For the first time in 30 years, participation in high school sports has declined nationwide.
The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) released its annual High School Athletics Participation Survey in August. It showed participation numbers fell from 7,980,866 students — an all-time high — during the 2017-18 school year to 7,937,491 in 2018-19, a decline of 43,395 participants (.005%).
The 2018-19 school year participation total is still the third-highest ever.
“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,” NFHS executive director Karissa Niehoff said in a press 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.”
Washington state saw a similar dip in participation numbers. The Evergreen State’s numbers dropped from 175,783 students in 2017-18 to 174,378 in 2018-19, a drop of .007%, according to numbers released by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA).
At the local level, Snohomish County schools haven’t experienced significant declines, but a plateau in participation has been seen at some schools.
“It’s been pretty stagnant for us the last few years,” said Lake Stevens High School athletics director Jason Pearson, who gives participation reports to the Lake Stevens School Board three times a year. “… There hasn’t been anything where it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. What’s going on?’”
Pearson said Lake Stevens had a large spike in its track and field participation during the 2018-19 school year, with about 50 to 60 more kids turning out for the program than the prior year. He said the Vikings have experienced recent increases in swimming and cross country, which is consistent with national and statewide trends that show increased participation in some of the lower-profile sports.
Arlington High School athletic director Tom Roys said the Eagles had a slight increase in participation numbers overall in 2018-19 and that the numbers for the fall of 2019 are down just three students.
Roys said Arlington has seen increases in cross country and tennis over the past few years, while football has trended down.
The Eagles aren’t alone when it comes to decreased participation in football. Eleven-man football numbers nationwide have declined each school year since 2014-15. They fell to 1,006,013 in the 2018-19 school year, the lowest level since 1999-2000.
Edmonds-Woodway High School athletic director Angie McGuire said the Warriors have seen a significant drop in football numbers over that same span. E-W had 117 kids in its football program at the end of the 2014 season. That number dropped to 76 last season.
“I’m sure that most people have seen a decline in football,” McGuire said.
The Warriors’ overall participation numbers have remained constant, with some of the lower-profile sports keeping the numbers up. McGuire said E-W’s girls wrestling program jumped from eight to 21 participants from the 2016-17 school year to 2018-19.
McGuire, who coached the E-W girls basketball team from 1996-2002, does have some concern with a recent local trend in girls basketball. In recent years, some Wesco schools haven’t had enough players to field freshman teams. Six of the 22 local schools in Wesco 4A and Wesco 2A-3A fielded only varsity and junior-varsity squads in the 2018-19 school year.
That trend is consistent with national numbers. Basketball has been one of the other bigger contributors to the nationwide decline. Combined, basketball participation was down 23,944 students (13,340 girls and 10,604 boys), and girls basketball hit its lowest number since the 1992-93 school year with 399,067 participants.
Ironically, the decline in nationwide numbers comes at a time when exposure to high school athletics seems to be at an all-time high. Social media is filled with athletes sharing game highlights, updates from specialized camps and much more in attempts to get recruited. Some high school football and basketball games are televised nationally.
So, why are participation numbers down nationwide?
McGuire said one of the main factors is single-sport specialization at a young age, which has resulted in fewer kids playing a second or third high school sport — choosing instead to play year-round with club teams. She added that the increased emphasis on playing for club teams can be a deterrent for those thinking of playing in high school who haven’t been with select programs.
“There comes a point in our select-sports culture right now where I think we have kids that select out of sports,” she said, “because they assume that if they’re not playing select that they are not going to play at the high school level.”
She also expressed concern about kids being cut from feeder programs at young ages.
“I think our goal in youth sports should be, ‘Do kids want to play the next year?’” she said. “Every year the goal should be for that kid to continue playing the sport the next year — even if it’s not their primary sport — and I think that’s where we’re falling short. We’re forcing kids to choose between sports way too soon.”
The abundance of activities available outside of school also may be a factor in the decline.
“We’ve talked about it here at the high school,” Pearson said. “One thing — and I think my counterparts could attest to this, too — kids have so many different things to do now after school. It’s just pretty unreal. It’s way different than when we were going to school.”
Lake Stevens has more than 40 ASB-recognized clubs, ranging from the traditional fine arts, such as drama, to newer more tech-driven groups such as the video-game club.
“Their time is probably more monopolized than it ever has been with various things,” Pearson said. “We’re kind of seeing that trend in our building in general.”
Roys echoed those sentiments.
“All those things can take up a significant amount of time to restrict your ability to turn out for a sport,” he said.
Roys said one of the keys to keeping numbers up is coaches actively trying to get kids involved at the middle-school level. He also mentioned events such as Elementary Nights at high school basketball games.
“Just getting them exposed to that early, so really that’s what their dream is when they grow up” Roys said. “It’s, ‘Gosh, I want to be in that uniform, I want to be on that floor when I grow up and get to high school.’”
Pearson noted that being in a one-high-school town is a benefit.
“I think it makes a big, big difference,” he said. “When you look at some of the Wesco (towns) that have split high schools, it’s hard to keep those numbers. When you have everyone in one spot, it’s a lot easier for us to keep pretty high numbers.”
“The one-high-school town is just a completely different beast than where we’re located,” said McGuire, whose school district has three other high schools. “It’s different. At our high school, we have kids coming from all over the place in the district.”
While numbers nationwide may be declining, the local athletic directors said the value of participating in athletics hasn’t decreased.
“The value that kids get out of participating in high school activities is priceless,” Roys said. “There are so many lessons and so many things that are taught through athletics that really can’t be taught anywhere else. And so, well yeah, as a nation overall the numbers might be declining, but it’s importance hasn’t declined at all in my humble opinion.”