Participation in high school sports nationwide fell in 2018-19 for the first time in 30 years, but Minnesota was one of just three states that showed higher numbers, according to a survey released Monday by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The increase in Minnesota, with 240,487 sports participants, amounted to 54 more student-athletes from 2017-18, essentially flat growth.
Nationally, the 2018-19 total of 7,937,491 participants fell 43,395 from the year before, when high school sports participation reached a record high of 7,980,886, the organization said. Declines in football and basketball were the biggest contributors.
The last decline in sports participation numbers occurred during the 1988-89 school 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,” Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director, said in a news release. “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.”
Minnesota has consistently ranked 10th among states in participation in recent surveys. Last year’s survey found 122,602 boys and 117,885 girls participated.
Participation in boys’ 11-player football — the nation’s most popular boys’ sport — declined by 30,829 participants to 1,006,013, the lowest level since the 1999-2000 school year, the release said. Risk of injury was cited as a contributing factor to the fifth consecutive year of decline, though the number of schools offering the sport remained steady.
Comparing figures from the past two years, 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, the release said.
In Minnesota, football participation has fallen about 2.6 percent in the last five years, from 23,794 participants in 2014-15 to 23,185 last year. The number of programs is down from 356 in 2014-15 to 345 last season.
Bob Madison, who oversees football as a Minnesota State High School League associate director, said stability exists this season. Two years ago, Madison heard from 13 programs in crisis. A follow-up survey of state football coaches indicated more than half of them said their program is seeing a decline in participation. Safety issues, including concussions, were cited most often, but sport specialization and changing school enrollments also are big contributors, the coaches survey said.
Since then football coaches have met twice in “football summits’’ to discuss challenges with player numbers and best practices for growing the sport. Those sessions likely have helped relax concerns, Madison said.
“Going into this season, there were far fewer schools trying to figure out what to do in terms of their teams or games,” Madison said.
Niehoff said, “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.’’
Ron Stolski, executive director of the football coaches association and in his 46th season as Brainerd’s head coach, said, “I don’t believe concern about injuries is the major factor. People have gotten beyond that. We’re practicing smarter and teaching better techniques. Options for kids have increased across the board in almost every district.”
Combined basketball participation was down 23,944 (13,340 girls, 10,604 boys), and the girls’ basketball total of 399,067 is the lowest since the 1992-93 school year. The news release traced the decline in girls’ basketball participation to a 25,000-drop in Texas during the last two years. Excluding the Texas numbers, girls’ participation has been in the range of 430,000 for the past seven years.
In Minnesota, basketball participation was relatively unchanged for boys and girls in the last year. Since 2014-15, boys’ basketball participation is up 3.7 percent and girls’ participation is up 2.4 percent, the organization’s surveys show.
Among the most popular boys’ sports, track and field, soccer, wrestling and tennis showed increases last season. Among the top 10 girls’ sports, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse were the biggest gainers. The most popular girls’ sport nationwide is track and field, with 488,267 participants.
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.
The participation survey has been compiled in its current form by the NFHS since 1971 through numbers it receives from its member state associations.