Participation in high school sports declines nationally for the first time in 30 years

A national survey released on Monday shows that high school sports participation declined for the first time in 30 years, led by declining participation in football.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

High school sports received a double dose of bad news on Monday when the annual participation survey by the National Federation of State High School Assns. showed a decline in sports participation for the first time in 30 years for the 2018-19 season.

Leading the decline was another drop in football participation, with 11-man football dropping by 30,829 to 1,006,013, the lowest mark since the 1999-2000 school year. It’s the fifth consecutive year of declining football participation.

Overall sports participation was 7,937,491, a decline of 43,395 from 2017-18.

“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,” said Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director, in a statement. “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 California Interscholastic Federation gave a preview of Monday’s survey earlier this month when its survey showed that football participation in California had declined for the fourth consecutive year. More than 12,000 students no longer play football.

Ron Nocetti, in his first year as executive director of the CIF, said, “When we look at our football numbers, we want to break that trend and see them go back up. I would be more concerned if our overall participation levels were going down by the same amount. Our student athletes aren’t leaving sports. They’re choosing other sports.”

No one in the CIF knows for sure the reason for the football participation decline. They believe part of it is the attention that has been given to concussion concerns, but there’s also speculation on the growing trend of athletes focusing on a single sport.

“We need to find ways to keep students involved in the game because it provides so many benefits,” Nocetti said.

Ed Croson, the veteran football coach at West Hills Chaminade, said the “privatization of youth sports and people wanting parents to spend money year round on club teams” is impacting high school football.

“Coaches want kids all the time,” he said. “One of the problems is you send them to other sports and they don’t come back.”


Croson said he tries to encourage students to play multiple sports but the current state of affairs is not encouraging.

“With the rise of social media and all the contraptions kids have _ cellphones, the internet _ kids are sedentary,” he said. “When we were young, our parents threw us out of the house to play. The world was more physical.”

Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod said it’s up to the principals, athletic directors and coaches on individual campuses to work closer to encourage multi-sport athletes and create an environment where kids don’t feel pressured to play 12 months of a single sport.

“If you think it’s too much, reel it back in,” he said of his message to campuses.

To help with football safety concerns, schools have improved concussion protocols, passed rules to limit hitting in practices and put together clinics to teach better tackling skills.

Added Niehoff: “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.”

Nationally, combined basketball participation was down 23,944. The girls’ basketball total of 399,067 is the lowest since 1992-93. Much of the drop is attributed to a decline of 25,000 in Texas. Track added 5,257 participants.