 for the past seven years.

Four of the top 10 boys’ sports actually registered increases in participation, topped by track and field with an additional 5257 participants. Other top 10 boys’ sports that added participants last year were soccer (2715), wrestling (1877) and tennis (1163).

Among girls’ top 10 sports, volleyball was the front-runner with an additional 6225 participants, followed by soccer (3623) and lacrosse (3164).

In addition to an increase in girls’ volleyball and boys’ wrestling, the sports continued to gain interest across genders. Boys participation in volleyball registered a four percent increase and now has 63,563 participants nationwide, and girls’ wrestling jumped 27 percent and now has 21,735 participants.

The most significant increases from last year were registered in the adapted and Unified sports programs. The various adapted sports sponsored by schools across the country gained 4102 participants, while Unified sports participation increased 2938.

More numbers:

  • With 1,006,013 participants, 11-player football remains the number one participatory sport for boys in high school by a large margin. Outdoor track and field is number two with 605,354 participants, followed by basketball (540,769), baseball (482,740), soccer (459,077), cross-country (269,295), wrestling (247,441), tennis (159,314), golf (143,200) and swimming/diving (136,638).  
  • Outdoor track and field continues to lead the way for girls with 488,267 participants, followed by volleyball (452,808), basketball (399,067), soccer (394,105), fast-pitch softball (362,038), cross-country (219,345), tennis (189,436), swimming/diving (173,088), competitive spirit (161,358) and lacrosse (99,750).
  • While some of the traditional sports such as football, basketball and baseball have remained steady and/or experienced slight declines in the past seven years, other sports have registered significant gains since 2012. Participation in girls’ lacrosse and boys’ lacrosse has increased 19 percent during that time with a combined 213,452 participants in 2018-19. Girls’ and boys’ soccer gained 70,668 participants since 2012 (a nine percent increase) and now has a combined 853,182 participants nationwide.
  • Interest in boys’ volleyball (26 percent gain) and girls’ volleyball (eight percent gain) has continued to climb the past seven years with totals of 63,563 and 452,808, respectively, in 2018-19.
  • Among girls’ sports, competitive spirit has increased 38 percent since 2012 with 161,358 participants.
  • This year’s survey indicated participation by high school students in 70 different sports, as well as 14 adapted sports for students with disabilities. Some of the more popular non-traditional sports were bowling (61,291), weightlifting (29,144), badminton (18,162), flag football (12,154) and archery (10,391).  
  • The top 10 states by participants remained the same in 2018-19. Texas and California topped the list again with 825,924 and 824,709 participants, respectively, followed by New York (369,266), Ohio (339,158), Illinois (333,838), Pennsylvania (316,429), Florida (308,173), Michigan (292,947), New Jersey (281,058) and Minnesota (240,487). Only Texas, California and Minnesota reported higher figures than the previous year.

“While we will do everything in our power to regain participation levels in football and other traditional sports, we are thrilled with reports from sports such as volleyball, lacrosse, soccer, competitive spirit and some of the emerging sports,” Niehoff says. “Our ultimate goal is to involve as many students as possible in high school sports and other activity programs.”

The participation survey has been compiled in its current form by the NFHS since 1971 through numbers it receives from its member state associations. The complete 2018-19 High School Athletics Participation Survey is available via the following link: https://www.nfhs.org/sports-resource-content/high-school-participation-survey-archive/