LANE ONE: New high school participation numbers show first overall decline in 30 years

It finally happened.

The U.S. National Federation of State High School Associations published its annual participation numbers for American high school sports for the 2018-19 academic year and for the first time in 30 years, the total number of athletes went down.

Not by a lot, but it went down:

● 2017-18: 7,980,886
● 2018-19: 7,937,491 (-0.54%)

The last time this happened was back in 1988-89, when the total number of participants slid from 5.275 million to 5.256 million. It stalled there for a couple of years, then moved up slowly from that level to almost eight million now.

Beyond the oddity of the change, there were some interesting aspects of these numbers to consider:

(1) Decreases in the total number of participants were seen in both boys and girls sports, also for the first time since 1988-89:

● 2017-18: 4.566 million
● 2018-19: 4.535 million (-0.68%)

● 2017-18: 3.415 million
● 2018-19: 3.403 million (-0.35%)

(2) Of the top 10 sports for boys, none changed between 2018 and 2019 and six of the 10 had small declines, except for 11-man football, which saw 30,829 less players.

● 1,006,013 ~ Football: DOWN 30,829
● 605,354 ~ Track & Field: UP 5,257
● 540,769 ~ Basketball: DOWN 10,604
● 482,740 ~ Baseball: DOWN 4,357
● 459,077 ~ Soccer: UP 2,715
● 269,295 ~ Cross Country: DOWN 800
● 247,441 ~ Wrestling: UP 1,877
● 159,314 ~ Tennis: UP 1,163
● 143,200 ~ Golf: DOWN 824
● 136,638 ~ Swimming & Diving: DOWN 2,297

Looking a little more deeply at football and basketball, the number of schools offering the sport still increased in 2018-19. Basketball is the leading sport in terms of the number of schools offering it and the number increased from 18,510 to 18,617 so only the number of players are down. In football, schools playing increased from 14,079 to 14,247, so again, only the number of players is down.

(3) In the girls division, seven of the top 10 sports showed decreases, with a big reduction in basketball:

● 488,267 ~ Track & Field: DOWN 325
● 452,808 ~ Volleyball: UP 6,225
● 399,067 ~ Basketball: DOWN 13,340
● 391,105 ~ Soccer: UP 623
● 362.038 ~ Softball: DOWN 5,823
● 219,345 ~ Cross Country: DOWN 4,173
● 189,436 ~ Tennis: DOWN 1,332
● 173,088 ~ Swimming & Diving: DOWN 2,506
● 161,358 ~ Competitive Spirit: DOWN 1,311
● 99,750 ~ Lacrosse: UP 2,846

Checking the schools numbers, those offering basketball went up from 18,171 to 18,210, track & field went up from 17,012 from 16,951 and volleyball went up from 16,434 to 16,572. So again, the number of players went down, not the number of schools participating.

(Those wondering about gymnastics for girls, this is a minor sport at the high school level, with competition in just 27 states and 18,658 athletes; the action in this sport is in clubs rather than in schools.)

If you care to look for it, there is plenty of “analysis” about the decrease shown in these numbers, but it’s only one year, after 30 straight years of increases for the overall total and for both boys and girls. But there are some observations worth making:

● The most striking decrease was in the overall total in girls sports, after the enormous expansion in the Title IX era. Seeing basketball participation recede by 13,340 is surprising, but the continued increase in volleyball is not. Track & field was about the same and at close to a half-million athletes, has been the leader in girls sports for a long time.

● The boys numbers showed a decrease in football of 2.9% from 2017-18 and that’s significant. The question of why is not answered in the statistics and to pin the change on one area is foolish. What is not well understood is that at the high school level, football is an expensive sport to fund and squad sizes may be limited in some districts, which would make an impact. There is no doubt that player safety is playing a role, but a lot more data is needed to understand how that is impacting playing across 14,247 schools nationwide.

● This is the most important number of all: an astonishing 47.2% of all U.S. high school students – 7.94 million out of 16.81 millionplayed interscholastic sports at the high school level in the 2018-19 school year.

That nearly half of all students are involved in sports is remarkable and a testament to the value of sports to the students themselves.

There is more work needed to understand what the 2018-19 participation statistics mean, and we won’t really know much for another couple of years. Certainly, there are questions about football for boys and basketball for both boys and girls, but with so many young people in sports, it’s place in our society is looking good.

Rich Perelman

If you enjoyed this commentary, sign up to receive the TSX Daily by e-mail, five days a week by clicking here. You can also refer a friend by clicking here.